Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-2xdlg Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-06-13T11:44:25.008Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Revisiting Cowgill's modernisation theory: perceived social status of older adults across 58 countries

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 November 2022

Maksim Rudnev*
Laboratory for Comparative Studies of Mass Consciousness, HSE University, Moscow, Russia
Christin-Melanie Vauclair
Instituto Universitário de Lisboa (ISCTE-IUL), CIS-IUL, Lisbon, Portugal
*Corresponding author. Email:


Cowgill's modernisation theory stipulates that older people's social status is lower in societies with higher societal modernisation. The few existing studies reveal conflicting results showing either negative or positive associations. The current study follows up seminal cross-national research on the perceived social status of people in their seventies (PSS70) in a diverse set of countries. PSS70 was defined as the relative status of people in their seventies compared to people in their forties. Data were obtained by the World Values Survey (2010–2014) and included 78,904 respondents from 58 countries. Multilevel regressions showed that the level of modernisation had a strong and negative association with the PSS70 but mostly due to one component, namely the share of older people in society. The associations were more complex when considering cultural zones of which two stood out. Irrespective of level of modernisation, Muslim countries showed higher and post-communist countries showed lower levels of PSS70. In Muslim countries, modernisation had a near-zero association with PSS70, whereas it was strongly negatively associated with PSS70 in post-communist countries. This study generally supports Cowgill's theory in a large and diverse cross-sectional sample of countries, yet it also illustrates its cultural boundary conditions.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Abdulrahim, S, Ajrouch, KJ and Antonucci, TC (2015) Aging in Lebanon: challenges and opportunities. The Gerontologist 55, 511518.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Aboderin, I (2004) Modernisation and ageing theory revisited: current explanations of recent developing world and historical Western shifts in material family support for older people. Ageing & Society 24, 2950.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Alley, DE, Putney, NM, Rice, M and Bengtson, VL (2010) The increasing use of theory in social gerontology: 1990–2004. Journals of Gerontology: Series B 65, 583590.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Bengtson, VL, Dowd, JJ, Smith, DH and Inkeles, A (1975) Modernization, modernity, and perceptions of aging: a cross-cultural study. Journal of Gerontology 30, 688695.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Busse, C, Kach, AP and Wagner, SM (2017) Boundary conditions: what they are, how to explore them, why we need them, and when to consider them. Organizational Research Methods 20, 574609.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Casterline, J (2003) Demographic transition. In Demeny, P and McNicoll, G (eds), Encyclopedia of Population. New York, NY: Thomson & Gale, pp. 210216.Google Scholar
Chan, TW and Goldthorpe, JH (2010) Social status and cultural consumption. In Chan, TW (ed.), Social Status and Cultural Consumption. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cheung, C-K and Kwan, AY-H (2009) The erosion of filial piety by modernisation in Chinese cities. Ageing & Society 29, 179198.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cohn, RM (1982) Economic development and status change of the aged. American Journal of Sociology 87, 11501161.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cowgill, DO (1974) Aging and modernization: a revision of the theory. In Gubrium, JF (ed.). Later life: Communities and Environmental Policy. Springfield, IL: Thomas, pp. 123146.Google Scholar
Cowgill, DO (1986) Aging Around the World. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.Google Scholar
Cowgill, D and Holmes, L (eds) (1972) Aging and Modernization. New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts.Google Scholar
Demakakos, P, Biddulph, JP, Oliveira, C, Tsakos, G and Marmot, MG (2018) Subjective social status and mortality: the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. European Journal of Epidemiology 33, 729739.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
De Tavernier, W, Naegele, L and Hess, M (2019) A critical perspective on ageism and modernization theory. Social Inclusion 7, 5457.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Elsaman, RS and Arafa, MA (2012) The rights of the elderly in the Arab Middle East: Islamic theory versus Arabic practice. Marquette Elder's Adviser 14, 1–53.Google Scholar
Ganzeboom, HB, De Graaf, PM and Treiman, DJ (1992) A standard international socio-economic index of occupational status. Social Science Research 21, 156.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hox, JJ, Moerbeek, M and van de Schoot, R (2017) Multilevel Analysis: Techniques and Applications. New York, NY: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Inglehart, RF (1997) Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Inglehart, RF (2021) Religion's Sudden Decline: What's Causing It, and What Comes Next? New York, NY: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Inglehart, RF, Haerpfer, C, Moreno, A, Welzel, C, Kizilova, K, Diez-Medrano, J, Lagos, M, Norris, P, Ponarin, E and Puranen, (eds) (2014) World Values Survey: Round Six – Country-pooled Datafile. Madrid: JD Systems Institute.Google Scholar
Johnson, M (2005) The social construction of old age as a problem. In Bengtson, VL, Kirkwood, T and Johnson, M (eds), The Cambridge Handbook of Age and Ageing (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 563571.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Latif, A, Ali, S and Zafar, Z (2019) Modernization and status of the aged people in South Asia: a mixed methods investigation from Pakistan. Journal of Indian Studies 5, 7790.Google Scholar
North, MS and Fiske, ST (2015) Modern attitudes toward older adults in the aging world: a cross-cultural meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin 141, 993.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Palmore, EB and Manton, K (1974) Modernization and status of the aged: international correlations. Journal of Gerontology 29, 205210.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Peterson, L and Ralston, M (2017) Valued elders or societal burden: cross-national attitudes toward older adults. International Sociology 32, 731754.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stephan, WG and Stephan, CW (2000) An integrated threat theory of prejudice (chapter 3). Reducing Prejudice and Discrimination, New York: Psychology Press, pp. 2345Google Scholar
United Nations Development Programme (2020) Human Development Report. Available at Scholar
Vauclair, C-M and Rudnev, M (2019) Modernization theory. In Gu, D and Dupre, ME (eds), Encyclopedia of Gerontology and Population Aging. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, pp. 16.Google Scholar
Vauclair, CM, Marques, S, Lima, ML, Bratt, C, Swift, HJ and Abrams, D (2015) Subjective social status of older people across countries: the role of modernization and employment. Journals of Gerontology: Series B 70, 650660.Google ScholarPubMed
Vauclair, CM, Hanke, K, Huang, LL and Abrams, D (2017) Are Asian cultures really less ageist than Western ones? It depends on the questions asked. International Journal of Psychology 52, 136144.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Weber, M (1978) Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Williamson, JB, Evans, L and Powell, LA (1982) The Politics of Aging: Power and Policy. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher.Google Scholar
World Bank (2021) World Development Indicators. Available at Scholar
Supplementary material: PDF

Rudnev and Vauclair supplementary material

Rudnev and Vauclair supplementary material 1

Download Rudnev and Vauclair supplementary material(PDF)
PDF 430.8 KB
Supplementary material: File

Rudnev and Vauclair supplementary material

Rudnev and Vauclair supplementary material 2

Download Rudnev and Vauclair supplementary material(File)
File 36.7 KB