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.

Once education ends – at 16, 18 or 22 – we are plunged straight into the adult world – a world also propped up by notions of age and attainment. A career is a hierarchy of jobs, still predominantly a male affair but no less real for that, with a timetable attached so that people know what rank they should have reached when they are 28 or 30 or 33 or 36, just as they know that if they have not reached a certain place in the hierarchy they may later on be considered ‘too old’ at forty or fifty for any job at all. If they are on the ladder but have failed to get advancement at the critical age, they can calculate the highest level they might reach in twenty years’ time as long as they do not falter again on their more modest career paths or become distracted by the success of the high flyer – the professor at 28, the tennis star at 15 or the mathematical genius at 12. In business, ambitious executives who are not put down go on reading the oracle of advancement until their ‘career menopause’, when they have to glumly accept that they have reached their peak. If they do not recognise they have reached it, they don’t deserve to have got as far as they have.

These arrangements foster anxious reflection on the few years that remain before the next critical stage. Such anxiety makes for good industrial discipline. If you get off the train you cannot board it again. The cult of age-measurement, which in my view is a misplaced variant of the measurement which is necessary in science and technology, can shrink a lifetime into a series of calculations. Throughout, people have to learn one of the most astonishing skills of the calculating society – the art of age-averaging, which inscribes a finely drawn set of portraits in their minds of the way a person of 16, 40 or 66 looks, so that they can say immediately, being programmed to do so, that a person looks about sixteen or forty or sixty-six or, if they are told another person’s registered age: ‘She looks young for her age,’ or ‘He looks older than that.’ More important, the programmes also contain a large series of behavioural specifications not just for babies but for people of any age, so that those who do not conform can be criticised for it, and so that people can follow the internalised instructions about how they themselves should behave. They learn to acquire a social age-clock alongside their biological clocks: the social clock triggers the right sort of behaviour at the right time.

The calculating society would not have had anything like the hold it has had if it had not been for the state, whose coercive power over age has widened out from the original point of purchase it secured with the compulsory registration of births. The child labour laws were the response to the valiant campaigning of a distinguished body of reformers, but it was the state that introduced them and provided the sanctions against defaulters. The same thing happened with education: once again the reformers took the initiative, but without the state, and state money to make education free, the schools would have been patchy, instead of having the complete coverage they eventually achieved after the Education Act of 1870, when education became compulsory. From that time on, the new duty of childhood – to attend for unpaid work in the schoolhouse and avoid paid work outside it – has been recognised and enforced by the state.

It is the same thing with the old. They had to be prevailed upon to recognise it was now their duty to retire from paid work. Retirement has been one of the most successful social inventions ever. The Civil Service introduced the practice in 1859, and later in the century fixed on 65 as the age at which people had to retire whether or not they wanted to and whether or not they were capable of carrying on. At that precise age, it was claimed, ‘bodily and mental vigour begin to decline.’ Conceit about measurement as having power to set aside the manifold differences between people could hardly go further than that.

The same confidence has been whipped up for different markers as policy has lurched from one shaky rationalisation to another, with the age of 70 being fixed as the age for a non-contributory pension in 1908 and 65 for a contributory pension in 1925. The practice became still more ridiculous in 1940 when the retirement age for women was settled at 60, five years younger than for the husbands whom they usually outlived, and still outlive, by a handsome margin. There has, it is true, been some relaxation more recently, with the expansion of early retirement and the abandonment of the earnings rule which used to make retirement from work the condition of getting a pension. But the state’s pension ages are still there in full force and the number of retired people continues to rise inexorably.

By its actions the state has accomplished a crucial social transformation in every industrial society, with progress in every other country following Britain. The young and the old are marked out not by their common occupations but by their common lack of occupation. Neither are allowed to do paid work, or, if it is legally permitted, are still discouraged from doing so. The strange and surely unintended outcome is that much of the gain in productivity brought about by industry and commerce has gone to people who have not been allowed to contribute to it. A massive and growing host of consumers have not been allowed to be producers. They have been forced to become the queens of the social beehive.

The surplus above subsistence has not been used as it could well have been if the family as a cross-age institution had remained the altogether dominant institution. For then the extra productivity might well have been employed, not to support so many new dependents in age-classes which are also leisure classes, but to spread the benefits of extra leisure and income across all age groups, without so many of them being required to abstain from work or give it up entirely. As it is, the state has created its own legitimacy and apparent indispensability by making dependent upon itself so many people who have to be supported out of the taxes it levies. Income is redistributed on a vast scale not so much between rich and poor as between the working population and the people who are not yet, or are no longer, in it.

