The Issue of Ageing

The Life and Age of Man

‘What Is Old Age’? Conference, Warwick University

On the 23 February 2013 I went to a multi-discipline conference organised by Emily Andrews at Warwick University, looking at the question of ‘What is Old Age?’ The conference saw speakers from a variety of background, including literary studies, anthropology and history, discussing their work and contributing their research towards an attempt to answer the central question of ‘what is old age?’

In addition to this being a very topical area of discussion, my interest in the subject comes from my PhD research into civil service and occupational pensions in the nineteenth century and found the variety of approaches and subject matters inspiring. Just two examples of these varied sessions were the anthropological research into the ageing workforce in the Trinidad garment industry and the challenges of writing fiction focused on a person with Alzheimer’s disease. Rebecca Prentice’s work in Trinidad was fascinating, a contemporary examination of the older workers’ relationships with their body, these women accepted that their eyesight would be damaged by their work but also saw this damage as having a wider influence is gaining support from family or the state. With the increasing neo-liberal leaning of the state it was also interesting that the workers were reconsidering their relationship with the state and deciding they should rely on their own resources to support themselves.

The written word is central to how our social science and humanities subjects communicate so it was refreshing to listen to a paper focused on the art of writing. Though it was focused on writing fiction the amount of consideration and planning was a reminder of the importance of how we communicate our meaning and that there are different ways to do this. This was exemplified in Naomi Kruger’s paper by looking at how you write in first person with the voice of someone with developing Alzheimer’s disease. This paper and other sessions such as Hannah Zeilig, who highlighted the range of techniques available for storytelling, has really made me consider taking a creative writing course to see if it would bring any benefits to writing for my PhD or in my museum day job.

In addition to methodology and theory some of these sessions pointed me towards sources I wouldn’t have looked at before, Helen Small’s opening key note discussed the importance of Susan Sontag’s The Double Standard of Aging written in 1972 to the social sciences, and Dr Zeilig emphasised the work of Samuel Beckett’s plays in portraying perceptions of age, important for not portraying age as the other. Benoît Majerus focused on the Leroque report published in 1962, though it was never implemented it has inserted old age into the political dialogue in France, but also set the pessimistic tone continued today.

In almost all sessions, regardless of discipline, the importance of the use of language was clear and this was underlined by Andrea Charise when looking at recent perceptions of the old age and the use of wet language. Journalist reports and even public health documents have been using phrases such as the ‘Grey Tsunami’ or the ‘rising tide’ when discussing the global issue of greater numbers of people living longer. Continually using this apocalyptic language it is inevitable that a pessimistic perception of this situation develops, exemplified in popular culture through work such as Never Let Me Go, which Charise used as an example of the negative sublime.

I found the historical sessions were very good at providing some context to challenge this contemporary pessimistic view that was being demonstrated by speakers in policy and culture. Pat Thane’s excellent key note clearly demonstrated that there was never a golden age to be old, and that many of the fears and worries we have today were felt by generations before us. People have been living to into their 60s, 80s and even 100s since ancient times and though the average life expectancy was 40 in the 18th century this would have been affected by the high child mortality rates. Lyn Botelho’s paper looking at aging in the 17th century had demonstrated that the idea of a ‘good’ old age had become to mean financial independence at this time, and Prof Thane showed through folk tales and patterns of migrationary work that the relationship between parents and their adult children could be a complicated on. Folk tales warned of manipulative and ungrateful children mistreating ageing parents and during times of limited communication networks, if someone left to find work they could easily never be seen or heard from again.

It was also important to see older people as givers, not just receivers within our society. Prof Thane pointed to the economic benefits provided through the intergenerational relationships of lending money and providing free child care. Emily Andrew’s paper looked at how nineteenth psychiatrists and psychologists saw old age, and the general perception is that of ‘second childhood’ seeing old age as degenerative, however people such as James Critchton-Browne argued that intellectual prime was only reached in years 55 to 65 and proved this himself by continuing to write into his 90s, dying at the age of 97.

Finally society’s conflicting relationship with age was also demonstrated in Susanne Stoddart’s paper looking at the representation of the new pensioners under the 1911 pensions Act. The papers often depicted sympathetic images of poor widows or disabled old men in queues to receive their first pensions. They also reported the crowds that gathered to show their support. However, as Soddart demonstrated these celebratory images cannot be taken as face value, many newspaper had political sympathises and wanted to help champion this new policy and persuade the general public this was worth supporting. Furthermore the suspicions of the poor still remained as some comments were passed regarding pensioners visiting public houses. So, it is not surprising that though the shame and stigma of the poor law was seen to have gone, some pensioners chose to collect their pension not from their local post office, but from a larger more anonymous central office.

The conflicting relationship with how we view older people and what relationship we expect them to have with society and society with them continues today. A report published on 14th March 2013 does thankfully acknowledge the large benefits of older people to society, but also warns that the country is unprepared for the increased numbers of people living longer. Through asking ‘What is Old Age?’ on 23 February I think we started a discussion that policy-makers could probably find a lot of value, and if I could share anything with them would be the removal of the sense of other and projection of a problem area. Communication and discussion is key and yes, financial aspects are central to this, but policy is more than just sums.



Ready for Ageing? – Select Committee report on Public Service and Demographic Change:

NewStatesman article ‘The Grey Tsunami’:

‘An Age Old Age Debate’, blog by Emily Andrews:

The History and Policy website have a few articles and policy engagement articles on pensions & social care: