It is a truism that historians tend to ask questions about the past that are of direct concern to the societies in which they live. In the nineteenth century, the central issues were nation-building and constitutional law; in the early twentieth century, they were economic development and class relationships; today it is mentalité, that untranslatable French word meaning the way people regard the cosmos, themselves, and one another, and the values according to which they model their behavior toward each other.

The subject of the attitudes adopted toward old age in the past has hitherto been wholly neglected. The reason for this neglect lies in the current association of old age with death, although in fact the connection is a very recent one since in the past most people died young rather than old. This association has blocked research, since for nearly half a century we have been living in a society which thinks and speaks and writes more and more explicitly about sex, but thinks and speaks and writes less and less explicitly about death. We have lived through a period of “the pornography of death,” when it has been a taboo subject for polite conversation.1 In the last decade this taboo has collapsed, and historians, like the rest of us, have rushed in to fill the vacuum. There is now a special branch of learning called “Thanatology,” and historians of death, like Philippe Ariès or Michel Vovelle, have suddenly appeared on the scene.2

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that this revival of interest in death has, in its turn, brought about a growing interest in old age. Previously preoccupied, because of Freudian stress on the significance of this period for later development, with infancy and childhood (where Philippe Ariès was once again the pioneer3 ), historians have now suddenly turned their attention to the aged. It was time to do so, for the vacuum earlier historians left was filled by false images of a Golden Age. An English sociologist, Bryan Wilson, recently assured his readers that in preindustrial, traditional societies “an individual might anticipate old age with pleasure, as a time when declining physical energy would be compensated by social esteem for experience.” He had obviously never heard of King Lear. The chairman of the American branch of the International Association of Gerontology had earlier taken the same line, asserting that “before the Industrial Revolution, almost without exception the aging enjoyed a favorable position. Their economic security and their social status were assured by their role and place in the extended family….”4

What are the facts, as recently examined by Professor Fischer, Mr. Thomas, and others? In the first place, as anthropologists have known all along, traditional societies are very ambivalent in their attitudes toward the old. So long as an elderly person retains his faculties, he serves as the Nestor of the community, the venerated fount of ancient wisdom and folklore, the living substitute for history books in a preliterate society. But once those faculties fail, he tends to be despised and ridiculed, and is often either deliberately killed or allowed to die of neglect and malnutrition. Early modern, preindustrial Western societies had much the same ambivalence, if less crudely and harshly expressed. Of the traditional seven ages of man, the last two, from fifty onward, were hardly described in terms of respect and veneration. As Shakespeare put it in As You Like It, the sixth age “shifts into the lean and slippered pantaloon,” while the seventh “is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Along with the physical decay, which set in early in those days, went psychological deterioration. The old were thought of as characteristically “peevish, forgetful, covetous, garrulous and dirty,” and not infrequently impotently lustful as well, as illustrated by the popular legend of the venerable Aristotle being ridden naked around his garden on all fours by the youthful Phyllis, armed with a whip. Nor were the old accorded the respect they thought to be their due, and Shakespeare’s shepherd in The Winter’s Tale merely echoed centuries of complaints when he asserted that between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three, young men think of nothing but “getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.”

If the ideal of a pre-modern society did not include respect for old age, it showed equally little respect for youth. “Until a man grow unto the age of twenty-four years, he is wild, without judgment and not of sufficient experience to govern himself!” It was regarded as “a slippery age, full of passion, rashness, wilfulness.” The prevailing attitude, as I read the literature, was hostile to both youth and age, and strongly supportive of the mature, “grave and sad men who are above the levities of youth and beneath the dotages of old age.” Such a society cannot reasonably be described as gerontophilic, since it distrusted the old as much as it distrusted the young. On the other hand, high fertility and high mortality meant that it was demographically a youthful society. As a result, despite the stress on maturity, the membership of the House of Commons, to give but one example, consistently comprised about 45 percent of men under forty in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Moreover, the use of patronage gave immense opportunities to a privileged few. Not only did some very young men often inherit vast fortunes and power through the early death of their fathers; others were catapulted into high office by the patronage of an influential friend, who was often their father. Thus it came about that in 1667 a debate in the House of Commons was opened by a son of George Monck, the architect of the Restoration of Charles II: he was fourteen years old.


