Process Blog Home

How the Old Can Learn from the Young

This post originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of The American Historian.

How can the historical study of aging benefit from what historians have learned by studying youth? As someone who has spent more than forty years learning about young people, I think that there is quite a lot of overlap between the two kinds of historical inquiry. This is true for two reasons: Youth and old age are categories grounded in biology but defined by culture, and the fruitful areas of investigation historians of youth have opened are ones from which scholars of old age can learn. We have come a long way from assuming that there is something stable and fixed about life cycle experiences that are dependent on biology. Youth is a very nimble category, a shape shifter that has changed quite a bit over time. As a result, not only is how we define youth changeable, but we are also alert to the fact that age categories have fluid boundaries. Modern institutions like high schools/colleges and Social Security/Medicare tend to define youth as between the ages of fourteen and twenty-two and the elderly as those over sixty-five, but these limits can and do change. Policies regulating Social Security can affect the age of retirement and therefore when we think we become elderly, from the age of sixty-six (today) to seventy (in some future administration). Birth certificates in the United States, as well as old age insurance and high school attendance by the vast majority of Americans, are products of the twentieth century, as is our tendency to use fixed ages to define both.[1]

Youth is embedded in how societies are organized and influences law and social policies. It is also imprinted in psychological beliefs and medical practices. The way we categorize and think about youth and our modern emphasis on age segregation has affected the development of institutions such as schools and courts, concepts of justice and emotional development, brain function, and sexuality. In studying youth, we have to examine the institutions in which this age group is given meaning and influences its development such as the family, church, and school. It means that we have to grapple with questions of friendship, marriage, and work. I think that something similar is true for those whom we categorize as elderly and old.

Of course, youth is not just a product of culture but, once set apart, influences and creates culture. In the twentieth century, young people, as cultural actors, have had a very large role in determining patterns of consumption in music, clothing, media, and language. In this way, they are important participants in the modern consumer economy. And youth have influenced sexual mores and politics in ways that have sometimes disrupted efforts at social control.[2]

The study of aging, too, has the potential to enlarge our understanding of these matters. As a historical phenomenon, old age is not entirely new, but it is coming into its own in part because of the substantial aging of the population in the West and the considerable extension in life expectancy. Our interest in aging grows from present-day concerns, much as the interest in youth and youth culture became compelling in the context of the 1960s when a baby-boom enlarged population settled into high schools and colleges and began to make its presence felt. This sent some of us, myself included, back in time to find similar youth-focused periods and to ask what attendant issues emerged and influenced earlier periods in our history.[3] As historians, we become aware of certain kinds of categories because of contemporary concerns. We need to be careful not to allow these present concerns to freeze fluid categories based on age whose boundaries were different in the past. But there is nothing wrong with allowing our contemporary interests to lead us to kinds of agecentered analyses in our historical inquiries.

The biological foundation of aging can also lead to fruitful investigations in the medical and psychological literature just as they have for adolescence and puberty.[4] While the specialization of knowledge in medicine is fairly recent, religious leaders, physicians, educators, and others concerned with the life cycle had theories about both old age and youth which can help us understand how these were understood and “treated.” Because both youth and old age are biologically grounded, we can expect that all societies have had some notion of aging just as they have had of youth. This commonality should encourage historians to pursue comparative study across nation-states and subcultures. In a society as complex as the United States, with its many racial and ethnic groups, aging, like youth, can serve as a lens on group differences. As Stephen Lassonde discovered when he studied Southern Italian immigrants in New Haven, Connecticut, different perspectives on youth between immigrants and their host societies provide an important vantage point on the conflicts that emerged.[5] And, as our focus as historians becomes more transnational and global, such a comparative lens will be a useful entry into asking how various societies differed from and resembled each other since all have some visions of youth and of old age.

People who inhabit particular parts of the age spectrum also engage in specific generational experiences, as witnesses to certain events, and as participants in popular culture.[6] This is why historians of youth have been so eager to examine matters such as music, dress, slang, consumer trends, and leisure patterns as the means by which young people adopt particular identifiers to recognize each other as an age cohort.[7] The same can be said of older people. Certainly, their experience of jazz or big band or rock music was generational, and tastes that bound them together when they were young will likely bind them together when they are in retirement communities. Their tastes in dress, in hairstyles, and a myriad of other matters are also signals of generational identity. Age is not the only thing that affects and distinguishes cultural patterns, but age as a potent dimension of identity in matters of consumption will likely become important as historians of aging study different populations of older folks.

