Age Stratification Theory: Definition and Examples

age stratification theory definition and example

Age stratification theory is a theoretical model developed by Matilda White Riley in the 1970s, which argues that age is an important factor in understanding social inequality

The theory posits that societies are structured according to a hierarchy of ages, with younger people occupying lower positions while older people hold higher positions. 

This stratification has been noted primarily in the areas of education, employment, health, and other social services.

The theory suggests that individuals experience different levels of access to resources based on their age group. Such unequal availability of resources leads to inequalities in opportunities and outcomes for different age groups. 

For example, elders may have greater access to financial stability and wealth compared to younger generations due to their years of work experience and increased savings.

Age stratification theory highlights how unequal access to resources impacts individuals differently based on their age group and advocates for a more equitable distribution of resources across all ages.

Definition of Age Stratification Theory

Age stratification theory is a sociological model with the postulation that societies are arranged in an age-based hierarchy, with people of different ages contending for differing levels of resources.

Riley and colleagues observed that

“…society is stratified into different age categories that are the basis for acquiring resources, roles, status, and deference from others in society” (Mauk, 2018, p. 70).

The theory acknowledges intersecting forms of oppression, such as racism, classism, sexism, and ageism. 

Dowd (1987) argued that the power disparities between generations are founded on more than economic issues–they involve cultural perspectives associated with each age group and where they fit in society.

Additionally, the theory is concerned with the unequal availability of resources such as health services, education, employment opportunities, or wealth across different age groups, leading to disparities in outcomes for various age groups.

So, in simple terms, age stratification theory is a sociological model that recognizes the importance of age in understanding social inequality and unequal access to resources across different age groups.

Age Stratification Theory Examples

  • Access to Education – The theory of age stratification suggests that due to the unequal distribution of resources, older generations typically possess access to higher-quality education than their younger counterparts. For instance, elders may be more adept at navigating the educational system to gain scholarships or other necessary funding easier than those just starting out.
  • Employment Opportunities – This theory suggests that more experienced workers, such as the elderly, may have an advantage regarding higher-paying job opportunities. Unfortunately, this could mean fewer options for new hires with minimal work history.
  • Healthcare Services – Older people typically have greater access to healthcare services due to the unequal availability of resources amongst different age groups. In addition, senior citizens tend to require more medical attention. They can take advantage of discounted rates or other health benefits unavailable or difficult to obtain by younger generations.
  • Financial Stability – Unlike younger generations that may have had limited time to participate in the workforce and cannot rely on pension funds or other income sources yet, elderly individuals typically possess considerable savings accumulated over their lifetimes, which makes them less dependent upon social security or governmental programs.
  • Retirement Benefits – Generally, older generations are more likely than young adults to benefit from retirement programs such as Social Security or 401(k) plans due to their years of experience in the workforce and consistent contributions towards such investments.
  • Housing Privileges – Those in an older age group tend to occupy better housing facilities than those in lower age groups as they can afford larger homes, more amenities, and safer neighborhoods – all of which are unavailable for many younger people due to financial instability or limited income sources.
  • Political Representation – In many nations, the political landscape reflects an age-based hierarchy in which senior citizens are allotted privileged status through preferential measures such as increased voting heft for seniors or legislation safeguarding those over 65 years of age.
  • Media Representation – Age stratification theory states that media plays a role in perpetuating existing disparities between different age groups in terms of visibility and power dynamics. Older actors usually play minor roles while young characters dominate leadership roles, contributing negatively to the public perception and influence of older adults within society.
  • Technology Accessibility – Younger generations often have greater access to digital technologies like smartphones, computer applications, and other emerging trends. At the same time, senior citizens struggle with a lack of knowledge about such technology tools which might further limit their participation in certain activities and lead to exclusion from various sources of information available online today.
  • Social Status – Age stratification theory acknowledges that social status varies across different ages. Elderly members are afforded greater respect within their community based on decades of experience, which comes with respected positions held within their community compared with the social positioning associated with younger people who might find themselves without such influence.

Origins of Age Stratification Theory

Age stratification theory originated from the studies of German sociologist Karl Mannheim, who first introduced this idea in his work “Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge” in 1952. 

Mannheim’s (1952) model suggests that age is important in understanding social structures and generational power dynamics. 

The theory was further developed by Talcott Parsons, who argued that generation is a key segmentation in society and identified different roles associated with being an elder or younger member of a particular age group (Öberg, 2018).

Additionally, he suggested that individuals experience different levels of access to resources based on their age group and differing levels of influence within society. 

The modern age stratification theory was developed by American sociologist Marilyn Riley in the 1970s.

She noted that disparities in resources and opportunities were more pronounced among different age groups than other social divisions such as race, gender, or class (Riley, 1973).

Riley (1973) proposed that these inequalities are not necessarily caused or exacerbated by members of any one generation but instead result from structural imbalances which exist between generations.

It led to her postulating the existence of ‘age stratification’ as a distinct concept.

