BACKGROUND: Lifespan psychological and life course sociological perspectives indicate that individual development is shaped by social and historical circumstances. Increases in fluid cognitive performance over the last century are well documented and researchers have begun examining historical trends in personality and subjective well-being in old age. Relatively less is known about secular changes in other key components of psychosocial function among older adults.
OBJECTIVE: In the present study, we examined cohort differences in key components of psychosocial function, including subjective age, control beliefs, and perceived social integration, as indicated by loneliness and availability of very close others.
METHODS: We compared data obtained 20 years apart in the Berlin Aging Study (in 1990-1993) and the Berlin Aging Study II (in 2013-2014) and identified case-matched cohort groups based on age, gender, cohort-normed education, and marital or partner status (n = 153 in each cohort, mean age = 75 years). In follow-up analyses, we controlled for having lived in former East versus West Germany, physical diseases, cohort-normed household income, cognitive performance, and the presence of a religious affiliation.
RESULTS: Consistently across analyses, we found that, relative to the earlier-born BASE cohort (year of birth: mean = 1916; SD = 3.38 years; range = 1901-1922), participants in the BASE-II sample (year of birth: mean = 1939; SD = 3.22 years; range = 1925-1949) reported lower levels of external control beliefs (d = -1.01) and loneliness (d = -0.63). Cohorts did not differ in subjective age, availability of very close others, and internal control beliefs.
CONCLUSION: Taken together, our findings suggest that some aspects of psychosocial function of older adults have improved across the two recent decades. We discuss the possible role of sociocultural factors that might have led to the observed set of cohort differences.