In every park in every city in the United States on almost every day of the year small children and aging adults meet to take the air. The adults sit quietly on the benches, while the little ones run around, swing from the fences, and make a general commotion. The old returned to the haunts of the very young, natural allies laid by together out of the way of the bustling and “responsible” world—so it may seem to the casual passer-by. However, the feeling that actually dominates the park is not one of alliance; it is one of hatred. And what goes on between the two groups is not an idyllic confrontation but a war—no other word will serve. Perhaps back at home the two do maintain their traditional conspiratorial connection, grandparents and grandchildren; but outside, where they are equal claimants to the use of certain facilities of idle time, the issue between them stands naked: some of them are at the beginning of life and some of them each day get nearer to its end. The young ones are totally absorbed in their own demands for the attention of the world, and the old ones, far from looking on this with that natural sense of the seasons that a life properly lived should have given them, are resentful and bitter and envious. It is easy, after Freud, to be tolerant, and even admiring, of the lack of sympathy in little children. But it is quite impossible to look without fear upon the simple malice that can play in the face of a white-haired old woman—who is probably herself a mother and a grandmother—as she watches an infant struggling to take his first steps. Where does such malice come from? What can it mean?
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To be sure, not all, not even most, of the 17½ million people in America over the age of sixty-five are habitual park-sitters. One out of five is still gainfully employed, full or part time; half are still married; 60 per cent maintain homes of their own; roughly another 20 per cent live with relatives. Thus, many of the aged in our society have resources that the malicious old woman on the park bench presumably lacks—something to do and somewhere to go. Yet the fact remains that even the most fortunate of the aged share to some extent—and know they do—in her predicament. Hers is merely the extreme form of a threatened general condition, for she teaches this lesson about old age in our society: that it is a bad time, one that is more likely to bring a bitter envy toward those who are still active or coming to be active than the traditionally promised rest and peace and ease.
Why this should be so is by no means obvious. That it is so, however, is abundantly obvious, if only from the intense preoccupation with the problems of the aged evident everywhere in our culture. Social scientists and medical researchers of all descriptions have collected themselves into an academic discipline called gerontology—the science of old age—and each year brings its lengthy and grave reports of their findings. A third of the voluntary social agencies in this country now have special programs for the aged; others have plans to create them. And federal and local government agencies are constantly engaged in a study of new ways to expand those facilities that serve the retired population.
Much of this preoccupation, of course, stems from the fact that there are more leisured elderly in our midst than ever before. Not only do more people live longer, but retirement, as measured against life expectancy, comes relatively early. This does not mean, as so many people think, that modern science—medicine, sanitation, etc.—has succeeded in pushing back the frontiers of death. Despite the propaganda of the various National Foundations, which creates the impression that money given to combat their pet diseases is about to do battle with death itself, the outer limits of the length of human life have remained fairly constant. What has happened through modern science is that vastly greater numbers of people are surviving uneventfully what were once the perils of childhood, youth, and middle age: the diseases that nowadays kill most of us (atherosclerosis, cancer, kidney ailments) are diseases of the aging organism.
What has also happened through science, however, is that the elderly on the whole enjoy better health than they once did, and this has effected a radical change in the image of retirement. No longer represented by a stooped, feeble old retainer shuffling up to receive his gold watch for forty years of service and then returning home to wither away, the term retirement now brings to mind the picture of a sixty-five-year-old man who may or may not be perfectly vigorous, doing his job one day and the next being handed a pink slip: The American Labor Force No Longer Needs Your Services. In other words, the same modern technology that has brought about increased life expectancy has also necessitated earlier retirement. (Indeed, it seems likely that if technology were given its own rational way with the lag of custom, retirement would have been brought forward even further than it already has.)
No one, it might appear, could respond to these twin developments with anything but gratitude. People want to stay alive as long as possible and for as much of the time as possible in good physical condition. And it is equally natural for them to want to know that one day they will be freed from the necessity of work. We learn from the anthropologists that many primitive societies kill off their feeble old because they cannot afford to keep people who must eat without working. But primitive does not mean natural; and the outlook of anthropology in some ways dulls the imagination on this point: because a man reaching old age in a parricidal culture accepts the inevitability of the system, it cannot be that he faces with any less terror the knowledge that he must either work or die. Biologists tell us of the aging body that it seeks and needs a lessening of noise, a brightening of light, and ever increasing quantities of rest. In short, to live long and to have time to waste are among the deepest of human aspirations.
Of those millions of Americans who would fall under the technical definition of being aged, then, a very large number would seem to have reached a state toward which men naturally yearn. No more than 3 per cent are helpless enough to be shut away in custodial institutions’, among the rest, there are many people so youthful, so vital, so healthy that experts involved in their problems are enjoined from using the word “aged” altogether, and must refer to them in embarrassed terms like “senior citizens”—in their “golden age.” Given all this, why is so much social concern being expressed over the predicament of the aged?