A central feature that distinguished a pre-modern society from our own is that there were huge numbers of young people, all eager for power and property, and not many old people, to be either respected or despised, taken care of or neglected. In seventeenth-century England, persons over sixty comprised at most 8 percent of the population, compared with 17 percent or more today. Seniority was certainly the principle around which society organized its institutions—churches, gilds, corporations, or universities—and mandatory retirement was unknown. In practice, however, the paucity of the old meant that, then as now, positions of authority were mainly held by men in their forties and fifties. The few who lived into their sixties often achieved positions of eminence by mere virtue of longevity: thus two thirds of those recorded in Who’s Who in History 1603-1714 had reached the age of sixty or more.5

As the physical powers of these few old men waned, the only way they could assure themselves respect and sustenance was by clinging tenaciously to office, property, and power. Relatively few old persons lived alone, partly because there were not many of them, partly because many contrived to keep an unmarried daughter at home to look after them. Relatively few households, however, were composed of three generations, and these were usually bound together not by affection but by economic necessity and legal obligation. For conventional wisdom, enshrined in the Bible, recommended that “As long as thou livest and hast breath in thee, give not thyself over to any. For better it is that thy children should seek to thee, than that thou shouldst stand to their courtesy.”

If a peasant turned his holding over to his son when his physical powers failed, he usually took great care to ensure, in legal deed, that the obligations of the latter to provide for him were stipulated in minute detail, down to the number of candles to be supplied, and free access to the kitchen fire. Any failure to comply with any single provision caused the automatic revocation of the deed. Seventeenth-century parents had no illusions about how children might treat them if given the chance: “No prison can be more irksome to a parent than a son’s or daughter’s house.”

The conclusion of Keith Thomas is inescapable: in pre-modern England (and America) the old were respected only as long as they retained control of property, and thus the power to make their children obey them. The lot of those without property was grim indeed, for they were reduced to semi-starvation and beggary, at the mercy of institutionalized poor relief in England, or the inadequate and uncertain chances of private charity elsewhere. Those sociologists who still believe in a preindustrial Golden Age for the old should take a look at Olwen Hufton’s horrifying recent description of the conditions of the life of the poor in eighteenth-century France.6 Peering beyond his allotted time span of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries into the nineteenth and twentieth, Mr. Thomas sees, rightly, that the great change is the growing age stratification of society. Youthful precocity is now suppressed by the lock step of the age-cohort as it marches inexorably through an increasingly extended educational system. At the other end of the age spectrum, mandatory retirement and public and private pension schemes have left a growing body of old people in a state of redundancy, extruded from the full citizenship conferred by participation in the work force, but most of them at last in tolerable economic circumstances.

Professor Fischer is the first scholar to embark on a sweeping survey of attitudes toward the aged from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries (even taking a tentative look into the future). His book is elegant in both its prose and its use of concepts, and ingenious in the use of a wide variety of data. It has a surface brilliance that is most attractive, and it is a work of erudition, inventiveness, and passion, an almost irresistible combination.


His thesis is briefly as follows. Up to 1780 Americans were indeed gerontophilic in theory, just as the sociologists claim they were in practice. He points out that the very names for persons in authority, like “senator” or “alderman,” derive from words meaning old. He quotes Cotton Mather to the effect that “the two qualities go together, the ancient and the honorable.” His chief evidence that theory was translated into practice is the seating of the population in Massachusetts meeting houses by age, rather than by wealth or status. He admits, however, that this respect was highest for property-holding healthy males, and was slight to nonexistent for the propertyless poor and for old women.

The great watershed, the shift from a gerontophilic to a gerontophobic society, took place, Professor Fischer believes, in the fifty years between 1770 and 1820, a period of “deep change” in every aspect of American life, including politics, economics, demography, society, religion, and values. If true, this proposition would put a final nail in the coffin of modernization theory, since it would make all these fundamental transformations precede instead of follow industrialization and urbanization. The chain of causation would be stood on its head.

The range of evidence chosen by Professor Fischer to prove his point well illustrates both the extraordinary ingenuity demanded of a historian of mentalité, and his capacity to pick the significant item out from a vast and diverse array of facts. First of all, Professor Fischer shows that the basis of seating in Massachusetts meeting houses shifted from age to wealth, the seats now being put up to auction to the highest bidder. Second, he points to the introduction of a mandatory retiring age for officials, beginning with some judges in 1777. This was an innovation that infuriated the eighty-nine-year-old John Adams: “I can never forgive New York, Connecticut or Maine for turning out venerable men,” he wrote angrily to the unsympathetic Jefferson.

