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Social Well-being Worsens with Age

An elderly person can be described as aging successfully when they maintain good health and engage in fulfilling social activities. According to Larisa Kosova, Director of the HSE Joint Economic and Social Data Archive, poor health and a lack of savings often prevent older people in Russia from enjoying retirement.

In most developed countries, old age is no longer associated with fraility, social deprivation and financial vulnerability. Instead, many older people enjoy their 'third age' by aging successfully with good health and free of financial problems, leading an active life and pursuing self-fulfillment. It appears that developed societies have overcome the biological determinism that associates aging with inevitable decline, illustrated by the well-known saying "the years take their toll." In contrast to traditional societies where old age is often perceived as loss of opportunity, modern societies tend to associate aging with accumulation of social resources and material prosperity.  

According to Kosova, Director of the HSE Joint Economic and Social Data Archive, older Russians rarely describe their aging as successful. Her paper The Third Age: Social Well-being, published in the HSE’s Demoscope Weekly, compares certain aspects of aging in different countries to measure the 'age-friendliness' of respective societies.

Her research is based on the 2011 data from the health module of the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), covering 26,216 respondents in 17 participating countries.

Old Age Associated with Loss of Status

Old age tends to limit one's range of social roles, thus affecting one’s subjective assessment of their status in society. The degree of subjectively perceived deprivation in the 'third age' varies significantly across countries. In Russia, Bulgaria and Ukraine, subjective assessments of status get lower with each passing year in an almost linear fashion, while in Germany they start to decline after the age of forty, and in Sweden after 55.

It is interesting to note that younger Russians tend to view their social positions more optimistically than their peers in the US and UK, while Russians in their 'third age' are usually more pessimistic when taking stock of their lives. According to Kosova, it means that many Russians are frustrated in their early expectations and do not normally associate aging with accumulation of social resources.

Health Can Be Maintained

Aging successfully means enjoying energy and vitality. Respondents aged 20 and older were asked to rate their health on a scale of 1 to 5.

Russia and Bulgaria seem to share the same pattern of gradual health decline with each passing year.

In Switzerland, subjective health peaks between 31 and 35, and then remains 'good' or 'very good’ between one's forties and seventies.

In the UK, subjective health assessments follow a sine wave, peaking at 25, leveling off to a plateau until the age of 40, followed by a decline and subsequent fluctuations around the levels reported by younger respondents.

It turns out that good health can be maintained into old age – a claim supported by a vast body of research. Manifestations of biological determinism can be progressively delayed, and elderly people can live longer free of the deprivation caused by loss of health and independence, leading to higher subjective assessments of social status in the third age. This trend, however, is limited to certain countries.

Women Lose Status Earlier

Empirical data show significant gender differences in terms of material, professional, and social status. In many countries, gender inequality is reflected in the distribution of social positions, where gender facilitates access to certain social roles. Men continue to enjoy priority in taking a wide range of “culturally established social roles," which affects social status perceptions by both genders.

According to the ISSP 2009 Social Inequality module covering more than 55,000 respondents in 40 countries, men tend to assess their position in society more highly than women (Table 1), and this finding applies to a range of countries regardless of socio-economic development.

The tendency for women to report lower social status compared to men increases as they age.

In Russia, Status Changes Similar for Both Genders

Across the sample, women in younger age groups tend towards higher status assessments than men of the same age, yet starting from the age of 26 to 30, women begin to report lower status compared to men, and after 35, women are increasingly more likely than men to give pessimistic assessments of their status.

However, gender differences in subjective status assessment vary across societies. In Russia and the US, they are minimal – men and women tend to report similar subjective status as they age, and it is only after the age of 75 that men's status assessments are higher than women's.

In France, young women assess their social position as higher than young men (perhaps the good looks and confidence of youth play a role here), but things change after the age of 30, when men begin to place themselves higher on the social ladder. In South Korea, young women underestimate their status, then by age 30 status assessments are similar for both genders, but women's subjective status declines at a faster pace than men's after 45.

In Russia, Revenues Peak at 30

Fewer employment opportunities and declining health make older people financially vulnerable. Their sources of revenue typically include pensions, wages for those employed, income from earlier savings and investments, and transfers from relatives. Availability of income from earlier savings, including pensions, provides for a relatively comfortable lifestyle, yet this type of income in old age depends on putting money aside while one is younger and employed.

Most Russians are not able to make substantial lifetime savings and thus lack financial security and independence in old age. According to the Levada Center's poll, just one third of Russians had savings in 2014 – including short-term savings for purchases. As a result, most Russians lack a financial cushion to support them in old age. 

Kosova’s paper also provides an income-to-age curve for a number of countries. The income of 15 to 20 year-olds just starting employment equals one. Personal incomes tend to decline with age everywhere, yet the patterns of such decline differ across countries.

In Sweden, personal incomes peak between 41 and 45, reaching 3.5 times the income levels of young Swedes. In Germany, incomes continue to grow until the ages of 51 to 55 and are almost triple compared to those of younger Germans.

In Russia, personal incomes tend to peak at 30, reaching just 1.5 times the youngest age group's level, and then decline. In Ukraine, age-related differences in personal incomes are even smaller. According to Kosova, "In both Russia and Ukraine, 15 to 20 year-olds just starting their careers often earn higher incomes than the elderly."

Thus, the 'third age' in Russia is not perceived as comfortable either financially or socially. Hence the feeling of helplessness and low assessment of one's social status experienced by many elderly Russians.

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, February 19, 2016