Shooting for gerontophratria

“The people of early America exalted old age; their descendants have made a cult of youth.” That history, and its social consequences, is the subject of David Hackett Fischer’s terrific book, Growing Old in America. It’s always seemed a bum deal that aging Americans face a double whammy: physical decay coupled with social invisibility. It’s bad enough to have your knees give out and your place at the table relegated to a rocker on the porch; why not at least the consolation of a litle kowtowing coming your way, or the thought of descendents leaving goodies on your grave to placate your spirit? No such luck in the USA. It’s like the joke about the woman who insisted on a second opinion after her shrink finally admitted she was crazy. “OK,” the doctor conceded, “you’re ugly too.” In our youth-obsessed culture, the old aren’t just no fun to look at, they’re obsolete.

The strictures of age are real. We all have to live with the consequences of choices earlier in life. The number of people over 80 who are able to work are a tiny minority, and those who cannot work (no matter their age) also deserve respect and tolerance. But could we make our way to a society in which advantage is not automatically ceded to the firm of flesh and/or the economically productive” Could we work towards a less fixed correlation between chronological age and social status?

According to Fischer, the tables turned between 1770 and 1820, a period that saw “the beginning of a world without eldership or primogeniture.” [p. 78] The catalyst was not modernity itself (e.g. urbanization, technological change, the growth of literacy) but a demographic tipping point: the American population grew slightly older. Up until 1810 the median age in America remained an incredibly young 16. In 1820 it advanced to 16 1/2, and it continued upward for a very long time: age 19 by 1850, age 20 by 1870, age 25 by 1920, and age 30 by 1950. (Fisher’s book was published in 1978; unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be a new edition in the works.) Thanks to drops in both birth rates and death rates, the percentage of Americans over 65 also increased steadily.

The consequences were huge. Parenthood outlasted child-rearing. Mandatory retirement grew more common, which impoverished large numbers of elderly Americans. The science of geriatrics came into being. The “retirement village” was invented. In the early 20th century “age was suddenly discovered as a social problem, to be solved by social means.” [228] Enter government pension systems, Social Security, and Medicare. Though these changes meant that older Americans were living longer, they weren’t living better. As Fischer puts it, “Gerontophobia and the cult of youth were deepened by the growing poverty of elderly Americans; the growth of poverty in turn was justified by gerontophobia. The separation of age groups reinforced both of those tendencies and was also reinforced by them.” [153]

As it progressed, the 20th century also saw older Americans mobilize politically and the creation of a wider range of support services. But ageism is not in retreat; unlike sexism or racism, it’s seldom even called out. Ageism is most problematic in employment; while many workers yearn for the release of retirement, fewer can afford it. Others who yearn to keep working are reluctantly sidelined by the bogus correlation of age with competence. The dependence of the old upon the wages of the young pits the two groups against each other in a loop of oppression and resentment. The young acquire the moral authority that in early America had been the purview of the aged.

Fischer concludes his book with a powerful manifesto for “a new model of age relationships . . . in which the deep eternal differences between age and youth are recognized and respected without being organized into system of social inequality.” He calls this ideal “gerontophratria — a fraternity of age and youth: [199] Powerful stuff! Part of the solution is economic: people should be able to work as long as they can fulfill the requirements of the job. Part, however, lies in challenging mass perception of the elderly as a homogenous and inevitably dependent population. “A free society must recognize the individuality of its members; it must respect their differences as well as their similarities. It must attempt to enlarge their autonomy by promoting freedom of choice — freedom to choose work or retirement,” Fischer writes. [214] That’s where I think this project could make a difference.

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