Disengagement Theory of Aging

Key Takeaways

  • Disengagement theory is a now-discredited theory of aging that posits that successful aging involves voluntary disengagement from the social roles of active adult life. This disengagement was seen as functional and beneficial for society.
  • Disengagement theory is influential in that it was the first comprehensive sociological theory of aging. The theory is also notable for the controversy it generated, spurring on decades of research into the sociology of aging.
  • Disengagement theory consists of several postulates that describe how older adults are freed from social norms, disengage in response to their impending death, experience ego change, and disengage regardless of their place in time and space.
  • Most of the postulates of disengagement theory have been disproven by empirical evidence.
  • Researchers have often interpreted Cummings and Henry’s original Kansas City aging study as supporting the Activity Theory of Aging. The Activity Theory of Aging, originally invented to be in total opposition to disengagement theory, holds that remaining engaged in activities and social interactions can slow and ameliorate the process of aging in older adults.
  • In light of activity theory, researchers have pivoted to focusing on what external factors — such as health and diminishing social ties — lead older adults to disengage from social life.

History and Overview

Disengagement theory (Cummings and Henry, 1961) posits that successful aging means an acceptance and desire for the process of disengagement from active life.

This disengagement is seen as functional for society and beneficial, normal, typical, and ideally voluntary on the part of the individual (Marshall and Clarke, 2007).

Disengagement theory is perhaps the most formal theoretical theory of aging at the individual and social-psychological level. The social scientists Elaine Cummings and William Earle Henry created and presented disengagement theory in their book, Growing Old, in 1961. The theory is notable for being the first into aging in the social sciences as well as for sparking a significant controversy that spawned a generation of theories about older adults, their social relationships, and their societal roles.

Disengagement theory emerged at a time when social scientists put great emphasis on functionalism in their research. In short, functionalism is the view that a certain phenomenon is necessary for the functioning of society.

Postulates of the Theory of Disengagement

Cummings and Henry created several postulates that comprise their disengagement theory. They are (Cummings and Henry, 1961):

  1. People lose social ties to those around them as they approach death, and their ability to engage with others decreases over time.
  2. As a person begins to disengage, they are freed from the social norms that guide interaction. This losing touch with norms reinforces and fields the process of disengagement.
  3. The disengagement process varies between men and women due to their different social roles. In particular, Cummings and Henry describe men as having a centrally instrumental role in America and women as a socioemotional one.
  4. An individual’s life is punctuated by ego change. Aging is an ego change that causes knowledge and skill to deteriorate. Meanwhile, success in modern industrialized society demands certain knowledge and skill. Age-grading — where older adults retreat from their formal roles — demands that the young possess sufficient knowledge and skill to assume authority and that the old retire before they lose their skills. Either the individual, recognizing that their knowledge and skills are in decline, disengages, or the organization chooses to make the individual disengage.
  5. When both the individual and society are ready for disengagement, complete disengagement results. When neither is ready,  continuing engagement results. When the individual is ready, but society is not, there is a disconnect between the expectations of the individual and of the members of the social system, but engagement usually continues. However, when society is ready, and the individual is not, the result of the disjunction is usually disengagement.
  6. Men’s central role is work, while women’s is marriage and family. If individuals abandon their central roles, they lose space in social life, resulting in crisis and demoralization unless they assume the different roles required by someone who is disengaged.
  7. Individuals become ready to disengage when they are aware of the shortness of life and the scarcity of their own time. As the individual sees the years they have left number shorter and shorter, the individual loses ego energy. Every level of society gives individuals permission to disengage because of the requirements of the occupational system in an affluent society, the nuclear family, and the differential death rate.
  8. Fewer interactions and disengagement from central roles lead to the relationships in one’s remaining roles changing.As this happens, relational rewards become more diverse, and those the disengaged person was once above become equals.
  9. Although disengagement theory is independent of culture, the form it takes is bound by culture.

Social structural change is defined as disengagement if it involves a reduction in the number of members in the social structure surrounding the individual, a diminishing of interactions with those members, and a restructuring of the goals of the system.

Meanwhile, a senior citizen’s engagement is measured by a count of the number of social roles they occupy, an individual, a subjective rating of the amount of time spent in interaction with others, and an actual count of the number of interactions they have.

During this period of theorizing, social integration was defined as the adoption of an older person to society, and adaptation was measured by life satisfaction, morale, and happiness.

This structural-functional approach to studying people saw individuals as nothing more than a series of roles with dispositions toward certain needs and personality characteristics.

The individual was largely reactive in this view, be it to societal demands or the presumably inevitable and universal pressures of physiological and psychological development (Marshall and Clarke, 2007).

In the school that developed disengagement theory, there was a large social psychological emphasis on personality factors as affecting health, income security, and social integration.

Scholars during this time period tended to ignore how health, wealth, and social integration could affect disengagement in older adults, and the question of how these variables affected disengagement over the course of a lifespan was neglected altogether (Marshall and Clarke, 2007).

Disengagement Theory vs. Activity Theory vs. Continuity Theory

Activity and Disengagement theory were the two major theories that outlined successful aging in the 1960s. Cumming and Henry (1961) invented activity theory as a foil to disengagement theory.

The researchers asserted that it was an implicit theory. In contrast to disengagement theory, activity theory argues that successful aging happens when individuals participate in activities, pursuits, and relationships — and that the aging process can even be delayed and quality of life enhanced when older people remain socially active.

In the 1960s, a large number of scholars and gerontologists set out to test whether disengagement theory or activity theory more successfully characterized aging.

Generally, the results found that activity theory was more correct and that life satisfaction was more often to be found with higher levels of social integration (as measured by the number of roles that adults take on) than not.

The researchers also argued that personality factors were found to be important to social integration.

Meanwhile, continuity theory proposes that older adults maintain the same activities, behaviors, relationships, and personalities as they did in the past. Someone’s internal structure — such as their personality traits — remains relatively constant throughout a person’s lifetime.

This constant internal structure informs future decision-making. Meanwhile, the external structure of an individual — such as their relationships and social roles — supports the maintenance of a stable self-concept and lifestyle.


Due to a lack of empirical support, social scientists and gerontologists have largely dismissed disengagement theory. Disengagement theory immediately attracted critical commentary, which was almost universally negative.

One major source of the early criticism of disengagement theory was the results of the Kansas City Study of Adult Life (Rose, 1964).

Several teams of researchers reached vastly different conclusions using the same evidence, teaching them not only to question Cumming and Henry’s theory but to challenge their findings (Achenbaum and Bengtson, 1994).

Psychologists tended to disagree with sociologists over the extent to which disengagement is inevitable, as well as about the extent and universality of withdrawal over the course of one’s life (Achenbaum and Bengtson, 1994).

Social psychologists such as Robert Havigherst, who relied heavily on the original Kansas City study, emphasized that most people adjusted their social roles well into their late sixties (Havighurst, 1957) and suggested that life satisfaction actually depended on social activity, a finding supported by later analyses of the Kansas City study.

The most destructive criticism of disengagement theory argued that much of the disengagement from social roles was involuntary, occurring through events such as widowhood and retirement. Additionally, scholars criticized that the theory was difficult to test, as it was not conceptualized in a precise way (Marshall and Clarke, 2007).

Hochschild (1975) argued that disengagement theory is unfalsifiable. To do so, Hochschild considered one of the most important and controversial propositions of the theory: that disengagement is universal and inevitable — that it happens all over the world throughout history and that it must happen at some point in every aging individual’s life span.

This has the implication that disengagement is intrinsic and thus is not caused by social factors — a claim that has come under vigorous attack throughout the 1960s (Desroches and Kaiman, 1964; Maddox, 1969; Prasad, 1964; Rose and Peterson, 1965; Hochschild, 1975).

Despite resounding evidence that large numbers of older adults are still socially engaged and have large numbers of roles, there have been a number of explanations that present socially-active older people as being counted as evidence against disengagement theory.

For example, these older engagers have been characterized as unsuccessful disengagements (Hochschild, 1975).

Another criticism that Hochschild (1975) makes of disengagement theory is the role that disengagement has taken over time as life cycles have lengthened.

Disengagement theory, according to Hochschild, characterizes disengagement as a process that always happens at a certain point in someone’s lifestyle and all at once.

However, studies such as Atchley’s (1971) examination of retired professors found that different types of disengagement can happen at different times — for example, there can be social disengagement without psychological engagement (Hochschild, 1975).

Indeed, studies have found that there is actually no age difference in how different forms of disengagement affect different people.

Modern Criticisms

More recently, scholars such as Achenbaum and Bengtson (1994) have conducted theoretical assessments of the Disengagement theory.

One variable that garnered a lot of criticism in Growing Old was the idea of successful or adaptive aging. This created confusion as to whether or not the successfulness of aging can be tested if this is more of a statement of a desirable outcome.

Another issue was the so-called “micro-macro linkage problem” (Collins, 1988; Turner, 1986), which is the relationship between the individual and the social structures as researchers attempt to construct how roles work with each other to create behavior.

Achenbaum and Bengtson also note that empirical research contradicts the disengagement theory. To do this, they note studies after the Kansas City study, such as a cross-national study in 1964 of patterns in retirement conducted in six countries.

This research indicated no support for a “universal” pattern of social role disengagement in retirement. In fact, the research showed that the more roles someone took on in retirement, the more satisfied they tended to be in later life (Bengtson, 1969). Again, this supported the activity theory of aging (Achenbaum and Bengtson, 1994).

Illustrative Examples

On the virtue of it largely being discredited, gerontology studies largely ignore disengagement theory as a justification for their results.

Nonetheless, there have been a number of studies that have investigated how and how often older adults disengage from activities they were once involved in.

Aging and Activity

Fox et al. (2017) conducted a study of how often low-income older adults aged 60 and older participated in hobbies at a publicly subsidized apartment complex.

This complex offered a variety of activities for residents and other older adults in the community, such as art classes, field trips, a community garden, concerts, and wellness fairs.

Participants were given a list of activities and cards that they could use that they did an activity just as frequently as before, did less, had given it up, or had never done it as an adult.

The seniors could then list a number of reasons why they did not engage in the activity, such as it being physically difficult, there being no opportunity to do it, or there being no one to do it with.

Fox and her colleagues found that the most common current activities of the people living in the complex were instrumental — such as going to the doctor and paying bills — and leisure activities with low demand — such as sitting and thinking and watching television.

Meanwhile, the most common activities participants had given up or were doing less were physically intensive instrumental activities — such as child care and yard maintenance) — and social activities — such as dancing, entertaining at home or a club and being with a spouse or partner.

Usually, these adults justified not doing social activities by saying that there was “No One to Do It With” (Fox et al., 2017) but that they nonetheless would like to engage in social activities more.

This implies that older adults are often disengaged from activities circumstantially and involuntarily, countering disengagement theory’s postulate that disengagement is voluntary and instrumental (Cummings and Henry, 1961).

Health, Disengagement, and Morale

Tallmer and Kutner (1970) attempted to replicate Cummings and Henry’s (1961) Kansas City Study of Aging to investigate what factors affected the “morale index” of older adults.

This morale index was based on four components: residence, age, weekend activities, and frequency of social contacts. Cummings and Henry then correlated the morale index with levels of disengagement as measured by a count of how many roles someone has.

Originally, Cummings and Henry found that morale stayed stable in the late 40s and 50s before dropping precipitously in the 60s and 70s. This was followed by a period of calm and good morale in very old age.

Tallmer and Kutner (1970) decorrelated levels of morale with age and found that morale actually depended more on other factors such as health, income, widowhood, and retirement.

While voluntary disengagement could yield high morale, forced, stressful disengagement is associated with hopelessness and despair.


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Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.