Out of it

Rosalind Mitchison

  • History of Old Age by Georges Minois, translated by Sarah Hanbury Tenison
    Polity, 343 pp, £29.50, September 1989, ISBN 0 7456 0549 4
  • A Fresh Map of Life: The Emergence of the Third Age by Peter Laslett
    Weidenfeld, 213 pp, £16.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 297 79451 5

These two writers are both concerned with the old and the elderly, but to very different effect. Minois presents a repertoire of comments on the old, from the ancient world to the 16th century: most comments are hostile. Girning about the disagreeable features of the old seems to have been a recognised literary form. Writers experimented with new nasty similes or enlarged upon a repertoire of unpleasant features. Cicero wrote a whole book about the old, ostensibly to rebut the standard criticisms, but at the same time admitted that he did not believe his arguments. He appears to have confined his observation of the old to old men. Horace by contrast went overboard on how disgusting old women were. The usual comments of Latin writers on the old was that they were dirty, sallow, stinking; their dominant mental attributes avarice, stupidity and concupiscence.

Roman law, which kept families absolutely under the authority of fathers, provided a good basis for the indignation of young adults. A mature son could, at least during the Republic, be executed or sold into slavery by his father; as a lesser punishment, a wife could be forced on him. These are hardly the best conditions for a happy family life. In practice, the paternal power can have been reality only among the well-off. Given the family basis of farming and industry, an adult worker was far too valuable to be disposed of. Still, the general political power of the old in the Roman world, as in modern China, was a remarkable feature of reactionary culture. The Roman Senate was, at any rate initially, an assembly of the elderly. Paternal authority also gave a splendid opportunity for playwrights to create plots based on family disputes.

In ages when modern preventive medicine and prosthetics did not exist, the old were usually physically unattractive. The loss of teeth, the sag of skin, the hooked back of arthritis were not disguised. Soap, hot water and false teeth do not make for beauty, but they moderate the impact of deficiencies. They do little, however, for the general loss of muscle power. The emphasis of the past on the deficiencies of old age is not surprising, but it is odd that criticism and comment concentrated so much on men, often to the exclusion of women. In most societies women outlive men, and though old women do not carry the scars of battle, they have other visible signs of hard times. Perhaps the writers on age were concentrating on what lay in wait for themselves.

Christianity changed the description of old age by distorting the whole concept. The early fathers stated that sinning was to be expected from the young, but that old men ought to be virtuous. There seems to have been a belief that temptation, particularly sexual temptation, fades as nearness to death increases. Also, wisdom should have been acquired by the old, and should lead to virtue. St Bernard went further and held that since the old should have arrived at wisdom and virtue, a young man, by achieving these, could be old in the ‘true’ sense of the word. The infirmity of old age made possible greater spirituality: the physical vigour of youth, like most pleasant things, was to the saint a likely distraction from the pursuit of holiness.

No glossing could get round the fact that the old and infirm were a burden. If they were rich they could take themselves off by buying a corrody and becoming pensioners in a monastery. Bishops in their visitations were uneasy about this practice: it enlarged the lands of the monastery but could be a source of weakened observance. Old peasants might pass on a holding to a son and expect support in a back room of the house. But to the truly poor old age might mean brutality and deprivation.

Too much of the attention paid to old age, both in antiquity and in this book, has been devoted to lists of people who made it to high figures. Eminent Greek philosophers were held in many cases to have passed 90, Vasari lists many artists as passing 75, and Minois lists old and influential Popes and theologians. But nothing statistical can be learnt from such self-selected samples, usually of people of affluence or standing, even if the ages alleged are correct. Fame, after all, has more chance of attaching itself to the long than the short-lived. A more interesting suggestion put forward here is that the Black Death had less impact on the old than on the young. Certainly its effect in causing a step-down of the population of Europe to a level where it remained for the next century and a half meant that the survivors of large earlier cohorts would for a generation be conspicuous even without this differential survival. One would pay closer attention to Minois’s remarks about plague, though, if he had not described it as a virus.

