Academic journal article Population

Surviving Old Age in an Ageing World Old People in France, 1820-1940

Academic journal article Population

Surviving Old Age in an Ageing World Old People in France, 1820-1940

Article excerpt

Compared with other European countries, the process of population ageing began very early in France. Dupaquier (1988) estimated that the proportion of people aged over 60 in the population rose from 8.5% to 12.5% during the nineteenth century, an increase of more than 1 million people. This trend affected both societal organization and family ties. The collective burden on the economically active increased. On an individual level, each person had to find the resources to carry on living or at least to survive for a relatively long period: in the late nineteenth century, although life expectancy at birth was only around 45 years, it was 40 years at age 20 and still above 10 years at age 60.

This article seeks to determine how French society adapted to ageing and, in particular, how old people mobilized the resources they needed for later life. Of course, old people's needs can be reduced through thrifty consumption practices, but these aspects are not covered here. We start by analysing the role of the economic resources at old people's disposal. Observing that economic resources alone did not suffice, we then examine other types of resources, which complemented or replaced economic resources.

The surest way to guarantee an untroubled later life is to accumulate enough wealth to live independently. The estate left at death is evidence of that wealth. That solution, however, appears to be reserved for a minority, especially when it is the only source of income, since the proportion of those who leave an estate is not only barely over half, but falls over the period under review. Moreover, the value of most estates is far below the amount needed to provide a decent standard of living. That prompts a search for other solutions, starting with continuing to work, whether through paid employment or through domestic production for self-consumption. This solution is to some extent linked to the ownership of assets, particularly property. A third solution is to rely on family, whose support can take various forms, notably co-residence or domestic help. Historiographic studies nevertheless tend to show a decline in family solidarity during the period under review.

The fourth type of solution is to turn to social institutions, either those that provide financial or other assistance specifically for the elderly (such as public or private hospices and pension funds) or those that cater to the poor in general (the case of the charity offices).

Lastly, there is a more radical way out of a destitute old age, on which all others depend: premature death. No excess mortality among groups of individuals, reflecting the failure of subsistence strategies, is apparent on the scale of this analysis, however.

I. Old people's resources: historical trends

The living standard of old people depends on their place in society. Between 1820 and 1940, that place changed through a combination of factors. We will focus on two aspects of that change: the first - demographic - factor was the increase in the proportion of old people in the total population, while the second factor resulted from changes in the distribution of economic resources between contemporary generations over time.

These structural factors, themselves shaped by many forces, provide an overall indicator of the "weight", in both senses, of old people in the population. Elderly individuals are a burden insofar as their productive abilities are diminished and they need to be supported by the younger generation. But by their numbers, the resources they have accumulated (measured here indirectly by their estates at death), and the social position they hold, they also carry weight and leave their mark on the very functioning of society. It should therefore be borne in mind that, while population ageing transforms the overall balance of power between generations, individual situations vary enormously. The status of a patriarch who exercises absolute power over a family business until an advanced age is not the same as that of a property-owning widow, whose money is coveted by heirs impatient to establish themselves; and neither of them has anything in common with a grandmother who lives with her children, looks after the next generation and keeps house, nor with a bedridden old man waiting to die in the poorhouse. …

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