Revolutionary Gerontology: The Intergenerational Questions

Aug 8, 2012, 1:30 PM, Posted by

Cleopatra M. Abdou, PhD, is an assistant professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California, and an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholars program. This post is part of a series on the RWJF Health & Society Scholars program, running in conjunction with the program’s tenth anniversary.

An elderly man walks away from a house, along a path, using a walker.

Gerontology, the study of aging, is a diverse field that integrates the biological, social-behavioral, and health sciences, as well as public policy. This means that gerontological research addresses a vast range of questions. One type of question asked by gerontologists, including myself, has to do with intergenerational processes. My own research investigates the intergenerational transmission of culture, social identities, conceptions of stress and success, and, ultimately, health. For example, how do our notions of, and relationships to, family affect our health at critical points in the lifespan? More specifically, how do familial roles and responsibilities, such as marrying, reproducing, and caring for grandchildren, correlate with life satisfaction and longevity?

My four siblings and I are the first American-born generation in our family. Our parents came to the United States from Egypt in 1969, and I am strongly identified as both an American and an Egyptian. Anyone who has complex or competing identities knows that it’s a mixed bag—a blessing and a curse. Recently, as I boarded a plane in Cairo to return to the United States, I found myself sobbing with what I think was a kind of homesickness. As happy as I was to return to my immediate family and orderly life in The States, I mourned leaving the land of my parents and all of our parents before them, especially during this important time in Egypt’s history.

The kinds of intergenerational issues that I address in my research come to mind frequently when I think of Egypt and the other Middle Eastern and North African countries currently undergoing rapid change. One intriguing question is how intergenerational influence becomes social change? What are the characteristics of households and families that produce children who will grow into change agents? Who are the mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, of the people who become young adults who lead revolutions? What are these parents and grandparents like? What values have they instilled in younger generations, probably early in their development? And, finally, what environmental forces have to come into play to facilitate the emergence of these young leaders at a given point in time—like right now in Egypt and the Arab world more broadly?

The academic in me is captivated by the process of change now under way in Egypt and the surrounding region and the revolutionary spirit that seems to be infecting the globe. How will such large-scale change affect the aging process, and how will it inform the field of gerontology? How will the sweeping governmental changes we are seeing affect, and be affected, by culture and by societies that put such great emphasis on ancestry and tradition? What cultural changes might we expect to see among the younger generations led by revolutionaries? And how will their parents’ generation react to these cultural changes? Will their children’s and grandchildren’s generations continue this process of cultural change, or somehow be drawn to tradition? Will social progress across these generations be linear, or consist of both backwards and forwards motion?

These and other questions will take years to answer, of course; but, if we pay attention, the answers could prove vital in helping us to understand the way to progress, greater hope, and, thus, better health––in Egypt, in America, and throughout the developing and developed worlds.

Dr. Abdou’s research utilizes experimental, survey, and qualitative methods to investigate how society, culture, stress, and positive resources interact to affect health, well-being, and aging more broadly. Special attention is given in her research to cultural and social influences on health and health-related decisions across the lifespan as well as across multiple generations. Abdou recently launched Healthy Egypt, a blog that discusses current health-relevant issues in Egypt while making social and health science concepts accessible to diverse audiences. The topics covered in Healthy Egypt emphasize the experiences of Egyptians, but are relevant to other Arabs and humans across the globe.

To learn more about the interdisciplinary field of Gerontology, please visit the University of Southern California Leonard Davis School of Gerontology.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.