The American Historian

Perspectives, Personal and Professional, on Writing Old-Age History

W. Andrew Achenbaum

Modern-day interpretations of old-age history appeared propitiously in the 1970s as a rising generation of historians reconstructed lives of anonymous groups, including the elderly. Senior scholars provided counsel to distant doctoral candidates and published in the field to secure its legitimacy. Compared to LGBTQ or women’s studies, much less writers on race and ethnicity, old-age historians lack a steady flow of newcomers to do the work that remains. Boomers nowadays gain media attention, but old-age historians remain marginalized among gerontology’s bio-medical and psycho-social scientists.

My own story starts with Richard Nixon, who sparked my career in gerontology history. By chance I heard the president speak at the 1971 White House Conference on Aging about his administration’s efforts to improve older Americans’ well-being. At that moment I was reading John Demos’s A Little Commonwealth, which probed life-course dynamics in the Plymouth Colony.[1] Proceeding through the stages of life, Demos’s chapters appeared shorter in length and thinner in content. A niche needed filling between history and gerontology.

Like others studying old-age history in the 1970s, I wanted to know how perceptions of later life complemented and diverged from the elderly’s documented conditions. How did senescence relate to younger life stages? Could lessons from A Little Commonwealth apply to my parents and their middle-aged friends, who bemoaned lost youth and masked fears about aging and dying? Historical perspectives on aging might differentiate facts from stereotypes of aging, past and present.

Meanwhile, history programs were changing as social historians introduced new styles and methods into curricula. Activists Christopher Lasch and Eugene Genovese proved that scholars could make history, not simply critique it.[2] Moreover, since job prospects beyond the Ph.D. were important to me, I decided to combine American-studies approaches with quantitative methods. If I failed to find employment in a tight teaching market, I could hopefully join a social-service agency that advocated for aging Americans.

People whose opinions mattered scoffed at my plans. “What do you know about aging?” thundered my father, and well-known professors proved equally dismissive. Although Johns Hopkins’s history department offered me a generous package to study U.S. religious history, I decided to follow John Higham, at the time the incoming president of the Organization of American Historians, as he moved from Hopkins to the University of Michigan. After all, Highman supported my proposal to study old-age.

Like me, this early wave of graduate students studying old-age history benefited from three factors. First, many campuses where this work began had ample research funds and strong resources in the humanities, social sciences, and gerontology. For example, Michigan’s Institute of Gerontology boasted America’s largest collection of age-related materials. My readings persuaded me to challenge the conventional wisdom derived from investigations that used modernization theory to postulate why economic and social forces exacerbated elders’ disengagement.[3] I also questioned Simone de Beauvoir’s dour historical and contemporary portraits of late life, which left little room for a messy, contingent, ironic past.[4]

Second, my mentors proffered sage advice. Former H.E.W. secretary and Social Security architect Wilbur Cohen served on my doctoral committee and tutored me in policymaking, and three others off-campus mentored me. Peter Stearns, editor of the Journal of Social History, accepted a seminar paper on “the obsolescence of old age, 1865–1914,” written for my advisor John Higham.[5] In a brief but pointed exchange, an editor at Basic Books, Paul Neuthaler, mocked my indifference to modern old-age history; he advised that historians should join social scientists in interpreting the recent chronicles of vulnerable groups, including older Americans. Finally, David D. Van Tassel, America’s chief advocate for old-age history, became a father figure. With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Van Tassel invited luminaries, tenure-earning faculty, and a half-dozen doctoral students (including me) to a 1975 conference, which aimed to integrate aging studies into the humanities. The conference was designed to generate critical thinking and path-breaking publications, which Van Tassel hoped would legitimize fresh approaches in gerontology.[6]

Among those attending Van Tassel’s conference was David Hackett Fischer, who wrote an impressive jeremiad against prominent U.S. historians in the 1950s and 1960s.[7] At the conference, Fischer gave me the first draft of what would become his book, Growing Old in America, an interpretation of old-age history stretching from the colonial period to the present.[8] Fischer intended the manuscript to be part of a twelve-volume series demonstrating that the years between 1790 and 1830 witnessed the most revolutionary shift in U.S. history. Growing Old in America set the terms in old-age historiography for marking temporal boundaries and adducing empirically patterns in the aged’s experiences. Gerontologists admired Fischer’s deft, authoritarian style, but his thesis was savaged by Princeton’s Lawrence Stone.[9] Newly minted gerontological historians had to reckon with Growing Old in America, which attracted necessary attention to the fledgling subfield by generating excitement and controversy.

