|Aging in the Past|
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We present this volume to our readers in the confidence that they will acknowledge the importance of its subject and that they will accept the description of its content in the title of the first chapter, "Necessary Knowledge," necessary knowledge from the past. Old age and old people are now a commonplace theme in all Western and industrialized countries, which is understandable as people realize that their populations are exceedingly old and getting older. They are well aware of the implications for transfers between age groups and for generational justice, especially in the United States where the crises in welfare and health costs are persistent themes in the media and among politicians and administrators. Every such discussion begins with a rigmarole about aging, the facts being variously selected and interpreted, seldom with much accuracy or understanding and frequently in a way that misleads. Perpetually and inevitably, there is a lack of historical depth, with consequent obfuscation.
The attempt here is to fill out the historical horizon and to make use of it to clear away some of the misapprehensions. This is done in the recognition that we cannot expect to understand ourselves as we now are in the industrialized countriesand what we shall becomeunless we also understand what we have been. It is not only true, as a case in point, that Western and Japanese populations are very, very old. It is also true that they are the oldest human populations that have ever existed and that they never will be young again. Indeed, all the other populations in the world will join them in their elderly condition and are beginning to do so already. Our hope is that this book may help those in the nonindustrial world take cognizance of what they are and of what they may become.
Although we shall claim that this is the first work of its kind to be published, it is far from the first book to be published on the history of aging.
In recent years such efforts have challenged many of the established assumptions about aging and enriched our understanding of how the nature of old age has changed through the centuries. In spite of these advances, our ignorance is still formidable. Meanwhile, the strictly demographic study of aging has been making progress, if not enough to satisfy us, and the historical side of that study has been going forward.
But historical demography, like demography itself, has been preoccupied for the most part with fertility and mortality. Lacking so far is a conjunction of the history of age and the old, that is to say, how we have become old, with its historical demography, why we have become old. Such is the need that is addressed in this volume, with the addition of some elementsrather few, because this is the most difficult and least cultivated part of the terrainof comparative analysis. The significant contrast is between the condition of developed societies when they were younger and the condition of the developing nations of today.
In the discussions that have gone on between us as coeditors, we have been impressed with the intellectual vistas that open up once we adopt a viewpoint from the perspective of later life, rather than of youth, which is seemingly the natural and inevitable vantage point of our civilization. Like speleologists breaking for the first time into the ample space of a cave, we are overwhelmed by entirely unexplored avenues leading off in various directions in the crepuscular light.
But familiar territory also begins to look different. Such is the area of the history and the development, in relation to aging, of the co-resident domestic group. In his final chapter, David Kertzer is able to limn the contours of a new definition of arguably the most important, because the most widespread, form of that group, the nuclear family household. The informed reader may recognize that this new interpretation is scarcely consonant with the published views of Peter Laslett on the nuclear family household.
We hope that this difference of interpretation will add to the intellectual interest of our contributions to the volume. How long will it be before the study of aging loses that air of grayness and tedium that has always hung about everything to do with becoming old and is instead recognized as an arena of brilliant intellectual opportunity?
References are made in the introductory chapter to the collected volume published two decades ago, Household and family in past time (1972). There it was confessed that deliberate aim was being taken at the opening up of a new field of inquiry, and so it proved in the sequel. It has also transpired that the rigorous standards of data collection and analysis that were laid out at length in the introduction to that volume have been progressively neglected. So much has this been so that the controversies that have arisen about family and household at various times and at various places in the world seem to have become interchanges about approximations and im-
pressions rather than about rigorously examined entities. The findings of family history are to that extent less significant or even trustworthy. It is fervently to be hoped that this will not come about in the field of the history and historical demography of aging.
This book is the product of our efforts to stimulate interest in these pursuits and to suggest the kinds of insights that can be obtained by paying more attention to demographic issues in conducting historical research on the lives of older people. Toward this end, a conference on the historical demography of aging was held at Bowdoin College Breckinridge Public Affairs Center in York, Maine, in spring 1990. Among the participants were historians, anthropologists, sociologists, economists, and demographers from several countries.
Our interest was in the interaction between demographic events and processes, on the one hand, and both societal age norms and individual-level behavior involving older people, on the other. While the emphasis was on demographic forces, these were examined in interaction with other relevant influences: economic, political, social, and cultural. The focus was on the West, both Europe and North America.
Of the thirteen chapters that follow, ten are revisions of papers first given at that conference. The focus is on a number of Western societies, including Britain, Italy, Hungary, and the Baltic states, though the United States receives the most attention. In his contribution, Gene Hammel provides a demonstration of the role to be played by microsimulation techniques in advancing the historical demography of aging, as he takes on the classic question of the prevalence of the stem family in the past.
In addition to those whose work is found in this volume, a number of other scholars participated in the Breckinridge conference. Their contributions have enriched these pages. We should particularly like to thank Matilda White Riley, Arthur Imhof, Tom Ericsson, Maris Vinovskis, Pier Paolo Viazzo, Richard Suzman, Timothy Guinnane, Jack Riley, Lee Craig, and Robert Whaples.
The conference was made possible by a grant (1R13 AG08429-01) from the National Institute on Aging (NIA). We would like to acknowledge the important role of Richard Suzman of the NIA in encouraging and nurturing this project. Further support for manuscript preparation was provided by the NIA supplement to Brown University's Population Studies and Training Center grant (NICHD P30 HD28251). We would also like to thank Bowdoin College and the staff of the Breckinridge Public Affairs Center for providing us with an idyllic setting for the conference. A final note of thanks is owed to Stanley Holwitz, of the University of California Press, for his continued encouragement and faith in this project.