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May 3, 2021

Views of Aging and The Aged Through History: A Brief Overview

In many Western cultures, there appears to be an obsession with youth. People do everything they can to look younger and act younger. They dye their hair, use multiple facial creams and serums, and even get plastic surgery. For the most part, magazines, television, and advertising in general highlight youth, beauty, and vibrancy. Even though age is linked to wisdom and experience, the negative parts of getting older seem to predominate. Many people take it for granted that old age is filled with aches, pains, isolation, and disrespect. 

Researchers have sought to compare Eastern and Western attitudes to aging. Some theorize that Eastern cultures are influenced by Confucianism and there’s deeper respect for older people. However, other studies find that there’s no obvious difference in attitudes toward aging. There’s also debate over whether there was ever a time when there were solely positive views about older people.

The Youth Obsession

There can be no argument that there’s lots of emphasis on appearing youthful and achieving high levels of success at a young age. Clinical psychiatrist Dale Archer argues that the technological revolution is the main contributor to America’s obsession with youth. He said that people no longer rely on the knowledge of older people since they can find all the information they need on the internet. 

As he writes on the Psychology Today website, “This constant access to information leaves the impression that a tidbit of knowledge, or a sound bite, is enough to be relevant. It suggests that a quick ten-minute read or video is equivalent to wisdom gained from years of hard-earned experience.”

However, there’s no clear evidence that respect for older people has declined as a result. The topic is certainly a complex one with varying viewpoints. However, we’ll take a brief look at how views of aging and the aged throughout history.

Perceptions of Old Age

Today, people are typically considered senior citizens when they reach the age of 65. This is also the time when people would traditionally retire. However, given increased life expectancies and advances in healthcare, many individuals over the age of 60 want to continue working and leading active lives. This contrasts with life prior to the 20th century when people weren’t expected to live past age 60.

However, it’s important to note that there have always been competing views surrounding aging. In ancient times, living to 40 was seen as a major achievement, and those people were respected. However, older age could also come with weakness, and people who couldn’t keep up could be ignored or even killed. If an individual couldn’t help with the activities of daily living, they were seen as a burden.

In classical Greek and Roman times, youth and strength were highly valued, much like they are today. Old age was seen as a time of decline. Literature from that time shows that old age did not automatically come with respect or authority, contrary to what many people believe. Even among wealthy families, old age was typically “endured rather than enjoyed.” The sometimes antagonistic approach to older people continued into the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Seniors were either despised or honored, depending on the circumstances.

Where We Stand Today

Based on 2018 World Bank estimates, the life expectancy is 78 in the United States and 81.26 in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, people in Canada can expect to live to 81.95. These figures, coupled with declining birth rates, mean that national populations are becoming increasingly aged. In fact, the 65-plus age group is growing faster than any other. 

Negative perceptions of older people, therefore, take on increased meaning. While advances in medicine have made it possible to live healthier, longer lives, old practices and stereotypes continue to plague older people. Not only can society discard those who are ill and weak, but younger people have negative perceptions of those who still have a lot to contribute to society. 

Young people often don’t realize just how much wisdom and experience older people have to offer. Some mature people even begin to internalize these stereotypes. Even though some seniors are physically weaker and all don’t embrace technology, they help to preserve culture and traditions. In the workplace, they can pass on institutional knowledge.

Despite the obvious biases against older people, it’s important to note that not all hope is lost. Governments and organizations have been paying more attention to the well-being of seniors. In 2002, The Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing and the Political Declaration was adopted at the Second World Assembly on Ageing. It sets out a framework for dealing with aging in the 21st century. Also, the International Day of Older Persons is observed on Oct. 1 annually. With greater attention being paid to the challenges facing older people and a generation of children being raised in this era, perceptions of aging and the aged could very well improve.

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