Various writers have divided mankind into ‘ages’. From the ancient world to Shakespeare there is talk of four ages of man, or six, or seven. Some of these use the term ‘youth’ to cover from 20 to 50, a reminder of the economic importance of muscle power. Laslett’s approach is similarly related to function. He sees the first age as one of dependence and training, the second of economic activity, the fourth of physical deterioration and renewed dependence: but before that he claims that there is a new feature created by the demography of the advanced economies and the system of retirement, a third age of freedom for those not bound by work, in which there is the opportunity for the enjoyment of culture and recreation. These ages are not fixed in terms of specific years, but, for all that, this system is created by the ageing of the populations of the developed world which Laslett displays in tables of the expectation of life at various ages. For Britain the probability of reaching 70 for those who get to 25 became over half for men by 1951, by 1911 for women. There was a sharp expansion of life chances early in this century just at the time when the social Darwinists were arguing that the physical stock of the nation had deteriorated.

Expanded life-expectancy would alone inevitably have sent up the proportion of older people. But it has also been accompanied by reduced childbearing. In fact, these changes relate closely to each other. People would rather have a few children well cared for than a long string with losses. Also, as more and more came to old age, its support had to cease being a family affair and became a matter of insurance. Old-age pensions reduced the pressure to have children who would eventually provide support. Whether the present insurance system, state and private, can maintain retirement rights as they now are is another issue which depends on the interactions of births and deaths. The present cohort of pensioners bred a population adequate to produce its support, but the current second age has not done so.

Laslett wants the abandonment of the disagreeable stereotypes of those of retirement age. He claims that as the proportion of the retired has increased the terms have become nastier, but, given what Horace produced, I doubt this. He has an angry chapter of denunciation. Though he recognises the damage that is done to the elderly and the old when society marginalises them, he does not give much attention to the complex ways in which this happens. Marginalisation has obviously taken place when someone is put in an old persons’ home or a day-care centre. But the end of regular work destroys social life for many; well-tuned skills go out of date and may themselves prevent the acquisition of more modern ones; inflation is another marginalising force. It is easier to remember what a bus fare or a cup of tea cost in 1940 than to have the money ready for use today.

Laslett’s vision of the enormous opportunity for personal enjoyment and enrichment culminates in the French creation of the Universities of the Third Age. In these there is a free exchange of specialised knowledge between participants. For a period which may be only five years but may extend to 30, people are sure of an income and have no need to enter employment. Instead they can pursue chosen recreations until, at some point, infirmity takes over. But this picture is for a minority. Those who join the University of the Third Age – all power to them – are those who would not accept intellectual and aesthetic deprivation on retirement, who would know what they wanted to do and do it. The third age is less attractive to those detached from creative culture and kept on an income which steadily declines in relation to that of those at work. Even with bus passes and cheap entry to many facilities, the elderly, whose work made our modern economy, deserve better than they get from the British state. And even those, better-off, who have looked forward to unlimited golf or music on retirement may find mental distress in the problem of building a structure for the unemployed day. For many, as Philip Larkin has sadly written, ‘the view does not exist’ – ‘where has it gone, this lifetime?’ The problems of adjustment should not be glossed over.

Peter Laslett’s book should be seen as a call to action rather than a factual survey. We need new attitudes to age relationships, and new institutions. Age is what we decide to call it. To Marianne Dashwood, the flannel waistcoat and rheumatism showed that old age had struck at 37. Most of us have some such stereotype which indicates that a person can be regarded as out of it. The rising demand for face-lifts shows that many hold such views. We could, though, if we so decided at national level, replace the contrast of full-time work and full-time retirement by a series of graduated options. We could, at a more detailed level, make it unnecessary for the infirm to scurry across main roads to get to the shops. We could stop the patronising way they are treated in many institutions. We could even recognise that they are useful.

It would be especially valuable if the old themselves would organise for better things, as a political group. This is particularly difficult given the predominance of women in the older groups, for relatively few women have experience of trade-union membership or political activity, even fewer of office-bearing. Too often the octogenarians are those who have habitually left decision-making to others and practised docility. But now that the old are a fifth of the population and still increasing, we must hope that they can learn to work the system, not only for their own good but for the good of the generation which now ignores them.