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Status of Older People: Preindustrial West - How Was ‘‘old Age’’ Defined?

aging social ages sixty century time

Was the boundary between middle and old age the same in all time periods? Generally historical demographers choose the ages sixty or sixty-five, the conventional age boundary of the later twentieth century, as the lower limit of ‘‘old age.’’ It is essential to choose a fixed age threshold if statistical comparisons of age structure are to be made over time. But did people perhaps become ‘‘old’’ at earlier ages in previous centuries, when living standards were lower? Strikingly, the ages of sixty and seventy have been used to signify the onset of old age in formal institutions in Europe at least since medieval times. Sixty was long the age at which law or custom permitted withdrawal from public activities on grounds of old age. In medieval England men and women ceased at age sixty to be liable for compulsory service under the labor laws, to be prosecuted for vagrancy, or (in the case of men only) to perform military service. From the thirteenth century, seventy was set as the upper limit for jury service. Similar regulations held elsewhere in Europe. It can be argued that governments had an incentive to set such ages as high as possible, especially when they might exact taxation in lieu of service, but it is unlikely that they could have been set at levels far removed from popular perceptions of the threshold of old age. Furthermore, appointments were made to elite positions at advanced ages. In England the average age at death of the nine seventeenth-century archbishops of Canterbury (the leader of the Church of England) was seventy-three, and the average age of appointment was sixty.

On the other hand, it was long assumed that most manual workers could not remain fully active at their trades much past age fifty, especially when performance depended upon such physical attributes as eyesight. Literary evidence from the sixteenth century suggests that the fifties were regarded as the declining side of working maturity, the beginning of old age. This is still popularly assumed at the end of the twentieth century and again suggests that cultural definitions of old age have not changed greatly over time. For women old age was often thought to start earlier, in the late forties or around fifty, as menopause became visible, though the evidence on this is ambiguous and there are many signs of women in their fifties and beyond leading active and respected lives in their communities. For men the defining, and more visible, characteristic was capacity for full-time work.

For both men and women in preindustrial Europe old age was defined by appearance and capacities rather than by age-defined rules about pensions and retirement, hence people could be defined as ‘‘old’’ at variable ages. English poor relief records in the eighteenth century first describe some people as ‘‘old’’ in their fifties, others not until their seventies. Supplicants for public service pensions in eighteenth-century France ranged in age from fifty-four to eighty years.

This suggests that over many centuries old age has been defined in different ways, different contexts, and for different social groups. Three of the most common ways of framing old age are chronological, functional, and cultural. A fixed threshold of chronological old age has long been a bureaucratic convenience, suitable for establishing age limits to rights and duties, such as access to pensions or eligibility for public service. It has become more pervasive since industrialization. Functional old age is reached when an individual cannot perform the tasks expected of him or her, such as paid work. Cultural old age occurs when an individual ‘‘looks old’’ according to the norms of the community and behaves and is treated as old. Despite impressive continuities over long time periods in both official and popular definitions of the onset of old age, undoubtedly a high proportion of survivors in medieval and preindustrial societies felt and looked old at earlier ages than has become the norm since industrialization. In consequence, the numbers of people who appeared to be old in past communities might have been greater, and they would have been a more visible cultural presence, than is revealed simply by calculating the numbers past age sixty.

Also, it has long been recognized that there is immense variety in the experience of human aging, that people do not age at the same pace or in the same ways, and they continue to change even after the formal threshold of ‘‘old age’’ is passed. Since antiquity commentators have divided old age into stages. Some of these were elaborate, such as the medieval ‘‘ages of man’’ schema, which divided life into three, four, seven, or twelve ages. These stylized age divisions often had didactic or metaphorical rather than strictly descriptive purposes. More commonly, in everyday discourse, old age was divided into what in preindustrial England was called ‘‘green’’ old age, a time of fitness and activity, with perhaps some failing powers, and the later phase of decrepitude. The sad decline with which some, but not all, older lives end was never represented positively.

Status of Older People: Preindustrial West - How Did Older People Support Themselves In The Preindustrial West? [next]

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