History Repeats Itself: A Look at Older People Past and Present

Dr Tom Heritage is an Economic and Social Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge. He can be contacted at th648 [at] cam [dot] ac [dot] uk

At Cambridge, I research the historical older populations of England and Wales, using the 1851-1911 census, and behind every entry on that census is an older person with a story to tell. During my research, it has become apparent to me that in both Victorian times and today, society portrays older people through negative stereotypes. In 2015, the Wall Street Journal argued that younger populations overemphasise those negative stereotypes, highlighting memory loss, loneliness and an inability to drive, which is often inaccurate and hurtful to older people, and can prove damaging to their health, their sense of self-worth and can speed up their declining physical and cognitive outcomes. Similarly, Victorian contemporaries tended to emphasise how older people in the past primarily relied on state-funded welfare (or, poor relief), and how overrepresented they were in the dreaded Victorian workhouses, again reinforcing a negative narrative of old age. History warns us not to always equate old age with a reliance on welfare. In fact, according to my census data, I find that only 2-3 per cent of the older population aged 60 years and over were recorded in workhouses; a figure roughly resembling the proportion aged 65 years and over residing in care homes today, at 4 per cent.

As our population ages, we need to create a more positive representation of old age. History is full of positive examples of the benefits old age can bring, and challenges our prescribed attitudes towards older people. For example, we tend to associate old age with retirement, but what about their capacity to work? History provides the answers. Between 1851 and 1891, among those aged 60 years and over, 76 to 80 per cent of men were actively recorded in employment along with 18 to 25 per cent of women. Older people were recognised by society for their work and capabilities. In October 1854, the Hereford Times newspaper reported the death of Mr. John Dearn, an 80-year-old nail manufacturer who died on 2 October in Leominster, Herefordshire, describing him as ‘the oldest tradesmen in town, having been in business for more than 53 years.’ We need to counteract negative stereotyping with the positive, such as that of the wise and experienced matriarch, valued by the community for her knowledge and wisdom. Examples involve Edwin Grey’s reflections upon his childhood in 1870s Harpenden, Hertfordshire. In his 1934 memoirs, he fondly recalled 67-year-old Elizabeth Reid, who he referred to as ‘Grannie Reid’, who, during a sickness epidemic, was ‘called upon to come along and give advice as to what to do for a sick child or maybe an older person’ in the community.  

Another positive aspect of old age is the reciprocal exchange between older people and the younger generation. Historical census data reveal that there were strong familial ties between older people and their relatives, just as there is now. Between 50-53 per cent of all older men and women between 1851 and 1911 lived with at least one offspring; the majority of whom ran their households. Older people thus provided their offspring with accommodation, and in some cases both groups shared an occupation, particularly in mining in South Wales, and in the running of smallholding farms in Yorkshire. In return, offspring and extended relatives were expected to care for their older parents. In fact, historical examples can inspire discussion about the economic and societal contributions made by grandparents today. There are many grandparents who look after their grandchildren while their offspring work. An Age UK study in 2017 found that two-fifths of the nation's grandparents over the age of 50 have provided regular childcare for their grandchildren.

By looking at the past, history can tell us a lot about the benefits of old age. My research has taught me that not all aspects of old age have to be dressed up in victimhood, defined solely by pensions, workhouses, illness and vulnerability. Older people, then and now, come in all shapes and sizes with different stories to tell. History repeats itself in that older people have always worked, contributed to their families and helped out the wider community. In other words, history teaches us that older people have so much to offer. If society were to address old age in a more positive light, as opposed to thinking of older people as a universal burden, the benefit to us all would be enormous. History, and its teachings, can pave that way.


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