The American Historian
An elderly individual rides a bike down a street while people walk by

The Ambivalence of Aging in Postwar America

Jesse F. Ballenger

The more things change, the more they stay the same. This truism seems nowhere more applicable than in the case of aging in the United States. With the establishment of retirement as a desired stage of life and the emergence of geriatrics and gerontology as fully fledged fields of research and practice in the 1940s and 1950s, it seemed that a sea change in the social and cultural history of aging was underway. And indeed, much changed in the half century since the creation of the modern field of aging work. The economic situation of older Americans was drastically improved with an increasingly generous social security program and the addition of Medicare; retirement was transformed from a dreaded punishment inflicted on older workers to a highly desired entitlement; widely held myths and stereotypes of aging have been challenged; and a broad array of public and private services have been established to meet the social and medical needs of the growing number of older people.

But, even for all of this, there is ample evidence that Americans remain anxious about aging—they spend billions of dollars every year on anti-aging products and remain deeply fearful of health problems associated with aging such as dementia and what the impact of the aging of the baby boom generation will be on social security and the health care system. How are we to understand America’s persistent ambivalence about aging in the face of all of these efforts to change it? Why—despite the fact that the possibilities and opportunities available to older people have perhaps never been greater—does the prospect of aging continue to be so frightening? The answer to these questions lies in a contradiction at the core of the field of aging studies that, despite the best intentions of gerontologists and geriatricians who have worked so energetically and earnestly to transform the meaning of aging, left the basic stigma of old age intact.

Although historians have told different stories about aging in America—emphasizing different aspects of its experience and using different sources to analyze its meanings—taken together they converge on the idea that attitudes toward aging, particularly old men, grew more hostile with the transition to a modern, liberal society in the nineteenth century. The shortage and declining value of farmland in all but the most productive regions of the country and the increasing tendency of children to leave farms to find work in growing urban centers eroded the authority of the elderly within families. In urban settings, the skills that could give older, more experienced workers an advantage in the labor market were increasingly devalued by mechanization. Retirement was not a choice but an increasingly likely fate, a dreaded stage of life, carrying the real threat of poverty and the poor house.[1] Discourse around these fears was strongly gendered, and women were typically thought to be less imperiled by these developments because their lives were supposed to continually revolve around the domestic sphere.[2] In an increasingly cosmopolitan society that celebrated the ability of individuals to rise and fall according to their own efforts, anxiety about what seemed the inevitable physical and mental decline associated with old age markedly increased. Senility came to haunt the landscape of the self-made man.

Aging policy and the creation of a professional network of aging services can be understood as a response to these anxieties. Beginning with the Social Security Act of 1935, public and private pension policies sought to transform retirement from a feared imposition into a desired stage of life by providing economic incentives for older people to willingly leave the labor force. These policy developments were aligned with the emergence of an intellectual movement consisting of a diverse array of biomedical and social scientists in the nascent interdisciplinary academic field of gerontology, clinical practitioners in geriatrics, social workers, policymakers, activists, and entrepreneurs interested in developing a “gray market.” In different ways and for different, sometimes even conflicting reasons, this diverse group sought to reframe old age in more positive terms. Although they worked from different theoretical commitments, they shared a generally optimistic view of aging, believing that modern science would be able to extricate a healthy, normal old age—increasingly referred to as “successful aging”—from the disease and debilitation that so often and so needlessly accompanied it.[3]

To the professionals who were shaping the aging field in the 1940s and 1950s, the assumption that aging rendered people unfit for full participation in economic and social life was indefensible. They argued that relegating the fastest growing segment of the population to “corner rocking chairs, to lifeless rooming houses, and even to mental hospitals” was a major threat to the future prosperity of the nation and set out to reverse negative assumptions about old age that had dominated the discourse since the late-nineteenth century.[4]

Perhaps the key word in the aging field in these decades was adaption. Senile physical and mental deterioration was not simply an internal biological process, but the failure of the aging individual to adapt to the environment. For older people living in modern society, scholars in the aging field argued, the most challenging aspect of the environment to successfully adapt to was retirement, since it entailed social isolation and loss of meaning. Although experts in the aging field no longer accepted the idea that most older workers needed to retire because their aging and bodies and brains were simply giving out, they recognized that retirement was a social necessity to make room for younger workers—particular following military demobilization after the war. But if this was to occur without adding significantly to the social burdens of aging, retirement would need to become a desirable status in life. Part of the answer was making social security pension and health care benefits more generous—and this was done periodically through the 1960s. But that would not be enough. Society also needed to create new meanings for leisure and recreation in old age.