I am not saying that the whole elaborate age stratification is on the point of collapse. If it were, without a transition, society would disintegrate, since social age has so largely replaced social class as the principle behind collective organisation. Nor do I even think that the two great age-classes are about to disappear: both are now too securely entrenched in the social structure to be pushed aside. Industry needed people to work in it who were literate and numerate, and as social and economic organisation has become more and more complex, the need has grown for people with higher and higher levels of education. Nor is retirement going to disappear as a phase of life on its own. The attitudes in support of it go as deep as those in support of education. It is still widely accepted that people who have worked hard and contributed to the general upkeep of society should be entitled to an honourable and honoured retirement in which they can for a few years enjoy their leisure in a more restful way than they ever could when they were in paid work. National Insurance contributions and occupational pensions encourage this attitude: if you have contributed to insurance, it is clear that, when the time comes, you have every right to draw the benefits without being under any necessity to work.

On the other hand, it is also as clearly ridiculous to go on treating all people of five or 16 or 60 as though they are the same when obviously they are not. The distribution of abilities and motivations, and hopes and desires, is very wide at any chronological age. There are early developers and late developers and development itself is never uniform. But it has to be recognised that the bureaucracy of age has a kind of rough justice on its side. If it is impossible in any large social system to treat every person as an individual, age provides a justification, as understandable as it is indefensible, for a ruling which at least applies to everyone equally. If everyone is bound to go to school at five the ‘decision’ is much more difficult to challenge than if the right to start school depended upon someone making a real decision about it. Likewise, if everyone has to retire from work at 65 or 60, the employer does not have to justify a decision that some employees can stay while others have to leave. Competence does not have to be assessed and people’s feelings wounded in consequence. So among the young and the retired anxiety may be less than it is in the middle years when competence is being judged against age. The special attraction of having fixed ages is that it relieves people from having to think about why they are doing what they do, although that does not prevent people from criticising the gerontocracy for being a law unto itself, with the head of the Civil Service retiring into the City and the Prime Minister heading for another general election four years after canteen assistants and women in a thousand other jobs have been forced to retire because they were too old to carry on.

Yet I am sure that the whole edifice of age-identification is getting increasingly shaky, in good part because social ageing – that is, the roles which society casts us into at different ages – is getting more and more out of step with biological ageing. For the old, the great social achievement of this century is to have added over twenty years to the expectation of life. Yet the standard retirement ages have remained the same. The consequence of the rising expectation of life and the fixed pensionable age is that the number of people entitled to draw a pension has been steadily expanding, not because any decision has been made, but because of the new demography. The proportion of the population above pensionable age rose from 5 per cent in 1901 to 10.9 per cent in 1951 and 15 per cent in 1987; and even if it levels off temporarily, it is expected to shoot up again in the early part of the next century. The number of people over 75 is growing faster than any other age group. It has become less and less true that work-enders are near to being life-enders. People who retire have twenty or thirty years of active life ahead of them yet are prevented from doing paid work by age-discrimination which has been fully supported by regulation or convention. Whether they like it or not, they have to be dependents. They can take up new interests, deepen old ones, do unpaid work on behalf of a thousand voluntary bodies and a hundred good causes, travel, have more free time for grandchildren than the pressure of work ever allowed them to have for their own children – but that does not reduce the absurdity of creating such a large and steadily expanding age-class which is defined by its lack of occupation. It would make far more sense now, and it will make even more sense in the future, to allow and to encourage older people to do paid work, particularly in part-time jobs, alongside their other activities.

In the other great age-class of the young, as nutrition and health have improved, biological and social ageing have got almost as much out of step. While old age has been postponed, childhood has stopped earlier. For girls, the general age of menarche has fallen from 17 and more a century ago to about 13 today; and of puberty for boys by almost as much. Children of 12 and 13 are taller and more robust. The tension is that, on the one hand, childhood as an administrative and educational category has been expanding as a matter of state policy, while, on the other, childhood as a sexual and physical category has been contracting. The tension is evident in every secondary school classroom, and indeed makes some of them into battlefields whenever such young adults are treated as children. Youth culture, with its insistence and its infiltration even into much older age-groups, is one of the more striking outcomes. But once again the situation is untenable, particularly for the majority of teenagers who leave school at 16 and may have found little or nothing except boredom in their last years of education. Compulsory education can mean the compulsory without the education. It makes no more sense to prevent young adults from doing paid work if they wish to than it does to lay the same embargo on their grandparents.