In response, myself and my peers published histories of aging that contested Fischer’s periodization and evidence, and I was the first to challenge Growing Old in America. Unlike Fischer, my evidence revealed no radical changes in age-based attitudes or circumstances. Nor did I consider the period between 1780 and 1830 to be the pivotal era in old-age history. I emphasized in my book, Old Age in the New Land, a divergence between the aged’s social and cultural terrains from the Civil War to World War I.[10] Mindful of Neuthaler’s advice concerning the importance of demographic, social, economic, political, and cultural old-age developments in the twentieth century, my second book dealt with old-age patterns in modern America.[11]

Academics reworked old-age historiography in this formative phase. Social historian Peter Stearns undercut social gerontologists’ use of modernization theory in two volumes on old age in early modern and nineteenth century Europe. Carole Haber’s survey debunked Fischer’s notion of veneration and periodization and my nineteenth-century interpretation. Brian Gratton deftly deployed quantification to undermine accounts (including mine) of alterations in labor-force-participations and household compositions. Haber and Gratton jointly critiqued old-age historians’ handling of narration and institutionalization. Thomas Cole provided a sensitive meditation on historical nuances in meanings of age ascribed to The Journey of Life. Howard Chudacoff’s important overview of age-grading in the U.S. proved the last of the first-wave syntheses of age differentials across the life course. (British scholars continue in this genre.[12])

David Van Tassel and Peter Stearns, who sought to train Ph.D. students for careers in museums, archives, and corporations, thought that old-age historians were prime candidates for public history and organized a conference. The pair invited investigators of all ranks to reorient their emphasis toward policymaking and non-academic jobs, and some participants complied. Van Tassel and Stearns’s conference did not cause a surge in old-age historians, however. If anything, the pool of participants was shrinking. William Graebner, who attended the conference, was a likely recruit to gerontological history, given his oft-cited A History of Retirement, but he pursued other interests. Brian Gratton moved from writing about the economics of aging to investigating Mexican history and immigration. Judith Cetina, Terri Premo, and Michel Dahlin pursued second careers within a decade of earning their Ph.D.s. Carole Haber’s study of anti-aging remedies is often quoted by gerontologists; her recent monograph blends women’s studies with medical history.[13]

Two contributors to gerontological history do remain active in the subfield. Thomas Cole assumed David Van Tassel’s role as promoter of gerontology in the humanities. Besides editing three handbooks on the topic, Cole (like me) started attending more gerontology meetings than historical conferences.[14] Meanwhile, I chose to write books that historicized anniversaries of old-age legislation and milestones in gerontological history. With support from the Twentieth Century Fund, I underlined the continuing significance of the values inherent in the 1983 amendments to the Social Security Act. Working on a Carnegie Corporation grant revealed how much societal aging, the impact of demographic aging on institutions, differed from individual aging, the manner in which persons in late life adapt to bio-medical and psycho-social challenges and opportunities. I twice endeavored to provide historical perspectives concerning the contrast between societal and individual aging. To observe the Gerontological Society’s golden anniversary, I published a twentieth-century history of aging-based scientific enterprises, which I updated in a biography of one of the field’s chief clinicians, educators, and esteemed advocates. I have held tenured appointments in history departments for thirty years, but it was primarily colleagues at Michigan’s Institute of Gerontology and appointments in Houston’s medical center, not historians, who bolstered my opinion of historians’ value in gerontology’s multi-disciplinary milieu.[15]

