The physiological process of growing older has vital social and cultural dimensions which affect what is often seen as a purely biological inevitability. Age is also a cultural category and its meaning and significance vary both historically and cross-culturally. The sociology of ageing did not feature in standard sociology text-books until recently. Like sex or gender, age tended to be seen as a purely ‘natural’ division, or else as a ‘problem’ reserved for social policy. By contrast, considerable sociological attention has been paid to youth culture.
In Western capitalism, a wage-labour system means fixed retirement from external production, thus categorizing the aged as non-productive, and a burden. In research priorities, gerontology, with its medical model of ageing, has been influential. Sociological research in Britain has focused on the aged as isolates or in state institutions. Demographic changes—with increasing longevity, a declining birth-rate, and a greater proportion of the population over 65 in the West—have stimulated both a moral panic and new interest in the consumer and political potential of the elderly.
Stereotyping and an assumed homogeneity among the aged are to be challenged. Class, race, and gender, as well as culture, counter biological factors. For example, old age is not perceived as an impediment for males with supreme political power in either communist or capitalist states. In numerous articles on the social relations of old people, Ethel Shanas has criticized what has been termed the acquiescent functionalism of much writing on ageing and the family life of the elderly, a tradition which legitimates ageism by excluding the elderly from the labour-market and other significant social roles. By contrast, Shanas's own research seems to demonstrate that ageing is a process of deprivation, leading to what has been called ‘structured dependency’ (see Shanas et al., Old People in Three Industrialised Societies, 1968, and Shanas and M. B. Sussman (eds.), Family, Bureaucracy and the Elderly, 1977).
There is growing research interest in this field, not only in the experience and ethnography of the aged, but also in the specific constructions of ‘old age’ across cultures and through time (see, for example, M. W. Riley's Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association, ‘On the Significance of Age in Sociology’, American Sociological Review, 1987).
http://www.sociosite.net/topics/aging.php A portal site with links to numerous sites on aspects of ageing.