Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues

Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues

Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues

Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues

Synopsis

At the end of the twentieth century more people are living into their seventies, eighties, nineties and beyond, a process expected to continue well into the next millennium. The twentieth century has achieved what people in other centuries only dreamed of: many can now expect to survive toold age in reasonably good health and can remain active and independent to the end, in contrast to the high death rate, ill health and destitution which affected all ages in the past. Yet this change is generally greeted not with triumph but with alarm. It is assumed that the longer people live, the longer they are ill and dependent, thus burdening a shrinking younger generation with the cost of pensions and health care. It is also widely believed that 'the past' saw fewsurvivors into old age and these could be supported by their families without involving the taxpayer. In this first survey of old age throughout English history, these assumptions are challenged. Vivid pictures are given of the ways in which very large numbers of older people lived often vigorous and independent lives over many centuries. The book argues that old people have always been highlyvisible in English communities, and concludes that as people live longer due to the benefits of the rise in living standards, far from being 'burdens' they can be valuable contributors to their family and friends.

Excerpt

Throughout the world at the end of the twentieth century societies are ageing. A growing proportion of their populations are living into their sixties and seventies and often well beyond. The process may continue, and even accelerate, in the next millennium, due to a combination of declining birthrates and declining death-rates. In 1900 about 7 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom was aged 65 or above; in 2000 about 18 per cent; from 2020 the percentage is projected to rise still further. The proportion of these who were very old, 75 or over, rose from 21 per cent in 1901, to 26 per cent in 1951 to 38 per cent in 1991. An average of 74 people a year reached the age of 100 in England and Wales between 1911 and 1920; in 1997, 3,000 people did so.

The twentieth century has achieved what earlier centuries only dreamed of: in developed countries, and increasingly in many less developed ones, the great majority of people who are born live to old age. They mostly do so in reasonably good health, in conditions which bear no comparison with the miserable destitution of the aged poor in most past times and places. Yet, surprisingly, this change is greeted, not with relief and pleasure, but with apprehension, even panic. Above all, the fears are about the economic outcomes: that increasing numbers of older people will be dependent upon a shrinking population of working age, imposing upon younger generations new and intolerable costs of pensions, health care, and personal care. The inevitability of such a 'burden' seems intuitively obvious. One purpose of this book is to ask whether what is happening is so new or such a burden.

The experience of old age and its impact is widely seen as dramatically different in the late twentieth century compared with the past. Most surprisingly the present of almost universal survival into healthy old age is compared unfavourably with a past of very high birth- and death-rates in which, it is often thought, few survived past middle age. It is believed that in 'the past'—an indefinite, unchanging terrain, sometimes vaguely 'pre-industrial' or 'traditional', sometimes more recent, but decidedly 'other'—few people lived to old age. In consequence, old people had a rarity value which meant that not only were they financially less costly, they were culturally more valued and respected than in the present. Families took for granted that they cared for older relatives and so they imposed little or no charge on public welfare. And in societies which changed more slowly than the dizzily accelerating 'runaway world' of the later twentieth century, it is believed that older people had skills and knowledge which were still useful to and valued by the young, which ensured that they were included within their communities.

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