If we look back through Western history to some of the first written records of attitudes to older generations, then it seems that the ancient Greeks had a bit of a problem with old age.
With their pantheon of gods who were ageless and deathless and their worship of the beauty and athleticism of youth, it is seems hardly surprising that the features of old age were unattractive to them.
With its increasing frailty, increased risk of ill health and impending death, it seemed to have little to offer.
Another feature which opened up a generation gap was the increasing literacy of the population. This meant that oral traditions and stories which had been passed down personally from one generation to the next, could now studied and read.
There was a thawing of their negative attitudes during the 5th century. This came about when some of their noble philosophers and statesmen were still active and productive in their seventies and eighties.
So in both Greek and subsequent Roman cultures, the elderly may be given some respect for their wisdom and experience, their frailty still created doubts as to their value.
A lot depended on a person’s social class and wealth. The wealthy and privileged could have their roles and status change agreeably as they got old, but for the poor it was a case of continuing to work until you drop.
This latter point highlights one of the key aspects of the attitudes and treatment of elderly people in Western Europe, throughout history and right up to the present day. And that is that your experience of old age would be greatly affected by your gender, social class, religious group and general cultural traditions.
In the middle ages, the contrast of the benefits of wisdom and experience versus the deteriorating health and vitality once again came to the forefront. Some early steps were taken to make make provisions for the elderly, with a pattern developing of going into monastic retreats or lay religious communities in old age.
During the 15th & 16th centuries, it is hard to separate out views on the elderly from the prevailing Christian religion’s take on old age. For instance, the elderly could be viewed as a kind old teacher, whilst at the same time identifying vanity as a vice of old age.
Moving into the 17th & 18th centuries, the negative views on old age derived from antiquity began to be questioned, and a more positive cultural view began to emerge. However, as life expectancy ages started to increase, tensions began to surface, especially in the poorer classes. Here the harshness of economic reality caused some to question how many generations could a household support.
The coming of the industrial revolution created a whole new set of circumstances. The young tended to move away to the newly developing cities, with the older generations being left behind in the countryside.
Another effect was that many parents lost their role as teachers of the new generation, as new skills, trades and professions evolved. And as people got older it brought into question their ability to keep up with machines, and to learn new skills as required in a fast changing environment.
This period also saw the beginning of saving societies to help people to prepare for old age, and the social provision of poor houses.
1. Handbook of the Humanities and Aging,
Eds. T. R. Cole, D. D. Van Tassel & R. Kastenbaum,
1992, Springer Publishing Co., New York.
2. The Long History of Old Age,
Ed. Pat Thane,
2005, Thames & Hudson, London.
© David R. Durham