Next he turns to a clever exercise in cliometrics, scrutinizing census returns to extract statistical evidence that men tended to overstate their age in the eighteenth century, but to understate it in the nineteenth. The conclusion he draws is that the cult of age was replaced by the cult of youth. Fourth, he points out that in the eighteenth century men looked older than their years, by wearing powdered wigs and long coats, while in the nineteenth century they looked younger, by wearing natural hair or toupees and tight-fitting waistcoats and trousers. Fifth, he argues that there developed a new language of abuse and ridicule for the old. Former neutral words became pejorative, new words of abuse were introduced, and old words of respect disappeared. Sixth, in eighteenth-century family portraits the pater familias towered over his wife and children, in a vertical composition; in the nineteenth century he was on the same plane, in a horizontal composition. Seventh, partible or divided inheritance replaced primogeniture in the legal codes of the new republic. Eighth, there was a decline in the proportion of children named after their grandparents.

Awed by this battery of evidence, the reader is at first stunned into submission. How can he resist so brilliantly presented, so various, so comprehensive, so wide-ranging a body of evidence? Surely after all this, he thinks, Professor Fischer has triumphantly proved his theory, and in doing so given a masterly display of historical virtuosity in the manipulation of data to reveal states of mind.

The answer, alas, is that he has not. Under careful scrutiny, each piece of evidence used to prove the case turns out to be ambiguous, or unfounded, or inadequately based, or, if valid, open to another explanation. The strongest argument is the first, the change in seating arrangements in twenty-one Massachusetts meeting houses between 1765 and 1836. But this could just as well be explained by an ideological shift from deference to democracy, and a recognition of the fact of growing economic inequality. The retirement of judges at seventy seems to be no more than a very modest attempt to remove senile members from the bench before they did too much damage to the practice of justice. The retention of judges up to the age of sixty-nine can hardly be regarded as a triumph of youth over age!

As for the age-heaping in census returns, the four cases offered for the years between 1636 and 1787 are highly ambiguous. Not one of the four shows a uniform trend to exaggerate age, and the huge bunching—up to 40 percent—in each tenth year, thirty, forty, fifty, etc., in any case makes it imprudent to draw any conclusions from this evidence. The changes in hair style and costume did take place, but it has to be remembered that powdered wigs only came into fashion in the late seventeenth century, while in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries natural flowing hair and elegantly youthful clothes went comfortably together with alleged gerontophilia.

In pointing to a shift in language, Professor Fischer has misread his evidence. His source, and mine, is the OED. “Gaffer” never became pejorative, lasting well into the late nineteenth century in its old neutral or positive meanings. “Graybeard” stayed neutral throughout. “Old-timer” is a late nineteenth-century American word, entirely neutral in meaning. Among pejorative words, “bald-head” dates from 1535, “codger” from 1756, “geezer” from 1885, which is not much help. Positive words that are alleged to have disappeared, like “grandsire” or “forefather,” run from the fourteenth century to the late nineteenth. “Grandad” or “grandaddy” became more common in the nineteenth century. The verb “to grandfather up,” meaning to flatter, is so rare that it was only used once, in 1748. One is forced to conclude that nothing useful can be derived from this exercise in semantics.

As for naming patterns (based on one village in Massachusetts), the naming of boys after grandparents shows a random zigzag pattern, and the decline is only unmistakable for girls. This evidence, if it means anything at all, can be better explained by the changing relationship of the nuclear family and the kin than by any change in attitude toward old age.

Professor Fischer may be right about the arrangement of family portraits, but one would like more than a mere thirty pictures, covering the 140 years from 1729 to 1871, on which to base a conclusion. In any case the explanation is more likely to be that individualism and egalitarianism which Tocqueville thought to be distinguishing characteristics of the early nineteenth-century American family, rather than any shift to gerontophobia. Since in practice partible inheritances were already the norm, the abolition of primogeniture was a largely meaningless gesture made by Jefferson and others toward the ideal of egalitarianism. If Professor Fischer thinks it had something to do with the decline of respect for the aged, the onus is on him to produce some quotations to show that this was what Jefferson had in mind.7

This lengthy examination of the evidence offered by Professor Fischer for “deep change” between 1770 and 1820, for a profound shift in attitude toward age and youth, appears to undermine the foundations of the hypothesis. But where does it leave us? The most important change is demographic, the remarkable rise of the aged as a proportion of the adult population. In seventeenth-century America only about 25 percent to 40 percent of twenty-year-olds could expect to reach the age of sixty; among those born in 1840 the proportion was 60 percent; and among those born in 1960 it is 90 percent.

