Disengagement Theory

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In 1961 Elaine Cumming and William Henry introduced the world to a controversial theory of aging. They proposed in their book Growing Old that aging is a process of inevitable disengagement. Cummings and Henry write, “aging is an inevitable, mutual withdrawal or disengagement, resulting in decreased interaction between the aging person and others in the social system he belongs to” (1961, p. 227). Cummings and Henry presented a nine postulate argument (disengagement theory) for why older adults would naturally disengage from society.

Cumming and Henry developed disengagement theory from data they collected from a six-year Kansas City study of adult life that followed 275 persons aged 50 to 90 years of age.

Main Premise of Disengagement Theory

The main premise of disengagement theory is that it is natural and acceptable for older people to withdraw from society and personal relationships as they age. The theory suggests that disengagement may even be preferable, because of a mutual recognition of the individual and society that the elder will soon pass and society (and family) must be prepared to function in their absence.

Disengagement theory does not suggest that disengagement is a negative process. They hypothesize that disengagement with age creates happiness, although the process of disengagement may be stressful. In light of todays, longer life expectancies, and extensive second half of our lives lived after retirement, disengagement takes on a negative flavor. Yet, the original authors didn’t intend to present disengagement as a negative inevitable process. The underlying idea was “if one engages in the expected mutual withdrawal of individual from society and society from the individual, he should be happy” (Martin, 1973).

Disengagement theory is one of three prominent psychosocial theories of aging that emerged from social genetologists of the time. The other two theories are the activity theory and the continuity theory.

Disengagement theory has largely been dismissed. The theory was formulated from simple observations, disregarding the complexity of causes leading to old age disengagement. Another factor leading to a general disfavor of the theory is the obvious inclusion of cultural biases prominent in the early 1960’s.

However, even disproven or dismissed theories provide valuable fodder for wisdom. Disengagement theory unearths some important questions and common characteristics of aging. Why do people disengage as they age and how does disengagement impact mental and physical wellness?

​What is Disengagement?

​Donald L. Spence defines disengagement as “an inevitable process in which many the relationships between a person and other members of society are severed, and those remaining are altered in quality” (1975, p.193).

Nine Postulates of the Process of Disengagement

Cumming and Henry identified nine postulates for the “process of disengagement” in old age:

Postulate 1:

As we age, death moves from the unseeable future to something looming nearby. Death becomes real, almost touchable. Compounding the reality of death is the physical aging process, losing physical and mental abilities.

Postulate 2:

Disengagement is a self-perpetuating process. The theory posturizes that life transitions such as children leaving home, and retirement decrease interactions with others; and decreased interaction leads to less reliance on cultural norms; and abandoning cultural norms leads to further disengagement with society.

Postulate 3:
This postulate exposes biases of the time but can be understood through role differences without suggesting the gender influence in the different roles people engage in before the process of disengaging occurs. They postulated that because men have a centrally instrumental role in America, and women a socioemotional one, disengagement differs between men and women. 

Postulate 4:

Our life course is punctuated by a series of transitions. Postulate 4 cites aging as a transition that causes ego changes, such as knowledge and skill deterioration. However, as the elderly person is deteriorating, society demands increased knowledge and skill. Younger members of society that possess sufficient knowledge and skill fill the void, assume authority, and replace the old before they retire. This process of replacement leads to disengagement.

Postulate 5:

This Postulate states that continued engagement or  disengagement occurs depending on the circumstances:

  • When both the aging individual and society are ready for the transition (replacement of the older by the younger), complete disengagement occurs.
  • When neither the individual nor society is ready, engagement continues.
  • When the individual is ready to disengage but society is not ready for the disengagement, engagement usually continues.
  •  When society is ready for the individual to disengage but the individual is not, the result is usually disengagement.​

Postulate 6:

This postulate is dated by the inherent biases of the 1950’s and 60’s. It states that man’s central role is work, and woman’s is marriage and family. When individuals abandon their central roles, they drastically lose social status, and a sense of fulfillment. The loss creates a crisis and demoralization unless the disengagement from these primary roles is replaced by engagement in different roles.