The dearth of U.S.-produced, old-age historians has been compensated by an increased interest in European historians who have published historically grounded theories of aging, works which were lacking in North American scholarship. Based on pre-industrial kinship patterns presented in The World We Have Lost, Peter Laslett illuminated contemporary potentials and the pitfalls of growing older. Three prolific historians examined generational relations in the past, thus offering historical counterpoints to the U.S. generational equity debate, while others investigated representations of aging bodies. A Dutch philosopher narrated shifting meanings of time at the interstices of aging and history. All these writers cited American old-age history’s controversies, but none felt constrained by the parameters binding U.S. gerontological historians.[16]

Scholars not identifying as gerontological-historians have also expanded old-age historiography. For example, U.S. welfare historian Edward Berkowitz issued biographies of Social Security architects Wilbur Cohen and Robert Ball; economists compellingly delved into public pensions and historical trends in labor participation rates; and political scientists and sociologists redefined nineteenth- and twentieth-century notions of “citizenship” and “entitlements.”[17]

Demography may not determine human destiny, but population aging has refashioned the postwar context in which aging is understood and dreaded. Baby Boomers are entering Golden Pond: their numbers and claims on public resources are altering U.S. healthcare delivery systems, voting patterns, adult-education offerings, and commitments to volunteerism. Boomers are adapting to post-retirement scenarios under conditions unlike their parents’ circumstances, as recent history dissertations by Katharine Otis and Drew Meyers indicate.[18] This age group already has changed music and artistic preferences, dating and mating styles, and expressions of spirituality. Gerontological historians must wrestle with overlooked turning points in the meanings and experiences of late life that took shape by the end of the millennium.

Old-age historians should inform discourse on the elderly’s ever-changing place in aging societies. Fresh old-age-based publications will supplant the work of my cohort of gerontological historians. Unless supply and demand change dramatically, there will remain fewer emerging professionals identifying as old-age historians than are now found in subfields such as race, gender, ethnicity, region, disability, and LGBTQ studies.

Ageism—a prejudice against growing old that is pervasive in U.S. society—creates a shortage of gerontological historians. Modern Americans valorize youth while stereotyping the elderly. Such ageism dampens the excitement and motivation to explore old-age history. Structural factors also play a role. Many gerontologists thwart efforts by historians of aging to join interdisciplinary projects, and few historians on search or tenure-and-promotion committees feel comfortable evaluating gerontological historians because they are not really research scientists. The challenge of enticing historians to investigate age-based possibilities and problems unfolding over time is the very one faced by David D. Van Tassel over forty years ago.


W. Andrew Achenbaum is a professor emeritus of history and social work at the University of Houston


[1]John Demos, A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony (1970).

[2]Christopher Lasch, New Radicalism in America, 1889–1963 (1965); Eugene D. Genovese, Political Economy of Slavery: Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South (1965).

[3]Donald O. Cowgill and Lowell D. Holmes, Aging and Modernization (1972).

[4]Simone de Beauvoir, The Coming of Age (1972).

[5]W. Andrew Achenbaum, “The Obsolescence of Old Age,” Journal of Social History, 8 (Fall 1974), 48–62.

[6]Conference essays were published in two volumes: Stuart F. Spicker, Kathleen M. Woodward, and David D. Van Tassel, eds., Aging and the Elderly: Humanistic Perspectives in Gerontology (1978) and David D. Van Tassel, ed., Aging, Death, and the Completion of Being (1979). Among the contributors were Erik Erikson, Peter Laslett, Tamara Hareven, John Demos, Daniel Scott Smith, and Maris Vinovskis.

[7]David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (1970).

[8]David Hackett Fischer, Growing Old in America (1977).

[9]Lawrence Stone, “Walking over Grandma,” New York Review of Books, May 12, 1977.

[10]W. Andrew Achenbaum, Old Age in the New Land: The American Experience since 1790 (1978).

[11]W. Andrew Achenbaum, Shades of Gray: Old Age, American Values, and Federal Policies since 1920 (1983).

