change narrative of old age
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How More Focus on Productivity Has Shaped the Narrative of Old Age

Old age is an invention born from a narrative we humans have created over the last 200 years. There are two primary historical developments that led to the way we perceive later life today …

Developments in health & vitality in the early 1800s were the first to shape today’s views on old age. I have described them in my article ‘The Narrative of Old Age’ in Jeunessima Magazine 28.

In this article, let’s talk about the second central element that shaped the narrative, creating negative age stereotypes and age discrimination: Productivity.

In the current discourse, aging is considered a big problem that needs to be solved. From a health perspective, 'the old' were associated with a lack of vitality, age-related diseases, and insanity.

We will now look at the stigma that links "the elderly" with low productivity or, even worse, to being an economic burden for societies and governments.

This burden is not only focused on individuals but has shifted to the collective, making all people to be treated as merely “old.” Society began to see the whole aging population as a problem in need of a solution.

Older adults became beneficiaries of charity through "nursing homes.” They started receiving some first pensions, originally aimed at war veterans, with the pensions gradually being extended to other sectors. Later on, private pension plans, company plans, and the insurance business emerged, which is when it was finally possible to consider the retirement stage slightly more positively. But in turn, the role and the contribution that seniors made to society were trivialized.

We can highlight four defining moments:

1875. Birth of "Retirement"

1885. The Industrial Revolution

1929. The Great Depression

1960. Start of the "Golden Years"

Let's look at each in turn.

Birth of Retirement. The End of Working Life

Before the appearance of pension programs, people were not interested in stopping working because this led to a lower income and loss of social standing, so retiring from working life was delayed as much as possible.

But already with the first retirement initiatives, both in America and in Europe, people began to consider the idea and the possibility of retiring, especially manual workers, who were the ones who suffered the most physically from advancing age.

In the U.S., the concept of a war veteran's pension was born after the Civil War in the 1860s. Initially, only soldiers from the North were eligible for this pension, and it was subject to a medical examination that determined a degree of disability. New guilds were gradually eligible for this right, and it stopped being subject to a medical examination. Without further ado, upon reaching a certain age, they started receiving this “aid.”

Another important milestone on the European continent occurred in the 1880s when Otto von Bismarck established the pension system for the general workforce in Germany. Initially, the retirement age was set at 70 years, at a time when the average life expectancy in Germany was only about 40 years.

From the late 1800s, the idea of retiring became more common, and "old age" started to be seen as a new stage of life. It marked a before and after in the way of dealing with working life.

Industrial Revolution and Taylorism

The emergence of the Industrial Revolution around 1885 only increased the need to “remove” old people from companies. Together with the Industrial Revolution, concepts such as shareholders, short-term profitability, production level, efficiency, etc., appeared. They sound familiar, don’t they?

To all this, we must also add the introduction of the 8-hour workday and the investment many companies made to introduce new machines. It was the birth of Taylorism.

The notion that older employees were not suited to these changes was quickly fueled, and their age was directly related to low productivity.

Companies began to get rid of older employees, creating mandatory retirement schemes. As people aged, they had to leave and were not allowed to continue working, whether they wanted to or not. Retiring was no longer a voluntary or earned act but an obligation.

Age and aging became the focus for efficiency advocates.

Further aggravating was that, given the option of looking for another job, these employees competed with a younger generation who had higher levels of education. Age and lack of training cast those growing old out of the system, so they were drawn into retirement, no matter what.

It is true that some large companies developed their own pension plans, mainly to solve an ethical factor, though, leaving them with a clear conscience.

Regardless of the financial situation or the health status of a person over 65, by the beginning of the 20th century, they only had one possible option: Retiring …

The normal, which was working as long as possible, became the abnormal.

The Great Depression

Social Security was created in the United States after the Great Depression in 1935.

In the face of a significant shortage of jobs, the age of 40 (yes, 40!) became the age limit when people were able to get a job. The job shortage, in conjunction with the belief that older employees are not efficient, caused once again age to become the driver for pushing older workers out of the labor market.

We could possibly say that these are the early days of ageism, a discriminatory problem that, unfortunately, is still present today.

In other words, from a certain age, regardless of any other feature, people went from PRODUCING to CONSUMING. They systematically joined a supposedly homogeneous group characterized by being frail, sick, poor, and inefficient. That is, to this day, the definition of OLD AGE.

The Golden Years. A New Narrative?

It was around the 1960s that companies selling life insurances and retirement plans came into play and, thanks to a great marketing effort, managed to turn "old age” and with it retirement into “the golden age.

Seniors reconciled themselves to the role of consumers and enjoyed it without guilt. Retirement became a relaxed and fun phase of life.

The focus of interest was now turning to finding a purpose for this consumerism. Retirees became an attractive market segment to which products could be sold …

Companies began to target their marketing efforts to healthy people over 65 who felt they needed to get involved in DOING something and were willing to pay for it. Fun became an essential element of 'positive aging.'

That was the rise of the Silver Economy.

It is Time to Change the Narrative

That could be seen as positive, right? We see a development in the narrative of old age, going from considering older people as sick or lacking vitality and being unproductive to putting them in a bubble of 'productive aging,' happiness, and fun. Regardless of the sign, both negative and positive, it is clear that when reaching a certain age, you must turn away from the world and take a passive role.

But what is the role of the elderly? Do we really believe that they should remain on the edge of society, just "having fun” as long as they are healthy enough? Does it mean that they have nothing to offer? Nothing to PRODUCE? Why do we insist on alienating or excluding them, even physically, from our lives? And what about the time when their physical health and well-being do start to decline, and they might no longer be able to contribute physically but have a lot of experience and wisdom to offer?

We need to reframe aging and longevity. The new narrative must give the elderly an active, productive, positive, and value-adding role because they have a lot to offer and not just to receive.

Barbara Rey Actis
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