Aging and Societal Transformation

The dramatic upsurge in the longevity of older citizens in Third World countries is a legacy of the last two decades. This demographic change has been intertwined with powerful modernizing events including alterations in economic production, wealth distribution, an explosion of super-sized cities, and the often violent devolution of large states into smaller successor nations (Lloyd-Sherlock, 2000). Modernization theory is the primary model for considering the impact of major worldwide changes on the elderly. Donald Cowgill, the first to suggest a number of discrete postulates and later in developing a more elaborate model, has been the most dominant writer on this subject (Cowgill, 1974, 1986). The hypothesized decline in valued roles, resources, and respect available to older persons in modernizing societies is said to stem from four main factors: modern health technology; economies based on scientific technology; urbanization; and mass education and literacy. There has been a very lively debate over the validation of this model (see Rhoads & Holmes, 1995, pp. 251-285 for an excellent review). Historians in particular have sharply questioned the model, saying it is not only ahistorical but that, by idealizing the past, an inappropriate "world we lost syndrome" has been created (Kertzer & Laslett, 1994; Laslett, 1976). For example, summing up research on the elderly living in Western Europe several hundred years ago, historian Andrejs Plakans states, "There is something like a consensus that the treatment of the old was harsh and decidedly pragmatic: dislike and suspicion, it is said, characterized the attitudes of both sides" (Plakans, 1989).

A study by Vincentnathan and Vincentnathan (1994) of three untouchable communities in the South Tamil Nadu area of India illustrates the complexity of this issue. In the poorest communities, the assumption of respect and high status as a prior condition did not hold. Elders here had no resources to pass on. Providing material resources for the elders through new modernization programs became a basis for binding together the young and old. However, increased education of the young led many children and young adults to feel superior to parents. Over time, generational relations deteriorated— sometimes involving high levels of abuse and killing of the aged—closer to the predictions of modernization theory.

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