[12]Peter N. Stearns, Old Age in Preindustrial Society (1983). Carole Haber, Beyond Sixty-Five: The Dilemma of Old Age in America’s Past (1983); Brian Gratton, Urban Elders: Family, Work, and Welfare among Boston’s Aged, 1890–1950 (1986). Carole Haber and Brian Gratton, Old Age and the Search for Security: An American Social History (1994). Thomas R. Cole, The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America (1992). Howard Chudacoff, How Old Are You? Age Consciousness in America (1989). See, for instance, Pat Thane, Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues (2000); Pat Thane, A History of Old Age (2005).

[13]David D. Van Tassel and Peter N. Stearns, eds., Old Age in a Bureaucratic Society: The Elderly, the Experts, and the State in American Society (1986). William Graebner, A History of Retirement: The Meaning and Function of an American Institution, 1885–1978 (1980). Judith Cetina, A History of Veterans’ Homes in the United States, 1811–1930 (1977); Carole Shammas, Marylynn Salmon, and Michel Dahlin, Inheritance in America from Colonial Times to the Present (1987); Terri L. Premo, Winter Friends: Women Growing Old in the New Republic, 1785–1835 (1989); Carole Haber, “Anti-aging Medicine: The History,” Journals of Gerontology: Biological Sciences, Medical Sciences, 59 (no. 6, 2004): 8515–22; Carole Haber, The Trials of Laura Fair: Sex, Murder, and Insanity in the Victorian West (2013).

[14]Thomas R. Cole, David D. Van Tassel, and Robert Kastenbaum, eds. Handbook of the Humanities and Aging (1992); Thomas R. Cole, Robert Kastenbaum, and Ruth Ray, eds., Handbook of the Humanities and Aging, 2d ed. (1999); Thomas R. Cole, Ruth Ray, and Robert Kastenbaum, eds., Guide to Humanistic Studies in Aging: What Does It Mean to Grow Old? (2009).

[15]W. Andrew Achenbaum, Social Security: Visions and Revisions (1986). W. Andrew Achenbaum, “Aging of ‘The First New Nation,’” in Our Aging Society: Paradox and Promise, ed. Alan Pifer and D. Lydia Bronte (1986), 15–32 became the starting point for Older Americans, Vital Communities: A Bold Vision for Societal Aging (2005). The biography of Robert Butler,W. Andrew Achenbaum, Robert N. Butler, M.D.: Visionary of Healthy Aging (2013) updated the history of gerontology and geriatrics begun in Crossing Frontiers: Gerontology Emerges as a Science (1995).

[16]Peter Laslett, A Fresh Map of Life: The Emergence of the Third Age (1989). Paul Johnson, Christoph Conrad, and David Thomson, eds., Workers versus Pensioners: Intergenerational Justice in an Aging World (1989); David Thomson, Selfish Generations? The Aging of New Zealand’s Welfare State (1991). Chris Gilleard and Paul Higgs, Cultures of Aging: Self, Citizen, and the Body (2000); Mike Featherstone, Mike Hepworth, and Bryan Turner, The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory (1991). Jan Baars, Aging and the Art of Living (2012).

[17]Edward D. Berkowitz, America’s Welfare State: From Roosevelt to Reagan (1991); Edward D. Berkowitz, Mr. Social Security: The Life of Wilbur J. Cohen (1995). See also the work of sociologist Daniel Beland, Social Security: History and Politics from the New Deal to the Privatization Debate (2005). Stephen A. Sass, The Promise of Private Pensions: The First Hundred Years (1997); Roger Ransom and Richard Sutch, “The Trend in the Rate of Labor Force Participation of Older Men, 1870–1930,” Journal of Economic History, 49 (May 1989), 170–83. John Myles, Old Age in the Welfare State: The Political Economy of Public Pensions (1989); Jill Quadagno, The Transformation of Old Age Security: Class and Politics in the American Welfare State (1988); Theda Skocpol, Protecting Mothers and Soldiers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (1992).

[18]Katharine A. Otis, “Everything Old is New Again: A Social and Cultural History of Life on the Retirement Frontier, 1950–2000 (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, 2008); Drew Meyers, Sun Citizens: The Culture and Politics of Retirement, 1950–2000 ( Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 2013).