So if I am right, the need to bring social ageing and biological ageing more into line with each other is going to become more and more pressing, even explosive. It is a particular paradox of modern society that so much has been done, so effectively, to reduce the injury done to people by biological ageing and so little to repair the injury done by social ageing. We have suffered from a cultural lag on a vast scale, and this can best be dealt with by reducing the number of dependents in each of the age-classes. The demand for a change will mount amongst the old and the young, and what will eventually make it irresistible is that they will be joined by the people in the middle – the taxpayers – who finance both education for the young and pensions for the old, but who also have to support their own children and, sometimes, their own parents and grandparents. The burden is already substantial. There are about 28 million people in the labour-force. The numbers of dependents are now almost as great if to children under 16 are added those in further and higher education and those at the other end of life who have to retire. On present trends there will soon be more dependents than there are people to depend on.

What then is to be done? It would obviously be possible to reduce the size of the dependent classes by raising the pensionable ages. But that would be to do no more than tinker with the present arrangements. The main structure would remain as rigid as ever, and as much injustice would be done to the millions of individuals who do not fit in with the standard requirements – for instance, the many people below pensionable age who are unable to find paid work partly because of their age. A more radical approach would be to do away with age altogether as the governing criterion for marking the transition from one phase of life to another. People’s ages would then be something very personal, a private matter. This would require bringing age within the scope of an extended Data Protection Act. Age would become information which people should not be required to give to the state or to anyone. It would become as illegal to rule out a person from a job solely on account of age as it is already to do so on grounds of gender or ethnic origin.

Once the rendering of ages unto Caesar was no longer regarded as part of the social contract between the individual citizen and the state, state policy on many particulars would itself have to change. Pensions tied to particular ages would, for example, have to be abandoned after a transitional phase. Older people would still require support but it would be on the basis of need: they would be entitled to decent benefits whenever they needed them, not because of their age but because in this they were like people of any age who are in need.

The same kind of approach would be required for education, the difference being that young children with their short experience of life cannot be expected to know what is best for them. In any case, it would hardly seem a compulsion to the great majority of children since they are so partial to primary schools which teach so many things like numeracy and literacy which seem relevant to them. The troubles start in secondary schools with their specialisation, which so often forfeits the interest of children. If, as teenagers, children have no wish to stay on at school and only do so because they are forced to, they are not likely to get anything much of value out of it themselves and they may by their very presence make it a good deal more difficult for the other children and for the teachers. So from the age of 13 people could keep their age to themselves if they wished. From then on, information about their ages would be taken out of government records and from that age they could enter upon the sort of training which Britain needs to provide so urgently, whether it included staying on at school part-time, or getting a full-time job or a part-time occupation coupled with part-time school. The pressure would be on secondary schools to make themselves as stimulating and congenial as they could in order to persuade children to stay on voluntarily. So as to make it quite clear that anyone leaving school at 13 would not forfeit their chances of a later education, all who left, and indeed also all who stayed on at school beyond 13, would be given vouchers entitling them to eight further years of education at whatever age they wanted it, from 14 to 90. Spending on education altogether would have to rise but the prize would be very great: lifelong education could at last become a fact instead of a dream. But if there is to be substantial loosening-up in the age-structure of society and a release from its procrustean bed, there will need to be a loosening-up in attitudes first. My argument has been that biological and demographic changes are going to force a change in attitudes. But enough of one? The question has to be asked because human beings have a fundamental amenability to having their time controlled, whether it is the lifetime which is being chunked up or the year, the month, the week or, above all, the day. I say this because people respond with such extraordinary obedience to the dictates of others about when they should arrive at work or have lunch or about when they should regularly do a hundred other things. They have liked being the slaves of time and without the structuring of time they often appear to feel lost. Once things started to shift, however, people might look back on the 20th century as a period of almost unimaginable rigidity. A modern variation on the pre-industrial family, the ageless society would be a far-reaching liberation in the brave new world of the 21st century.