Postulate 7:

  • (a) Readiness for disengagement occurs if:
    • ​ An individual is aware of the shortness of life and scarcity of remaining time.
    • Individuals perceive their social life space (the amount of social connections)  decreasing.
    • A person experiences reduced ego energy
  • (b) Each level of society grants individuals permission to disengage because of the following:
    • Requirements of the rational-legal occupational system in an affluent society
    • The nature of the nuclear family
    • The differential death rate

Postulate 8:

Fewer interactions or full disengagement from central roles changes the roles played in other relationships. As a result, rewards for relational interactions become more diverse, gaining benefits from others of equal status.

Postulate 9:

​Disengagement theory is independent of culture, but the form it takes is bound by culture.

Stages of Disengagement

Disengagement has three main characteristics:

​Chronological Age

While no specific age is identified as a point of disengagement, age is associated with disengagement. The context of a person’s life and health (physical and mental) intertwine to create the beginning of disengagement.

Lack of Central Task

A central task such as a career or raising family (not necessarily exclusive of each other) dramatically changes with age. Events such as retirement and children moving out lead to loss of a central task, demanding the discovery of new areas for fulfillment.

Decreased Ego Investment or Object Cathexis

A central hypothesis of disengagement is withdrawing from society demands. As we disengage, argues Cumming and Henry, the aging adult focuses more energy on themselves. In classic psychoanalytic theory, Freud describes the focusing libido energy outside of the self as object cathexis. The older adult tends to decrease object cathexis, cathecting energy inward.

Cumming and Henry also concluded that the elder is also less emotionally invested (ego investment) in the success of external factors.

Disengagement was postulated by Cumming and Henry to occur in stages. During the first stage, the fully engaged person has none of the three main characteristics of disengagement. During the second phase of disengagement, the person possessed on characteristic, the third phase they possess two. The fully disengaged person had all three characteristics (Burbank, 1986). 

The disengagement process was considered irreversible once it began.

Disengagement Theory and Happiness

The implicit reward of healthy disengagement is satisfaction. The theory hypothesizes that when a person engages in “expected and mutual withdrawal of individual from society and society from individual” the person “should be happy” (Martin, 1973).

The process of disengagement is stressful, marked by periods of crisis. The their suggests that the first crisis is encountered between the ages of 60-65, followed by a period of relative contentment. The crisis resumes around the age of 70 which is marked  by “great instability, general restlessness, and irritability.” A second period of calmness returns in very old age (Tallmer and Kutner, 1970).

Perhaps, given the difficulty of periods of crisis, that life satisfaction is not a consequence of the disengagement, but a consequence of a persons ability to shift perspectives and meaning during the major life transitions occurring during the aging process. Life satisfaction and subjective wellbeing might be more an attribute of reengagement in different roles.

Accepting the Approaching End

Perhaps, Cumming and Henry are presenting a similar concept to Freud’s death instinct in postulate 1 where Freud theorizes that in opposition to the pleasure principle is a death instinct or “an underlying human drive to return to our inorganic origins” (Murphy, 2022). 

Cumming and Henry, of course, make no mention of Freud’s death instinct. They propose that “awareness of death is purported to be the key variable triggering the disengagement process” (Chappell, 1976, p. 326).

Role Changes​

Donald L. Spence wrote that “developmental changes involving the expectations of death and decrement of ability bring about these inevitable role changes” (1975).

Following his own research, William C. Martin suggests this might be the case. He concluded that life satisfaction might be a coupling of the activity and disengagement theories. He writes, “given this postulated reconciliation of the two (disengagement and activity theories), one would state that the coupling of structural disengagement (retire and let you family be) with age-segregated interpersonal activity (stay active, do things) results in life satisfaction” (1973).

