Age segregation deprives individuals from certain age groups from interacting with others outside their age cohort. It implies the separation, exclusion, isolation, or special treatment of individuals and groups by virtue of their age, by enforced or voluntary residence in a restricted area (see “Age-Cared Homes” and “Age-Friendly Cities and Communities”), barriers to social intercourse, exclusion from the labor market, or by other discriminatory means. When age segregation is due to cultural, political, or economic pressure, it promotes ageism, denying all generations the benefits of diverse social interaction.
While aging is a natural process inherent to life and development, perceptions of “age” have different implications on people, sometimes creating pressure for segregation, depending upon historical and cultural developments (e.g., industrialization), social contexts (e.g., urban), and people’s place within those contexts (e.g., workforce), but also individual differences (e.g., gender). Age segregation can have positive and negative consequences on different people, sometimes promoting social integration and independence, and other times promoting stereotyping (see “Age Stereotypes”), isolation, and deterioration. Overall, societies are learning about the importance of allowing for socially diverse interactions between people from different age groups.
Key Research Findings
Aging in Modern Societies
During the twentieth century, with industrialization, as the productive unit moved from the family to the factory, the role of “age” in the organization of society, culture, and self-identity became increasingly important (Dannefer and Feldman 2017). To illustrate, in pre-industrial societies, family constituted the primary economic unit for society; all segments of the family, including children and older adults, participated in all domains of family life. As a result, mothers were engaged in child rearing practices over an extended period of time, and older people continued to be engaged in the labor force for as much as their strength and abilities allowed them to be (Boban and Sultana 2014; Dannefer and Feldman 2017). It was one’s ability to function, rather than age, that represented an important marker for economic, family, and social life (Dannefer and Feldman 2017). Industrialization and the subsequent emergence of mass education led to a transformation of the family roles whereby the traditional joint family system of agrarian societies gave way to the nuclear family mode of modern society, and life cycle became institutionalized (Boban and Sultana 2014; Dannefer and Feldman 2017).
Age segregation developed rapidly during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries turning into a social norm among occidental societies (Portacolone and Halpern 2016; Siedentop et al. 2018). Nowadays, age constitutes a legal qualification regulating people’s access to activities and social interactions like alcohol consumption or sexual relations. Rules, conventions, and policies regarding school attendance or access to the workforce were put into place. Notwithstanding cultural differences whereby other societies like Asia, Africa, or Latin America have retained greater interaction between generations (Addae-Dapaah 2008; Dannefer and Feldman 2017), age regulations are in many ways at the core of social debate everywhere.
While age segregation affects all age groups, the elderly constitute a special case. In most societies, old age starts somewhere after a person reaches 50 years of age, when he or she starts the transit from being fully integrated into social and economic life, to experiencing greater functional dependency, and over time, greater vulnerability and autonomy loss (Centre d’Analyse Stratégique 2010) (see “Autonomy and Aging”).
Segregation of Older People from the Workforce
Modern societies regulate access to work such that neither children, nor older adults are expected to join the labor force. In fact, the implementation of a Social Security System (a by-product of industrialization) creates greater environmental pressure on older adults. Practices such as mandatory or imposed retirement (Dannefer and Feldman 2017) and lower employment opportunities for old people (Ilmakunnas and Ilmakunnas 2014) suggest that at certain age, older adults should be excluded from the workforce and that it is normal, desirable, and inevitable for older adults to disengage from economic activity and social relations (Dannefer and Feldman 2017). Hence, older adults are expected to reduce their interactions with others and withdraw from the workforce, and sometimes they are resented by the younger generations, when they refuse to behave accordingly (North and Fiske 2013) (see “History of Ageism”).
With retirement, older people are forced to redefine their identities, interests, and social networks that used to gravitate around professional activity, to build new ones revolving around family and neighborhoods (Ennuyer 2011; Osborne 2012). The loss of networks and social support creates greater environmental pressure, and may negatively impact the developmental process of older adults. For instance, it may affect their expectations for (and actual) health and social support in the future (Ramírez et al. 2018), and increase the risk for the emergence of chronic disease (Hawton et al. 2011; Tomfohr et al. 2015) (see “Aging and Cancer” and “Health and Retirement Study”).
There is great heterogeneity regarding age-segregated housing ranging from housing projects for older adults, to congregate care housing (see “Congregate Housing”), assisted living units, and independent living units, among others. Housing arrangements that physically separate older people from the rest of the community may facilitate social and activity-based interaction and create friendlier environments for those in more vulnerable situations. For example, older adults who lack social and family networks face difficulties to mobilize independently or suffer from physical limitations and disabilities (Addae-Dapaah 2008). In addition to this, age-segregated housing may sometimes help isolate the elderly from the family troubles and social difficulties of age-integrated housing (see “Ageism in the Family”), as well as from criminal activity resulting in their victimization (Portacolone and Halpern 2016).
