This dissertation investigates how gender and sexuality shape people’s perceptions of aging in midlife. The study draws on two prominent narratives about aging discussed by aging studies scholars. The first narrative, decline, is a predominant aging narrative that constructs aging as an accumulation of irreversible losses. A second, less prevalent narrative constructs aging as progress—emphasizing the potential for continual personal growth across middle and later life. These narratives appear to become more important in midlife.
Although research reveals that views of aging as decline and progress influence people’s perceptions of aging, little is known about how these narratives may manifest differently in the lives of lesbians, gay men, straight women, and straight men. The project examined this issue, using interviews conducted with 41 middle-aged people of different gender and sexual identity backgrounds. By looking for themes in the data, the researcher analyzed how interviewees experienced and managed aging narratives in everyday life.
Findings showed evidence of the decline and progress narratives, though decline was the most predominant narrative. All groups perceived aging primarily as a biomedical process of declining health, which generated anxiety they attempted to quell through the use of health interventions. Anxiety about decline also registered as concerns about physical appearance, especially for straight women and gay men. Evidence of the progress narrative was also present, though it manifested differently across the gender and sexuality subgroups. Men’s progress narratives emphasized their increasing usefulness to older generations. Straight men described their progress as becoming more useful to their children, and gay men spoke about their mentor status among younger LGBT people. Lesbians viewed progress as learning to stick up for themselves, and straight women viewed it as developing self-reliance.
The results of this dissertation offer empirical and theoretical contributions to the study of gender, sexuality, and aging, and also have policy implications for helping people better navigate aging. By focusing on how aging narratives unfold in the lives of women and men of different sexuality backgrounds, this project shows how aging anxiety is produced by many intersecting social pressures. Results also suggest that policy makers could alleviate aging anxiety in midlife by implementing policies that help people better navigating aging, such as strengthening the social safety net, increasing wages of women-dominated occupations, and legislating more LGBT and family-friendly policies.
Dr. Barbee is a graduate of Florida State University’s sociology Ph.D. program, and a post-doctoral researcher at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health, and Society. This post is based on Dr. Barbee’s dissertation abstract. You can learn more about this project here. You can learn more about Dr. Barbee here.
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