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Status of Older People: Preindustrial West

How Was ‘‘old Age’’ Defined?, How Did Older People Support Themselves In The Preindustrial West?, Charity And Poor Relief

It is commonly believed that it was rare to live to old age in the preindustrial west. This misconception arises from confusion between average life expectancy at birth and the actual life spans of those who survived the high mortality years of early life. For example, in England life expectancy at birth averaged around thirty-five years between the 1540s and 1800. But those who survived the hazardous first years of life had a good chance of living into their fifties and beyond. The proportion of the English population aged over sixty fluctuated between 6 and 8 percent through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It fell to 6 percent in the nineteenth century, when high birth rates raised the percentage of the very young. Proportions of older people in all European countries varied from community to community, generally high in depressed rural areas, which younger people left in search of work, lower in expanding towns. France, by contrast, experienced falling birth rates in the nineteenth century. In the mid-eighteenth century, 7 to 8 percent of the population were aged sixty or above; by 1860 the proportion was 10 percent.

It is also sometimes asserted that it was rare for women to live to old age. But in England women were a clear majority among those age sixty and above from the time that vital statistics began to be officially and comprehensively recorded in 1837; in fact, women appear to have had a longer life expectancy, on average, for long before. Medieval commentators noted that women seemed to have the longer life expectancy, and they wondered how that could be when it seemed ‘‘natural’’ that men were stronger and should live longer. Physicians in eighteenth-century France were still puzzled by the consistency with which females ‘‘went against nature’’ and outlived men. It is sometimes thought that before the nineteenth century, female life expectancy must have been sharply reduced by death in childbirth. But though such deaths undoubtedly, and tragically, occurred more frequently than in the twentieth century, childbirth was not a mass killer of women. It was no more lethal than the ravages of work, war, and everyday violence on the lives of men of comparable age.

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