On the other hand, when segregated, older adults may lose their sense of continuity (activity and stability of relationships and identity over the life course), which is necessary for their well-being (Breheny and Griffiths 2017). One reason may be that, as part of highly homogeneous communities, they lack the opportunity for diverse interactions, with people from different ages and backgrounds that should be present in their developmental environments (Addae-Dapaah 2008). In addition to this, when segregated, older adults may lose the opportunity to stay in contact and interact with their families, which are the most important source of social interaction at this stage of life (Portacolone and Halpern 2016) (see “Social Isolation”).
Unfortunately, in many situations, the decision to relocate into age-segregated settings may not respond to individual choice but to cultural, political, and economic pressures (Portacolone and Halpern 2016). When this happens, the negative effects of relocation (e.g., isolation, vulnerability, a sense of rejection and despair) may outweigh the benefits of age-segregated housing (Addae-Dapaah 2008; Portacolone and Halpern 2016).
Age Segregation and Ageism
Age segregation may increase barriers for the elder (as well as for other age groups) and promote ageism supporting the perception that old people are (and should behave) different (North and Fiske 2013), incapable of learning (Dannefer and Feldman 2017), dying (Addae-Dapaah 2008), and less deserving (Portacolone and Halpern 2016) (see “Ableism and Ageism”). These stereotypes add to the difficulties described above not only a dwelling and hostile atmosphere that creates a negative developmental environment (Addae-Dapaah 2008), but one’s greater disengagement in later life, led by the same negative expectations (Robertson and Kenny 2016). Overall, age segregation is both a source and a consequence of ageism (de Haro Honrubia 2014).
Examples of Applications
Greater life expectancy and demographic changes have led to an important increase in the amount of older population worldwide. Consistently, recent studies point to the importance of working toward developing age-integrated environments and opportunities for interaction in several domains. For instance, by improving the job market to favor the inclusion of older people (Ilmakunnas and Ilmakunnas 2014) (see “Multigenerational Workforce”) Also, by providing older people adequate support to effectively contribute and participate in all life domains, as “aging in place” models (which highlight the potential contribution of older adults) suggest (Bookman 2008) (see “Active Aging” and “Active Ageing Index”).
Finally, reducing ageism is vital to improving the developmental environment of aging population (see “Reducing ageism”). The Positive Education about Aging and Contact Experiences (PEACE) model proposed by Levy (2016) focuses on two potentially interconnected factors that work together to reduce negative stereotypes, aging anxiety, prejudice, and discrimination against older adults. One focuses on education about aging and providing older role models that counteract stereotypes about aging. The second factor focuses on providing opportunities for positive intergenerational contact in cooperative environments that allow for the emergence of closer relations (see “Intergenerational Programs”).
Future Directions for Research
Aside from intergenerational contact, individual and social characteristics like gender, socioeconomic status, family and social relations, etc. play an important role in explaining people’s ability to age actively and connect to their social environment, whether in age-segregated housing or not (Abhijit and Premchand 2017; Rebelo and Pereira 2014). In addition to this, contextual variables and environmental factors play a role as well (Petersen and Warburton 2012). Consistently, research efforts should be oriented toward identifying and promoting the best conditions for active aging and quality of life, as well as positive intergenerational contact, in both age-integrated and age-segregated settings.
Older people are a diverse group of people, with specific needs and expectations for intimate and meaningful social interactions, friendships and family ties (Addae-Dapaah 2008; Bookman 2008; Waldron et al. 2005). Some may prefer to stay in integrated in multigenerational settings, while others may feel better in age-segregated settings where they find greater opportunities of social interaction and friendlier environments. Nevertheless, age segregation may also undermine the status of other age groups like children, for instance, by depriving them from socially diverse interactions and affecting the quality of their education when schooling itself becomes a segregating force (Owens 2017). Thus, efforts should be made to promote diverse interactions between age groups, be it in age-segregated or age-integrated settings. More research is needed in order to find age-integrated ways of interaction that promote healthy and safe social relations that benefit all age groups.
Perceptions of age are subject to the influence of societal and cultural change. Age-integrated societies of pre-industrial times, although in many ways far from ideal, promoted a view of the elderly as experienced and wise and integrated them into family and economic life. With industrialization, the productive unit moved from the family to the factory, which led to a transformation of the traditional joint family system into to the nuclear family mode, and the institutionalization of the life cycle. New institutions emerged and age became a regulating factor of people’s access to activities and social interactions.
Age segregation deprives individuals from certain age groups from interacting with others outside their age cohort. Sometimes age segregation is not the result of individual choice but of cultural, political, and economic pressures, promoting ageism. Ageism in turn promotes more age segregation, thus depriving all generations from the benefits of diverse social interactions. Research and interventions efforts should be oriented toward promoting positive intergenerational knowledge and interactions in all life domains in age-segregated as well as in age-integrated setting.
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