A overlooked aspect of aging is the economics of the individuals. Many move into old age with accumulated resources, making new roles available that previously were not. The possibility of retirement offers great opportunities for some. However, when resources are lacking, disengagement from a career and income is stressful, limiting new roles for passion and purpose.

Complexity of Aging and Disengagement Theory

Elizabeth W. Markson comments on the difficulty to prove or disprove disengagement theory because of the complexity of aging. She explains, “aging is an intricate course, conditioned by social structure, social values, interaction with others, internal psychic processes, biological potential and physical health. Each of these may interact with any or all of the others during the conduct of old age” (1975, p. 186).

​The short coming of disengagement theory is the theories attempt to force universal characteristics of aging on a widely varying process. The truth is we disengage and reengage throughout our lives. Life flows through a large and small events, requiring major and minor shifts, stopping and starting many times over. This is the life course we all must face.

Individual Differences

We biologically age at different rates. Some people amazingly remain effective in their roles well into their eighties. Others experience a sharp decline as they enter the second half of their lives. Different careers present different challenges. A basketball star will likely experience mutual (team and individual) disengagement from his career on the court before he reaches forty years of age, requiring a shift, perhaps to broadcasting, coaching, or business ventures.

While a basketball players organic decline is accentuated by the physical demands of their career, we all encounter inevitable organic decline, forcing unwanted role changes. No one can guarantee us a successful transition nor do we equally regret changes. A strong introverted personality may enjoy disengagement from employment and enjoy the solitude of retirement and time to engage in personal hobbies. The extrovert may find this transition more challenging.

The ability to navigate the significant role changes of aging “may be merely bad habits acquired at an earlier age” (Youmans, 1969). What E. grant Youmans is suggesting that we best achieve successful disengagement from major roles (careers and children) by learning to flexibility navigate changes throughout our lives.

A Few Final Remarks

Aging is an inevitable process. The only escape from late life organic decline is death. The natural process of growing old leads to some inevitable shifts and role changes. This is a process of disengagement. Successfully moving from earlier life phases to new opportunities is a challenge, leading to depression for some, and joy for others.

Disengagement theory draws our attention to inevitable event that plays out in a variety of ways. Perhaps, as argued, the theory is not as universal as purported. The aged person does not universally withdraw from social environments, rather, many successfully shift to new social environments. Perhaps, with the understanding of the possibility of disengagement, communities can better assist the aging process by providing avenues for shifting social engagement during these critical life transitions.​

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Burbank, P. (1986). Psychosocial theories of aging. Advances in Nursing Science, 9(1).

Chappell, N. (1976). Awareness of Death in the Disengagement Theory: A Conceptualization and an Empirical Investigation. OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, 6(4), 325-343.

Cummings, Elaine; Henry, William (1961). Growing Old: The Process of Disengagement. Basic Books; Second Printing edition.

Gordon, J. (1975). A Disengaged Look at Disengagement Theory. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 6(3), 215-227.

Markson, E. (1975). Disengagement Theory Revisited. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 6(3), 183-186.

Martin, W.C. (1973). Activity and Disengagement: Life Satisfaction of In-Movers into a Retirement Community. The Gerontologist, 13(2), 224-227.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2022). Death Instinct: The Drive to Return to Our Inorganic Origins (Death). Psychology Fanatic. Published 5-13-2022. Accessed 7-19-2022.

Spence, D. (1975). The Meaning of Engagement. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 6(3), 193-198.

Sill, J.S. (1980). Disengagement Reconsidered: Awareness of Finitude. The Gerontologist, 20(4), 457-462.

Tallmer, .M., & Kutner, .B. (1970). Disengagement and Morale. The Gerontologist, 10(4_Part_1), 317-320.

Tornstam, L. (2013). Gero-transcendcncc: A reformulation of the disengagement theory. Aging Clinical and Experimental Research, 1(1), 55-63.

Youmans, E.G. (1969). Some Perspectives on Disengagement Theory. The Gerontologist, 9(4_Part_1).

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