Down with Age

Michael Young

What has happened to ageing cannot be understood without comparing how things are with how things were before industrialisation, when society was to a considerable extent no more than the family writ large, and the family straddled all ages. The family was responsible for the production of food, for education, a good deal of religious practice, for such entertainment as there was and for controlling those members of all ages who stayed within its fold. As the economy was based on agriculture, and as most people were at the margin of subsistence (or below it when the harvest was bad), outside the landowning classes everybody who could work had to work, irrespective of age. Who would not toil should not eat.

Exceptions were, of course, made for the very young and the very old, but in England as elsewhere children were dressed up like little adults as soon as they could walk, and set to work. To Daniel Defoe, on his tour of the country in 1727, this was a sign that all was well in Britain. ‘If we knock’d at the door of any of the master manufacturers, we presently saw a house full of lusty fellows, some at the dye-vat, some dressing the cloths, some at the loom ... the women and children of whom are always busy carding, spinning etc, so that no hands being unemploy’d all can gain their bread, even from the youngest to the ancient; hardly anything above four years old but its hands are sufficient to itself.’ Even in towns, children were at work earning their keep and more. By modern standards, almost everyone had a hard, short life. But life, such as it was, and the work done to secure it, was shared within the bounds of the one dominant all-purpose institution. There was very little specialisation by age and indeed people might not even know how old they were unless they could use a well-known public event as a peg.

Biological ageing has of course been used to structure social relations in all societies where people of similar ages are bonded together in age-groups. At that level of generality, pre-industrial and industrial societies are much the same. Even so, there has been a crucial change. In our much more highly organised modern world people have been turned into numbers. Measurement has become ever more precise, and measurement has been used by the new bureaucracies to put people under a new set of constraints to replace the threat of starvation as a means of keeping them under control – indeed in many ways controlling them more tightly than before industrialisation. The particular measurement I am picking out now is of a particular kind of time, the time a person has been on this earth back to his or her date of birth: the resulting personalised data is the passbook which we have to carry with us everywhere we go, and which in turn is used to slot us into the general chronology of society.

People’s birthdays are no longer just private affairs: they are public events which they have repeatedly to declare in public to show that they are entitled to go to school, to have sexual intercourse, to buy alcohol, to marry, to vote, and much else besides. When the Bill making the registration of births compulsory was introduced in 1836, Lord John Russell, recommending it to Parliament, said that everyone would ‘so soon perceive the benefit of having their children’s names inserted in the general register that it would not be very long before every one would be willing to concur in carrying out the plan.’ He has been right, so far, about the concurrence but the benefit is becoming ever more dubious. For since 1836 age has steadily increased its hold on behaviour and become so deeply embedded in custom and law that people are hardly aware of what has happened. It is as though the great game of age stratification is being played in a dark room.

People born into a particular cohort are more than ever expected to behave in important respects like other people born with the stamp of that same year upon them. Their parents give them their introductory but essential education when they compare them with their fellows of the same date, noticing they are bigger, or more advanced in their attainment of speech or hindleg walking, or cleverer, or smaller, less advanced, less clever – in short, more ‘backward’ – than other infants of the same age. It is dinned into them again when they are reaching a critical birthday that makes them eligible for a place in a creche, a day nursery, a nursery school or an ordinary infant school along with all the others who are marching in step with them. Children’s most rigorous training in age standardisation starts here. From this time on they are lockstepped together with a lot of other unlikes, in year-groups of five-year-olds which become six and seven and anything-year-olds, developing the appropriate rituals and feelings of rivalry and envy, superiority and inferiority.

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