Though adjustment to old age was ultimately a personal matter, prominent gerontologists argued that “in modern America the community must carry the responsibility of creating conditions that make it possible for the great majority of older people to lead the independent and emotionally satisfying lives of which they are capable.”[5] The community’s responsibility went beyond altruism, for if their needs were not met, a catastrophic increase in senility would occur in the burgeoning aging population. As Jerome Kaplan, an advocate for recreation programs argued, “with the number of people who are over 65 increasing significantly each year, our society is today finding itself faced with the problem of keeping a large share of its population from joining the living dead—those whose minds are allowed to die before their bodies do.”[6] The solution was a program to provide older people with meaningful activities to fill the remainder of their lives. Broadly construed, this was the program of social gerontology for reconstructing old age.

Inspired by the ferment around the civil rights and women’s liberation movements, the aging field took on a more stridently activist tone in the late 1960s. “Ageism” replaced adaption as one of its most important concepts. The term was coined in 1968 by Robert N. Butler, a psychiatrist and gerontologist who would become the founding director of the National Institute on Aging in 1974 and who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for his book Why Survive? Being Old in America. “Ageism can be seen as a process of systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish this with skin color and gender,” Butler argued. “Old people are categorized as senile, rigid in thought and manner, old fashioned in morality and skills. . . . Ageism allows the younger generation to see older people as different from themselves; thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings.”[7] Butler saw ageism embodied in stereotypes, myths, demeaning jokes, social isolation, and overt discrimination. It operated on both institutional and individual levels, at once functioning to relieve society of responsibility for the aged and protecting individuals from confronting fears about their own aging. Perhaps worst of all, ageism was internalized by the elderly so that they tended to perpetuate the very stereotypes directed against them.[8]

Butler’s concept of ageism was similar to what gerontologists and others in the aging field had been saying for decades: the worst of the elderly’s problems were not caused by aging, but by the hostile attitudes, irrational fears, and barriers to full participation in life imposed by society. What was new was its explicit comparison to racial and sexual prejudice, a link that logically implied the sort of direct political action that had been successfully used to win progress for African Americans and women. “The elderly are becoming more aware of their fate and more sophisticated about political action, and it has been instructive for them to watch the protests of the civil rights, peace and women’s movements of the 1960s and 70s,” Butler argued.[9] For Butler and others like him in the aging field, the problem of old age was increasingly a political one. The emergence of mass membership organizations like American Association of Retired Persons, the National Alliance of Senior Citizens, and the National Council of Senior Citizens that boasted many millions of members able to channel the pent-up frustration and emotion of the elderly into political action, was one of the more important developments in the social history of aging and had broader implications for American politics and policy.

Though Butler’s comparison of aging advocacy to the civil rights movement may seem far-fetched today, it resonated strongly with scholars and activists of the 1970s. This can be seen in another popular book on aging published in the mid-1970s, Alex Comfort’s A Good Age (1976), which developed the idea even more passionately. The book was organized as a sort of encyclopedia of aging which Comfort characterized as containing “facts, self defense measures, problems and also some of the plus factors and pleasures of later life” that the elderly could use to “debrainwash” themselves. Repeatedly throughout the book, Comfort invoked black protest of racist stereotypes as the model the elderly would have to emulate. “React to people who talk slightingly about seniors (‘old buffer,’ ‘old biddy,’ ‘dirty old man,’ ‘old lady in tennis shoes’) in the way that black people have learned to react to people who talk slightingly about ‘niggers,’” he exhorted. “Tell them you don’t appreciate that sort of language. Your reaction will give them a salutary shock. Usually they mean no harm, but need their heads changed, to see older people as people, and only secondarily as old . . . this is part of the shaping of society.”[10] Seniors would also have to protest demeaning images in the mass media as blacks had done, especially since they were becoming a growing segment of the audience. As Comfort stated: “There is a means here of catering to needs, of giving information and of stereotype busting, which will need a sharp effort like that which got black figures more dignified and realistic treatment in entertainment.”[11]

Not surprisingly, the liberal attack on ageism articulated by gerontologists and aging advocates such as Butler and Comfort suffers from the same fundamental flaw that critics have levied against the liberal attack on racism on which it was modeled. In both arguments, the stigmatized group must be shown to be essentially no different than other groups. An example of this regarding race could be seen in historian Kenneth Stampp’s now notorious claim in the preface to his book on slavery in America that “innately Negroes are, after all, only white men with black skins, nothing more, nothing less.” Stampp did not deny that there were cultural differences between whites and blacks, nor did he imply that blacks should feel flattered by the comparison. Stampp simply wished to assert that there were no “significant differences between the innate emotional traits and intellectual capacities of Negroes and whites.”[12] In a strikingly parallel construction, Comfort argued that within every older person “there is a young person, the same person, inside. Older people are in fact young people inhabiting old bodies and confronted with the physical problems of reduced vigor, changing appearance and, although many escape these, specific disabilities affecting such things as sight and agility.” Science would make the truth of this more apparent as it developed the technical ability to “suppress or slow the physical changes.” But Comfort did not wish to deny the dignity of the elderly by relying on this technical solution, “rather as if we say that we could end race prejudice if we could turn all black people white.”[13] Seniors should feel no more flattered to be compared with young people than blacks should to be compared with whites. Age had a dignity of its own.

