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Status of Older People: Preindustrial West - Declining Status Of Older People

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It is sometimes argued that the dependence and marginalization of older people has increased, that they are less valued in industrial than in preindustrial societies. The belief that the status of older people is always declining has a very long history. It is discussed, and dismissed, even in the opening pages of Plato’s Republic and in a long succession of texts through the centuries. The longevity of this narrative trope suggests that it expresses persistent cultural fears of aging and neglect, and real divergence in experience in most times and places, rather than representing transparent reality.

Early historical inquiry into old age tended to echo this narrative of decline. George Minois’s history of old age in western culture from antiquity to the Renaissance acknowledged variations and complexities in experiences and perceptions of old age over this long time span, but he still concluded that ‘‘the general tendency however is towards degradation’’ (pp. 6–7). Studies of old age in the United States since the eighteenth century find the status of old people to be in decline over a variety of time scales: from the late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth, in the mid-nineteenth, and between the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These were mostly studies of white males in specific situations. The fact that some older men exerted power at a particular time does not necessarily suggest that all older people at that time and place were highly regarded. In all times in western culture, older people (female and male) who retained economic or any other form of power, along with their faculties, could command, or enforce, respect. In contrast, at all times powerless older people have been marginalized and denigrated, though not universally.

Attitudes toward and experiences of older age in all times and over time were varied and complex, following no simple trajectories, and historical texts must be read with care. It may be tempting, for example, to conclude that Shakespeare’s famous climax to the ‘‘seven ages of man’’ described by Jaques in As You Like It—‘‘second childishness and mere oblivion; sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’’—is representative of sixteenth century English perceptions of old age. If, that is, you fail to note that Jaques is a relatively young man, but is given the conventional literary attributes of an old man, such as melancholy; and that the dismal description of the ‘‘seventh age’’ is subverted by the immediate entrance on stage of an octogenarian, Adam, who has earlier been represented as ‘‘strong and lusty.’’ The pervasiveness in English popular drama and literature (for example, in the work of Chaucer) of such dialogue between conflicting representations of old age, negative and positive, and its evident familiarity to preindustrial audiences, suggests its deep roots in English culture and probably in that of other western societies.

PATRICIA M. THANE

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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