Ageism is prejudice or discrimination against those who are middle-aged or elderly. Psychiatrist Robert Neil Butler coined the term in 1969, but of course ageism existed well before that. What attitudes did people have toward the elderly a hundred or two hundred years ago? Were the aged venerated as founts of wisdom? Were they denigrated as old and foolish? Or was it a little bit of each?
I’ve been reading The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America by historian Thomas R Cole, and it turns out that in the U.S. attitudes towards age and the aged changed a good deal through the years. Thus, rather than asking “how did society view the aged?” it is necessary to make the question specific: “How did people in that particular place at that particular time view the aged?”
As Cole indicates, Colonial America was quite influenced by Puritan thought. The Puritans saw all of life as a sacred pilgrimage to God–think of John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress as a Puritan model for life’s journey. The elderly were simply further along the journey than others. Puritans thought that the young should venerate the old. They believed in a patriarchal ideal for family life in which older males in particular were considered the leaders of the household. This should have led to considerable respect for the elderly. However, as Cole notes, “age alone was no guarantee of respect, power, or well-being.” In particular, the elderly were often less well-off financially than the middle-aged. Unlike the practice of many societies now, the elderly often didn’t retain their wealth until death. Young couples often needed the parents’ economic resources in order to survive, so the elderly were often under pressure to transfer these resources to offspring. Those who resisted were sometimes resented.
By the mid-eighteenth century, patriarchy and veneration of the old had been challenged by new societal ideals. The growth of the market economy lessened the reliance of the young on their parents’ resources, and the Enlightenment challenged hierarchical arrangements, instead emphasizing the autonomy of each individual. Patriarchy was replaced by affectionate and egalitarian relationships between parents and children. Age no longer led to automatic respect in the community; youth came to be valued in preference to age. Cole describes several indications that change was afoot: “Before 1790, people tended to report themselves to census takers as older than they actually were. After that date they generally reported themselves as younger. Men’s dress styles increasingly flattered youth rather than old age. And group portraits tended to represent family members on a horizontal plane, as opposed to the older composition of the patriarch standing above his wife and children.”
Puritan religion had God as the ultimate patriarchal figure: sovereign, omnipotent, and distant, meting out punishment to evildoers and rewarding the faithful. As society changed, ideas about God changed as well. During the early decades of the nineteenth century, the time of the Second Great Awakening, God was increasingly viewed as benevolent and just, and salvation was seen as the result of a personal decision rather than the gradual working of divine grace. Religion became more and more the province of the young, who converted in large numbers. We might expect that revivalist preachers would have fostered respect for the elderly, but that wasn’t the case: “revivalist sermons often bristle with hostility toward old age–suggesting that old people are seen as powerful impediments to progress, unwelcome reminders both of the oppressive weight of the past and of humankind’s inevitable weakness and dependence.” Far from veneration and respect, the old were regarded with suspicion. The revivalists seem like forerunners of the qualms regarding older people evidenced in the 1960’s admonition, “Don’t trust anybody over thirty.”
Attitudes towards the elderly didn’t continue to worsen. In the decades to follow, views of the elderly got better in some ways, worse in others; I’ll write more about the changes in a subsequent post. As with attitudes toward any societal group, views of the elderly didn’t follow a simple course, either bad-to-good or good-to-bad. Does society have more or less ageism than it used to? Yes, both are true, depending on what era you’re examining. And attitudes will continue to change. Who will determine what attitudes towards the elderly will be in 5 years, or 10, or 20? All of us.