There are different sociological theories studying ageing as a process and its impact on the people and society as a whole.
The earliest theories of ageing reflected the functionalist approach that was dominant in sociology during the 1950s and '60s. They emphasized how individuals adjusted to changing social roles as they aged and how those roles were useful to society.
The earliest theories often assumed that ageing brings with it physical and psychological decline and that changing social roles have to take this decline into account (Hendricks 1992).
The American sociologist Talcott Parsons argued that society need to find roles for older people consistent with advanced age. He expressed concern that the USA, in particular, with its emphasis on youth and its avoidance of the subject of death, had failed to provide roles that adequately drew on the potential wisdom and maturity of its older citizens.
Moreover, given the greying of society that was evident even at that time, Parsons argued that this failure could well lead to older people becoming discouraged and alienated from society.
Based on the ideas of Talcott Parsons, Elaine Cumming and William Henry (1961) explain that the physical decline and death that accompany aging can disrupt society. In response, society disengages the elderly, gradually transferring statuses and roles from the old to the young so that tasks are performed with minimal interruption. Disengagement theory is the idea that society functions in an orderly way by removing people from positions of responsibility as they reach old age.
Disengagement ensures the orderly operation of society by removing aging people from productive roles before they are no longer able to perform them. Another benefit of disengagement in a rapidly changing society is that it makes room for young workers, who typically have the most up-to-date skills and training. Disengagement provides benefits to aging people as well as most people begin to think about retirement and perhaps cut back a bit on their workload. Exactly when people begin to disengage from their careers, of course, depends on their health, enjoyment of the job, and financial situation.
Based on the symbolic-interaction approach, activity theory is the idea that a high level of activity increases personal satisfaction in old age. Because everyone bases social identity on many roles, disengagement is bound to reduce satisfaction and meaning in the lives of older people. What seniors need is not to be pushed out of roles but to have many productive or recreational options.
Activity theory does not reject the idea of job disengagement; it simply says that people need to find new roles to replace those they leave behind. Research confirms that elderly people who maintain a high activity level find the most satisfaction in their lives. Activity theory also recognizes that the elderly are diverse with a variety of interests, needs, and physical abilities. For this reason, the activities that people choose and the pace at which they pursue them are always an individual matter.
A social-conflict analysis is based on the idea that access to opportunities and social resources differs for people in different age categories. For this reason, age is a dimension of social stratification. The social-conflict approach claims that our industrial-capitalist economy creates an age-based hierarchy. As per Marxist thought, Steven Spitzer (1980) points out that a profit-oriented society devalues any category of people that is less productive.
To the extent that older people do not work, our society labels them as mildly deviant. Social-conflict analysis also draws attention to various dimensions of social inequality within the elderly population. Differences of class, race, ethnicity, and gender divide older people as they do everyone else.
One of the most important strands in the study of ageing in recent years has been the political economy perspective pioneered by Carroll Estes. Political economy theory provides an account of the role of the state and capitalism as contributing to systems of domination and marginalization of older people.
Political economy theory focuses on the role of economic and political systems in shaping and reproducing the prevailing power arrangements and inequalities in society. Social policy in income, health or social security, for example is understood as the result of social struggles, conflicts and the dominant power relations of the time. Policy affecting older people reflects the stratification of society by gender, race and class.
As such, the phenomena of ageing and old age are directly related to the larger society in which they are situated and cannot be considered in isolation from the other social forces (Estes and Minkler 1991; Estes et al. 2003).