Does this mean that peer groups operate among older people in the same way they do among the young? The answer here requires study and investigation. A priori, as I have suggested, being part of a specific time influences people in certain respects, but that is not quite the same as the peer influence that historians of youth have seen as essential to the formation of youth cultures and identities. Certainly older people need the support of friends of their age. In the modern world, they learn about laws regarding medical insurance and share health advice; they exchange photos of children and grandchildren; and they can influence each other’s political views and candidate choices. But these influences do not necessarily derive from the drive toward popularity and mutual recognition that bolsters peer effects among adolescents and youth. At the same time, it is by no means impossible that there are also underlying insecurities and identity issues that can encourage peer influence. This is something historians can and should investigate.

The study of youth has been deeply immersed in related fields, especially the history of the family. The family is a basic location for youth development and orientation (although youth have also been sheltered in their master’s homes, dormitories, summer camps, houses of refuge, and other places).[8] This is true of the aged as well. For a long time, many aged parents were part of family groups, usually of their own grown children, where they could affect child rearing and participate in other household obligations. Their role in these families has certainly changed over time, but the nature of their relationship to their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren deserves serious inquiry. So too do the lives of older people in places such as retirement homes, prisons, and on cruise ships.

In modern societies, both youth and the aged are dependent populations—people who are assumed not to work or be self-supporting. We all know, of course, that many young people work and that many older people do too, but we tend not to think of these groups as at the pinnacle of their careers (people in the visual arts and music and mathematicians can be exceptions to this). Instead, these are categories of people who, in late stage industrial societies, are exempted from work because the society is wealthy enough or mechanized enough to forego their labor. Antichild labor legislation and social welfare programs for the old are part of the same package of reforms that emerged together in the United States and elsewhere in the West. This is both a privilege and a problem.

Dependency, at least in contemporary societies, is not highly regarded since American culture emphasizes self-reliance, autonomy, and independence. These two groups thus have much in common in terms of being outside the social norms of what it means to be a fully functioning and fully respected human being.[9] This can mean that the opinions of old people, like those of youth, are seen as less worthy of recognition and respect. Americans have put a great deal of emphasis on “family democracy” and the inclusion of their children (especially older children) into family councils.[10] It will be worthwhile for historians to investigate whether this attitude also extends to older people, and here I don’t mean those in their late sixties or seventies, but the really old—men and women in their eighties, nineties, and beyond. These folks, just like young children, are often seen as amusing, and we are amazed that they are still alive, but do we really take them seriously? In many ways, we have begun to isolate older people and keep them apart, just as we began to do with children in the nineteenth century and adolescents in the twentieth. The question of when old people still matter and when they are no longer taken seriously is a good one for historians to examine.

Related to this is the legal question of competence and incompetence. Youth below the age of eighteen are not considered able to perform various legal actions that have to do with adult capability—to sign contracts, sit on juries, or vote. Older people, too, can be judged incompetent to deal with legal matters or their own finances because their aging has left them no longer fully in command of their faculties. The law and its regulations are important for the old as they are for youth, although they operate differently in each case. Capability for youth is usually based on age markers—fourteen year olds do not vote, but eighteen year olds do; eighteen year olds cannot buy liquor but they can at the age of twenty-one. We rarely judge the aged by similar markers, though driving licenses and the ability to sit on juries do change as people age and such markers of “age disability” may increase over time. Modern Americans tend to see youth through the vision of development while viewing old people through a vision of decline. How are these related to each other, to medical definitions of brain function, and to behavioral norms?

We should also be aware that in both cases, youth and old age are catch-alls rather than homogeneous; that they encompass subgroups that evolve into each other over time. Since youth are on the verge of being fully capable while old people are declining from their full capacity, understanding and studying the development of subgroups such as fourteen to eighteen year olds and those who are eighty and above can be extremely fruitful avenues of research.