Age Stratification vs. Ageism

In contrast to age stratification, ageism is an unacceptable form of prejudice that unfortunately continues to plague our society today, as many people are judged and compartmentalized solely based on their age (Palmore, 1999).

Age stratification theory is a sociological concept that illuminates the disparities in resources, authority, and opportunities among different generations.

It reveals the disparity between generations regarding access to resources and opportunities, with older generations having a distinct advantage thanks to their life experiences and financial stability (Riley, 1973).

Ageism, conversely, is the discrimination of individuals or groups based solely on their age (Palmore, 1999).

It can manifest itself in various forms, such as discriminatory attitudes towards older members of society or decisions made by employers not to hire them for certain positions due to their age. 

Unfair wages for elderly workers as well as restrictions limiting their rights, are also violations of this kind of discrimination. 

Ageism can also take on more subtle forms like stereotypes about aging, such as elders being ‘slower’ or ‘frail,’ which can further contribute to perceptions of unfairness.

Strengths of Age Stratification Theory

Age stratification theory is a sociological concept that concisely demonstrates how resources, power, and opportunities are unevenly apportioned between age groups.

According to age stratification theory, various generations may possess different levels of success due to the conditions that shape their respective developmental stages

To illustrate this point, many experts believe Baby Boomers have benefited from increased wages and a shortage of qualified candidates in the job market during their formative years – allowing them greater access to more rewarding opportunities.

Age stratification theory also highlights that inequality does not necessarily decrease as people age but may remain or even increase over time. 

It could mean that individuals from older generations will have greater financial stability and access to opportunities compared to younger generations.

Moreover, it helps identify issues such as age discrimination and how they affect individuals and society while providing valuable insight into how these issues can be addressed to improve equality between generations.

Implications and Challenges of Age Stratification Theory

Age stratification theory has several implications for society, particularly in terms of access to resources and opportunities. 

For example, age-based inequality can result in younger generations having less access to education due to limited financial resources.

The theory also implies that certain services are not available or easily accessible for those from different age groups – older citizens can benefit from discounted healthcare services while younger people struggle to afford treatments.

Age stratification theory also presents challenges regarding social standing and representation.

Elderly members are often presented with greater respect within the community and likely hold higher positions than those who are young but have lower levels of influence.

Besides, the media perpetuates this notion by portraying elderly characters as weaker and less powerful than their younger counterparts which can further solidify such notions within popular culture. 

Finally, digital divides also contribute to issues of fairness – while young adults have better access to technology tools like smartphones or computer applications, seniors typically lack knowledge.

Thus, the latter cannot participate in various activities that could help them further integrate into their communities.

Strengths and Weaknesses – Table Summary

Strengths of Age Stratification TheoryWeaknesses of Age Stratification Theory
Concisely demonstrates how resources, power, and opportunities are unevenly apportioned between age groups.It does not acknowledge cultural differences between societies, which may exacerbate or lessen the theory’s core argument.
Highlights that inequality does not necessarily decrease as people age but may remain or even increase over time.It needs to acknowledge time, era, and context issues as each generation faces different challenges of their time.
It helps identify issues such as age discrimination and how the issues affect individuals and society.While acknowledging intersectionality, it tends to place age as the core category of disadvantage at the expense of gender, race, class, etc.
Provides valuable insight into how age discrimination issues can be addressed to improve equality between generations. It tends to underemphasize the age-based discrimination faced by people as they age.


Age stratification theory provides valuable insight into understanding social inequality and the unequal distribution of resources, power, and opportunities between different age groups. 

This theoretical model originated from the works of Karl Mannheim and Talcott Parsons and has been adapted by modern scholars to include aspects such as intersectional oppression, digital divides, and other forms of inequality. 

Age stratification theory helps identify age discrimination and its impact on individuals and society. In addition, it offers valuable insight into how these issues can be addressed to improve equality.

Nonetheless, there are numerous issues encompassing social standing, representation, and access to resources that need attention from researchers, policymakers, and practitioners.

Overall, age stratification theory provides a useful framework for understanding and addressing inequality and social justice issues in modern society.


Dowd, J. J. (1987). The reification of age: Age stratification theory and the passing of the autonomous subject. Journal of Aging Studies1(4), 317–335. Doi:

Mannheim, K. (1952). Essays on the sociology of knowledge. In Internet Archive. Routledge & K. Paul.

Mauk, K. L. (2018). Gerontological nursing: Competencies for care (4th ed.). New York: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Öberg, B.-M. (2018). Changing worlds and the ageing subject: Dimensions in the study of ageing and later life. London: Ashgate.

Palmore, E. (1999). Ageism. New York: Springer.

Riley, M. W. (1973). Aging and society. Los Angeles: Russell Sage Foundation.

Viktoriya Sus

Viktoriya Sus (MA)

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Viktoriya Sus is an academic writer specializing mainly in economics and business from Ukraine. She holds a Master’s degree in International Business from Lviv National University and has more than 6 years of experience writing for different clients. Viktoriya is passionate about researching the latest trends in economics and business. However, she also loves to explore different topics such as psychology, philosophy, and more.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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