Of course, the “race-blind” liberal position Stampp’s quote came to exemplify was eventually criticized for its tendency to “turn all black people white” by glossing over the creativity and distinctive positive aspects of African American culture. Or worse, the quote construed cultural differences in pathological terms similar to the controversial 1965 Moynihan report on The Negro Family, which, in order to make a case for public assistance, depicted the African American family as embedded in a culture of poverty.[14]

The liberal attack on ageism which the work of Butler and Comfort exemplify exhibits the same difficulties. “We must be skeptical of the liberal assumption . . . that age is irrelevant, that older people differ from younger people only in their chronological age,” Thomas Cole argued in his book The Journey of Life. “In age, as in race and sex, the Scylla of prejudice is never far from the Charybdis of denial of human difference—differences that need to be acknowledged, respected, and cherished.”[15] Though Butler and many others’ works asserted the dignity of the elderly in their own right, their core demand that significant physical differences are to be regarded as the product of disease rather than aging, while psychological or emotional differences such as detachment and disengagement from social life are to be regarded as mental illnesses, ultimately seems like a demand that old people be young. Meanwhile, older people who cannot live up to this standard, who do suffer from debilitating disease or dementia, remain deeply stigmatized.

None of this is to deny that the post-war programs and policies implemented to improve the lives of American elders did not accomplish much good; but it does help to explain why, despite the creation of unprecedented opportunities for older people over the past several decades, Americans continue to regard the prospect of aging with great ambivalence.


Jesse F. Ballenger is author of Self, Senility and Alzheimer’s Disease in Modern America: A History (2006), and co-editor of Concepts of Alzheimer Disease: Biological, Clinical and Cultural Perspectives (2000), and Treating Dementia: Do We Have a Pill for It? (2009). He is an associate teaching professor in the Health Administration Department at Drexel University, where he teaches bioethics and health care history.


This article draws on ideas and material from my book Self, Senility, and Alzheimer’s Disease in Modern America: A History (2006). 

[1]Carole Haber and Brian Gratton provide the most comprehensive discussion of the transformation of old age in Old Age and the Search for Security: An American Social History (1994).

[2]I discuss the gendered meanings of old age during this period in American history in chapter 1 of my book Self, Senility, and Alzheimer’s Disease in Modern America (2006).

[3]Richard B. Calhoun, In Search of the New Old: Redefining Old Age in America, 1945–1970 (1978); William Graebner, A History of Retirement: The Meaning and Function of an American Institution, 1885–1978 (1980).

[4]Quote from Clark Tibbitts and Henry D. Sheldon, “Introduction: A Philosophy of Aging,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 279 (Jan. 1952), 1–10, a volume devoted to “Social Contributions by the Aging.”

[5]Robert J. Havighurst, “Social and Psychological Needs of the Aging,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 279 (Jan. 1952), 11–17, 17.

[6]Jerome A. Kaplan, A Social Program for Older People (1953), 3.

[7]Robert N. Butler, Why Survive? Being Old in America (1975), 12. This definition originally appeared in Butler and Myrna L. Lewis, Aging and Mental Health: Positive Psychosocial Approaches (1973). Butler originally coined the term in a Washington Post interview in 1968.

[8]Butler, Why Survive?, 12–13.

[9]Butler, Why Survive?, 322.

[10]Alex Comfort, A Good Age (1976), 63–64.

[11]Comfort, A Good Age, 23.

[12]Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (1956), vii–ix.

[13]Comfort, A Good Age, 21.

[14]Daniel P. Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (1965). As described by historian William Tratner, the Moynihan report and similar work “posited the existence of a subculture with patterns of behavior that distinguished it from the larger social structure and prevented its members – who exhibited such aberrant psychological and moral traits and values as feelings of fatalism, helplessness, inferiority, dependence, and present-mindedness – from taking advantage of the opportunities available to better their lives.” Though Moynihan intended the opposite, conservatives used this idea to claim that those perpetuating this so-called “culture of poverty” were undeserving of public assistance. From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America (1994), 330.

[15]Thomas R. Cole, The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America (1992), 229.