Aging & the Social Dimensions of Time

Time can initially seem like a basic, common-sense concept that is easily measured. But the social and subjective experiences of time—concepts such as generations, age norms, even individuals’ own understanding of their life histories—have great significance in the study of aging. An article in the Gerontologist points to the influence of three major social scientists of the twentieth century—Karl Mannheim, Bernice Neugarten, and Matilda Riley—to highlight how the study of aging can benefit from greater attention to non-chronological experiences of time.

The author identifies five major themes of how these social theorists continue to influence the study of aging. Each of them draw attention to the social influence on timing, such as how social conditions (including economic inequality) can lead to different paces of aging in different social groups, and how historical events can provide age cohorts with a shared experience of historical time. The second major theme is the sense of subjective time. Neugarten in particular emphasized how age norms—cultural ideals about the timing of life events—influence how we perceive the social roles and social appropriateness of ourselves and of others.

The third major theme was that of “diachronic time,” or how people understand their lives in terms of past, present, and future. Narrative gerontology has particularly drawn from this sense of time, emphasizing how people understand the present as emerging from their past life history, and anticipating their future in this establishing of a life history narrative. Individuals’ perceptions of the future can likewise influence the present, as shown by research on how life expectancy influences retirement choices and physical activity.

The author argues that these first three themes are the basis for the fourth major theme, that of the use of longitudinal research drawing on these various concepts of time. The author points to such longitudinal research to illustrate the fifth theme: the use of subjective and social senses of time to develop theories of aging. Two theories cited in the article that incorporate these senses of time are socioemotional selectivity theory, which emphasizes how individuals shift their social and emotional priorities based on their place in the life course, and cumulative inequality theory, which shows how social stratification is maintained throughout the life course as different socioeconomic groups experience different and unequal exposure to adversity and social resources.


Ferraro KF. The time of our lives: recognizing the contributions of Mannheim, Neugarten, and Riley to the study of aging. The Gerontologist. (2013). DOI: 10.1093/geront/gnt048


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