Positive Aging through the Lens of Social Construction - Mary Gergen, Ph.D.

Positive Aging through the Lens of Social Construction – Mary Gergen, Ph.D.

Research into positive aging delivers findings that run counter to the traditional understanding of aging. Existing views tend to be negative and like to point out that the life span developmental curve is not wonderful for older people. This traditional view develops negative expectations. To the contrary, positive aging research and practice puts attention on the value of being optimistic, enjoying the potentials of older age and growing capacities over time.

Season 5 is a collaboration with the Taos Institute

This season of the Positivity Strategist podcast is a collaboration with the Taos Institute. We’re focusing on the topic of Constructionist Practices as Social Innovation. My guests in this season are Taos Institute associates who’ve contributed to The Sage Handbook of Social Constructionist Practice. [Link below.]

Author Bio and Chapter Title

Positive Aging  author - Mary Gergen
Mary Gergen Ph.D., Taos c0-founder and co-editor of The Sage Handbook of Social Constructionist Practice

Mary Gergen, Ph.D. has a rich history in social construction, as a scholar, researcher, author of many books and contributor and editor of others. She is a professor emerita from Pennsylvania State University, Brandywine, Media, PA. When teaching, she approached her discipline of psychology from the lens of social construction and introduced and taught feminist social construction. Her views of feminism were challenged at the time. In this episode she explains why.

Mary is among the co-founders of the Taos Institute and is still a board member. Together with her husband, Ken Gergen Ph.D., President and also a co-founder, and Chair of the Board, they play an integral role in leading and contributing to Taos Institute activities and community.

Mary is very connected and a prolific contributor to the world. She writes and edits books, reads voraciously, especially on the topic of positive aging, and even wrote a little play, just for the fun of it. She’s working just as commitedly as ever during this stage of life – deemed “retirement.” To her, it’s still all work – “just without a paycheck.” She does, however, enjoy the freedom of her situation and purposely does not call it “retirement.” Together, Mary and Ken continue to edit the Positive Aging Newsletter which they started almost 20 years ago!

Mary is one of four editors of The Sage Handbook of Social Constructionist Practice which inspired this podcast season.

Book Section Title: Introduction to the Section on Research Practices

Social Construction Akin To Story Telling

positive aging - 5 people eating and laughing

With almost 30 years of social construction as a guiding philosophy, Mary offers that it is both a helpful and hopeful way of engaging in life. It reminds her to always be a little insecure about her opinions – a perspective which suggests “it could be otherwise.” Social construction is a close friend of storytelling. We tell ourselves stories all the time about our family relations or who we are for instance. “It could be otherwise” suggests shifting the perspective. For example, going to therapy could be seen as a way to create a more satisfying story than the painful psychological state one is in. We can never know a truth, but we can build many stories of ourselves that can help us move forward.

Social constructionists see relationships beyond humans. It is easy to see those relationships with our pets. Yet, perhaps it is less easy to see ourselves in relational ways with what surrounds us, such as nature, technologies and material objects with which we co-exist. These are not only part of our worlds, but we co-create meaning with them also.

Positive Aging Newsletter

Mary and her partner Ken bring a missionary spirit to the Positive Aging newsletter and a totally new definition of aging. This is a developmental period of life full of opportunities and gratification (not decline). Instead of living up to self-handicapping stereotypes at this time of life, we can shift focus to the things that we didn’t have at a younger age. This more creative approach brings pride, self-respect and changes how we behave in the world as an older person.

The Positive Aging Newsletter dives into a variety of topics. For example, there have been issues on older workers who are often the object of discrimination in the workplace. Younger managers and older workers who don’t understand each other can create tensions. Potentially, organizations are wasting their most valuable assets because studies show that workers in their 60s outperform their younger counterparts in all areas of job performance thanks to their experience. Categorizing people by their chronological age is taking away from the immense diversity that exists within every age.

What Aging Can Become

What aging can become

A key idea of social construction is understanding the importance of the language we use. The words we choose convey meaning and impact relationships. Do we talk about “older people” or “the elderly?” Populations are aging. By making a shift toward positive aging, we increase profitability for the culture: people work longer, contribute more, and help maintain high levels of cultural activity – far from being a burden to society. It was always assumed that older people didn’t care. On the contrary, they care so deeply for their grand-children that they are very concerned about current environmental issues, and active in speaking up.

Narratives on aging differ across cultures

Mary and Ken were invited to attend the opening of the Positive Aging Research and Extension Center at the National Pingtung University in Taiwan. Through research and extended activities, this Positive Aging Center places emphasis on more positive views of aging and the development of capacities needed for thriving in a rapidly changing society.

The Chinese are particularly attracted to social construction. Older people are thought of as worthy. It is part of their belief system and culture, more so than in the U.S. where youth is glamorized. This is just one example of how the narratives on aging vary depending on context.

At the end of our episode, Mary reads a piece she wrote some time ago. The words are timeless, ageless and bring out the playful social constructionist sensibility of Mary Gergen:

…always keep a sort of a creative, rebel, spirited, backburner thing going that is alive in you. And if you have to conform to certain kinds of rules and regulations, you do it I guess… But, you keep alive and you be curious, and you look outside the limits of the field and you try to influence politically where you can. And join together and find others who might be interested in going in the direction you're going in… Be daring, but not foolhardy…

Connect to Mary



  • Victoria Claflin Woodhull: A Ghost Revisits. Monologue presented at the Association for Women in Psychology, Pittsburgh, PA, March 4, 2016.
  • The performative movement in the social sciences. In P. Leavy (Ed.) The Handbook of Arts-Based Research. 2017. (pp.54-67) New York: Guilford Press (with K. J. Gergen, first author).
  • The Secret Poor Among Us: Older Women Who Work to Make Ends Meet. In Lisa Hollis-Sawyer & E. Cole (Eds.) A Study in Grey and Grit: Older Women Who Work, Washington, DC: APA Publications (with Ellen Cole, 2nd author), (in press)