Then there is the delicate matter of sexuality, a subject of intense importance among historians of youth. Here, you may think, these two populations are very different. Youth, after all, is defined by sexual potency and sexual self-awareness as the drive toward mating and reproduction kicks in. And historically most societies attempt to regulate this strong force with its potential for social havoc.[11] While it remains true that old men are still capable of reproducing, the drive to regulate this socially is hardly very significant in most societies. But it would be a mistake to believe that old people are not sexually active. Indeed, anyone familiar with newspaper or television ads for Cialis or Viagra can testify to elderly sex as a thriving market. Sexuality, and associated matters of grooming, dating, and mating are deeply part of the lives of older people as well as the young. The same is true for gender. We should not mistake the centrality of gender issues among youth as meaning that these disappear with old age.

And both sexuality and gender are deeply enmeshed in the consumerism of modern times. While consumerism is practically ubiquitous in twentieth and twenty-first century Western societies, the specific ways in which these age segments are targeted is worthy of historical study. Such studies can tell us a lot about how the young and old are seen and portrayed, what their interests are imagined to be, and the role that gender plays in consumption. Historians of childhood and youth have become very aware of how age-segmented marketing has evolved as part of advertising; similar studies of old age are both relevant and easily launched.[12] Programming, movies, books, and a variety of other media are also responding to old age just as they have to youth. Movie producers and the makers of modern technological devices are highly aware of how they are used by different parts of the population.

Finally, historians of the physical and built environment have shown how the design of institutions—such as schools, libraries, and hospitals—as well as the layout and architecture of private homes has responded to ideas and practices regarding children and youth.[13] Old age, too, has a specific built environment. We are aware of retirement homes and communities, but there are also recreational facilities that cater to older people as well as furniture and apparatus designed for older people, such as hearing appliances at concerts. Once we become more attuned to the specifics of age culture, historians will begin to appreciate how physical spaces are being transformed because of the new prominence of older people in the United States and other advanced industrial societies.

I have tried to suggest some of the areas where what historians of youth have learned over the past forty years of research can help as we develop histories of old age. They share important questions of definition, as well as fruitful areas of investigation. Above all, as age segments that all people traverse (if we are lucky), they are excellent avenues for historians to understand basic changes in the social experiences all of us share and provide a strong basis for comparative analysis.

Paula S. Fass is Professor of the Graduate School and Margaret Byrne Professor of History emerita at the University of California at Berkeley. Her most recent book, The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child was published in spring 2016. She is also the author of The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s (1977), Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America (1997), and Children of a New World: Society, Culture and Globalization (2006), and the editor of the Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World.

[1] For growing age consciousness in the twentieth century, Howard P. Chudacoff, How Old Are You? Age Consciousness in American Culture (1989).

[2] Beth L. Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America (1988).

[3] Joseph F. Kett, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present (1977); Paula S. Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s (1977).

[4] See, for example, Crista DeLuzio, Female Adolescence in American Scientific Thought, 1830–1930 (2007).

[5] Stephen A. Lassonde, “Should I Go, or Should I Stay? Adolescence, School Attainment, and Parent-Child Relations in Italian Immigrant Families of New Haven, 1900–1940,” History of Education Quarterly, 18 (Spring 1998), 37–60.

[6] The notion of generation is itself a complex one, and I am using the term loosely here. For a discussion of the problem of historical generations, see Robert Wohl, The Generation of 1914 (1979).

[7] For example, Kelly Schrum, Some Wore Bobby Sox: The Emergence of Teenage Girls’ Culture, 1920–1945 (2004).

[8] For how female colleges were designed around such ideas, see Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Alma Mater: Design and Experience in Women’s Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s (1984). For summer camps, see Leslie Paris, Children’s Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp (2008).

[9] For this matter in regard to the young, see Holly Brewer, By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority (2005).

[10] See Paula S. Fass, The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child (2016).

[11] For how various western societies have tried to control sexuality, see Don Romesburg, “Making Adolescence More or Less Modern,” in The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World, ed. Paula S. Fass (2013), 229–48.

[12] Daniel Thomas Cook, The Commodification of Childhood: The Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer (2004).

[13] Marta Gutman and Ning de Coninck-Smith, eds., Designing Modern Childhood: History, Space, and the Material Culture of Children (2008).