...the transition to a positive, active and developmentally oriented view of ageing may well result from action by elderly people themselves, through the sheer force of their growing numbers and influence. The collective conscious of being elderly, as a socially unifying concept, can in that way become a positive factor"

(International Plan of Action on Ageing, 1/para. 32).

There is nothing inherently problematical about growing old. And yet in most nations of the world, old age is increasingly understood in "social problem" terms. As we all must age and eventually die, any cultural belief system that cannot provide security, meaning, and self-esteem for those who reach the conclusion of life's natural sequences will eventually have to change. Such is the case in the United States, where the cultural values of youth, vitality, competitiveness, and self-sufficiency are decreasingly relevant for an ever-increasing proportion of the population. Being life's culminating stage-- and because endings (whether musical resolutions, joke punchlines, desserts, or funeral eulogies) have a way of shaping the meaning of wholes--the meaning we attribute to old age shapes the very meaning of the entire human life-cycle.

Developed elsewhere are such topics as bodily changes, the feelings and emotions these changes evoke, and the roles that constrict and direct elderly behaviors (from which are derived such feelings as esteem and belonging). But these roles, themselves, bob and float upon deep macro currents--currents that also shape the meanings and experiences of growing older. These currents are governed by entirely different dynamics: the forces of culture, social history, and modernity. Given that 1999 is the UN's International Year of Older Persons, what better time to reflect upon these currents.

Just as old age cannot be understood apart from its context in the life cycle, so too its status today cannot be understood without a cross-cultural, historical perspective (see Sjaak van der Geest's "Elderly People in Ghana: Ongoing Anthropological Research"). There's an absence of formal theory but considerable dogma often interfused with a sense of loss (the world we have lost syndrome, analogous to the Garden of Eden story and the noble savage myth). For example, even though the lay historical image may be three generations of family members living happily together on Walton's Mountain, historians find less than 10% of preindustrial English households had more than two generations living under one roof.


The most important fact to emphasize is that the status of the old man is never won but always granted. ... They belonged to an unproductive minority, and their fate depended upon the interests of the active majority. When the majority wished to avoid lawless rivalry between its members and to maintain the established order they found it convenient to choose men of a different kind to act as intermediaries, adjudicators or representative figures, men upon whose authority all could agree; and the aged obviously fulfilled these conditions. ...they are necessary for the working out of the problem, but once the answer has been reached they are eliminated. ... Old age was powerful in the stratified and repetitive China, in Sparta, in the Greek oligarchies, and in Rome up until the second century before Christ. It played no political part whatsoever in the periods of change, expansion or revolution. ... Far more than the conflict between the generations, it was the class struggle that gave the notion of old age its ambivalence.

--Simone de Beauvoir, The Coming of Age, pp. 85, 213-5

In Aging and Modernization (1972), Donald Cowgill and Lowell Holmes attempted to derive universals about social behavior relating to old age. Among their claims:

Since at least the eighteenth century, social observers have argued that there is an inverse relation between social development and the status of older persons, a historical shift from veneration to degradation. Adam Smith, for instance, wrote in 1776 how among native Americans age was the basis of rank and precedence, whereas in "opulent and civilized nations" its role was merely residual. Two hundred years later, Ernest Burgess, in Aging in Western Societies (1960), came to the same conclusion, citing urbanization and the mass production of commodities as the chief culprits, which together undermined the economic basis of the extended family and the decreased number of self-employed. This loss of extended family support was to isolate the aged, and with their loss of decision-making power in the workplace arose the pressures for their retirement--a form of social death to create the openings for young workers that formerly occurred by death when life expectancies were shorter. With the demographic aging revolution now affecting developed and developing nations alike (in fact, within 30 years, three-quarters of the world's population over 60 years of age will be residing in the world's less-developed countries), the "problem" of old age has become international in scope.

Below are some images of older persons' status from around the world.

U.S. Administration on Aging's "International Aging" website
International Institute on Ageing
HelpAge International
Jay Sokolovsky's Cultural Context of Aging: Worldwide Perspectives
D.L. Ashliman's "Aging and Death in Folklore"
"China's Aging Population Expanding Fast" from the Beijing Times
Japanese Insight: Japan Faces a Silver Society
Takako Sodei's "The Decline of Fertility and Its Impact on the Social Security System in Japan"
An analysis of international suicide rates by gender and age
Papers from Syracuse University's NIA-funded Cross-National Studies in Aging


In the 1975 NCOA/Louis Harris survey "The Myth and Reality of Aging in America" (n=4254), Americans were asked what they perceived to be "the best years of a person's life." As can be seen, the 20's and 30's were those periods most likely selected, with only two percent mentioning the sixties and seventies (while one-third understood these years as the "worst"). Interestingly, in various late nineteenth century depictions of the life-cycle (click on image on left for larger image), it was the fifties which were portrayed to be the prime years of life. If, indeed, the basis of society is the production of identities and the maintenance of self-esteem, this contemporary parabolic pattern of the "good" years of the life-cycle, wherein everything is "downhill" from the thirties on, must be explained if the taken-for-granted intelligibility of society is to be believed. If there is no "cash in" value for maturity, for years of social participation and experience, why grow old? This is the grand cultural contradiction of our times: as life-expectancies have increased, with those 65 and older becoming the fastest growing age group, why have the perceived prime years of life historically declined?


Nineteenth century prints from the Currier and Ives Exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York

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