The effect of such a change on prospects of early promotion can easily be imagined. Mandatory retirement became a necessity in order to prevent this rapidly growing mass of the elderly from clogging up the channels of advancement. Even so, almost every profession grew older in the nineteenth century, and the proportion of men under forty in the House of Commons was halved. Private and then national pension schemes were developed in the early twentieth century to deal with the growing economic hardships of the retired, in the same way that the state was taking responsibility for many other social problems, from unemployment to housing to health. As a result, the really severe economic problems of the old have been more or less dealt with (unless or until Social Security goes bankrupt). Many studies have shown, moreover, that the car, the plane, and the telephone have maintained or even increased the contacts between grandparents and their children and grandchildren. So the situation for the old is serious, but not desperate. It is certainly far less desperate for the poor than it was in the pre-industrial “Golden Age.”

There remains, however, a particularly acute source of anxiety for many of the old, arising from the demographic, ideological, and institutional changes in the twentieth century. This is the psychological sense of redundancy among the retired because they are living in a society still wedded to the Puritan work-ethic. They feel that they have been thrown on the scrap heap as useless to the community, and they are not satisfied just to sit in the sun and watch the world go by. It may well be, however, that the work-ethic is now on the decline in late twentieth-century America, and is being replaced by a new ethic of hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure and leisure. If this is so, it will have profound consequences for our society, many of them bad. But one good thing may be that the elderly retired will feel much more positive about their idle lot. It may also perhaps be that their flight to Florida and California is itself helping to stimulate this shift in attitudes toward work and leisure throughout the society.

Professor Fischer, therefore, has mistaken both the nature of the change and its chronology. American (and English) society never was gerontophilic, even in theory, and it is certainly not gerontophobic now. If the latter were true, we would be pushing the old into gas ovens, or letting them die in squalor, instead of spending staggering sums of money on pensions, medical care, and nursing in order to prolong the expensive lives of these productively useless and increasingly numerous creatures. No doubt the care and nursing are sometimes callous and inadequate; but no society in world history has devoted more of its gross national product on providing for the aged.

In fact everything suggests that our attitudes toward the old are not so very different today from those of Shakespeare, and that such difference as there is takes the form of greater kindness—most of us still stand up for them in buses to let them sit down—and greater willingness to pay heavily (through taxes) for their welfare. As for intimacy and affection, there never were many three-generation households, any more than there are now. We are no more, and no less, anxious to have grandparents under foot than were our forefathers.

When Charles Colson wished to impress the American public with the degree of his servile devotion to Richard Nixon, he proclaimed that he would cheerfully walk over his grandmother to serve him. The use by Colson of this particular imagery suggests that he recognized that late twentieth-century Americans still regard walking over grandmothers as a serious act of sacrilegious impiety, just as did the Greeks in the days of Homer. Nor should it be forgotten that only a few years ago all the democracies of the Western world were content to entrust their fate to aged grandfatherly figures: Eisenhower, Churchill, de Gaulle, Adenauer (“der Alte“), and de Gasperi. There is not much sign of any decline in respect for the old in that recent trend in political behavior.

What then has happened? In the last twenty years there has taken place a (possibly temporary) shift of attitudes toward the relative merits of youth and middle age. The victims of the change are not the old but those “sad,” mature, sober men who were so admired in pre-modern times. If thrown out of work after the age of forty-five, they now find themselves virtually unemployable. Nobody wants to hire a middle-aged man or woman. The more grotesque aspects of the cult of youth of the 1960s have all but disappeared, but what has survived is an unwillingness to recognize and reward the wisdom and experience of maturity. Youthful vigor and virility are now sought after, in college presidents, in top business executives, and in senators and congressmen. Thus the real change, which has only taken place in the last twenty years, long after, not before, the industrial revolution reached maturity, has been the demotion of the middle-aged and the elevation of the adolescent and the youth.

The history of mentalité is one of the most important undertakings, and certainly the most difficult, upon which a historian can embark. Professor Fischer is right to claim to be the first scholar to tackle the subject of the treatment of the aged over a long time span, and for all its faults his book is certain to stimulate others to improve on his defective pioneering model. That is the way that history develops. We all of us stand upon the shoulders of our predecessors, if only by learning from their mistakes.

This Issue

May 12, 1977