Stratification is the process of dividing members of a society into strata, or social groups; when this is done by age, it is termed age stratification. The various age strata form age cohorts that encompass those born within a particular time period. One of the largest and most well-known age cohorts in contemporary society is the baby boomers, those born after World War II between 1946 and 1964. These cohorts age together across the life course and share common history, experiences, norms, and role transitions while changing from “young” to “middle-aged” and “old” statuses.
In addition to the relationship of the members within a stratum, and unlike stratification by social class, groups of different age strata interact in society. For example, those in the young group may interact with those in the middle-aged and old groups in a family setting or by participation in the workplace. While the similarities of members within a stratum are thought to provide cohesion within that stratum, age stratification theories suggest that interstrata conflicts also exist.
Conflicts may arise between strata, typically structured around competing group interests such as young versus old. One example of how these conflicts play out in society would be institutional battles over the allocation of economic resources, such as spending on Social Security programs for older persons versus federal aid to families with young children. Terms like the generation gap and age war imply competition and accentuate differences between the strata. The idea that older persons place an excessive burden both upon their families and upon the health care system also implies conflict, pitting the interests of younger groups against those of older persons.
Some suggest lessening conflicts by forming positive connections among the strata through common interests. Some theorists argue that the role of inter-generational exchange—the exchange of time and resources among groups of different generations— promotes solidarity. The exchange buffers the negative views of old groups by young groups through positive social interaction. Some argue that although models of intergenerational conflict are promoted, the degree of conflict between young and old groups is overstated. Theories of the intergenerational exchange, the merits of the strata working together, and conflicts among the strata find frequent debate in empirical and theoretical work. This debate on the nature of the relationship among the strata will continue in the United States as the 65-years-and-older segment of the population continues to grow into an increasingly larger segment of society.
- Bengston, Vern and Norella Putney. 2006. “Future ‘Conflicts’ across Generations and Cohorts.” Pp. 20-29 in The Future of Old Age, edited by J. A. Vincent, C. R. Phillipson, and M. Downs. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Riley, Matilda White, Marilyn Johnson, and Anne Foner. 1972. Aging and Society: A Sociology of Age Stratification. Vol. 3. New York: Russell Sage.
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