An important part of the answer, surely, is that the aged are undergoing in a special way an experience that promises to become nearly universal. This experience is called the problem of leisure, but in truth is the problem of supererogation. To put the case very simply, there are not enough jobs to go around, and there will be even fewer as automation proceeds on its inexorable course. The young are being kept out of the labor force for as long as it can be managed, and when they cannot be kept out any longer, the old must make room for them. Where often in small primitive societies manpower is so desperately needed that there can be no provision for those who do not supply it, in our situation hordes of people must regularly be put out to pasture.
It is generally assumed—probably even by the aged themselves—that the trouble lies here: in the humiliation, the sense of futility, that result from being shunted aside. Psychologists tell us that one of the main disabilities suffered in the life of retirement is a loss of self-esteem. Social workers center their programs for the aged on the question, “What can we do to give older people some greater sense of their continuing, valuable participation in the world around them?” Many medical researchers talk about helping even the ailing and disabled and institutionalized among the aged to cope far more adequately with their environment. All this makes sense, in its own terms; surely the feeling of being a valuable member of the world is a good, and a necessary, thing. In every instance, however, the terms of discussion themselves turn out to be circular and lead away from the primary question, the only question that can yield anything new either to the understanding or to the making of programs: why do those who are relieved—for whatever reason—of a tiresome burden feel themselves instead to be bereaved?
Let us take the matter of self-esteem. Certainly a man forced to retire when he is still able to perform his work easily and competently must feel himself to be the victim of an unmitigable injustice. Indeed, even a man who before retirement had begun to find his work enormously taxing, and might therefore look forward to retiring, must be left with the sense that his being forced to leave this work represents a personal failure. By one of those queer ironies of psychology, so long as retirement is a thing decreed from the outside, it will appear to operate as some kind of judgment. Nevertheless, it is difficult to believe that the unhappiness of the aged can be explained in such terms. For even granting that there is a loss of self-esteem involved in the loss of employment, we are still left wondering why the compensations of leisure and security (in those cases where economic need is not a factor) do not operate any more powerfully than it is assumed they do.
For women, to be sure, the situation is somewhat different. The terms of their “employment” are vaguer. When all her children have grown up and moved away, a woman still has her domestic empire—now considerably diminished, but perhaps in due proportion to her diminished physical power—to rule. Whatever difficulties an aging woman experiences, therefore, are generally thought to stem from the fact that her main function in life, to oversee the welfare of her children, has been taken from her.
In this connection sociologists and psychologists have spoken a good deal about the revolution in the institution of the family brought about by the urbanization of American life. That is to say, families now live together by and large in “conjugal” units, consisting only of a mother, a father, and their offspring, who in turn break away upon reaching maturity to form new conjugal units of their own. This means that with the marriage of her last child a woman is “retired” no less forcibly than her husband is when he arrives at his sixty-fifth year. But here again, one wonders whether the relief every woman must feel at having this particular burden of responsibility lifted from her is not being scanted in discussions of her psychic problems. Moreover, it is extremely doubtful that the aging American woman of today has any cause to regret the passing of the old rural, clan-shaped, agglomerating family. She and her contemporaries established their own conjugal families not only, not even principally, in order to bring up children but out of a belief in their right to privacy, to freedom of decision, to independence of their parents and grandparents—in short, out of a sense (a modern, urban-bred sense, to be sure) of obligation to self. Why should they now feel differently? It can be seen that as people get older, and if circumstances permit, they more and more shape their style of life to fit comfortably around their predilections; this is what is called “getting set in one’s ways.” And a small, self-centered household is obviously the one to facilitate this process. Thus it seems unlikely that the aging parents of today, once themselves children who left the parental home, feel quite so deprived when their turn comes as popular legend and social work theory would have us think.1
In line with the idea that the aged must be given something to do in order to prop up their failing self-esteem, the social workers and rehabilitators are attempting to create, out there in the pasture, what amounts to a virtual parody of the world of the very young. From one end of the country to the other, groups with titles like Golden Age clubs and Senior Citizens’ classes have been established. A typical list of their activities includes such things as crafts, singing, dancing (even the twist), dramatics, picnics and fishing trips (in Chicago, there is an annual two-week senior citizens camp; in Menlo, California, there are five-day excursions to the national parks), hobby and antique shows, dressing dolls for the Salvation Army, collecting radios and magazines for state hospitals, repairing clothing for needy families, and stuffing envelopes for the League of Women Voters.
How the people who sponsor these programs can believe that the elderly men and women who participate in them will thereby overcome the loss of self-esteem involved in their feelings of uselessness is rather a mystery. Having somewhere to go and something—anything—to do is undoubtedly better than having nowhere to go and nothing to do. But it is not equivalent to having something useful and valuable to do, and it is from the conviction that one’s activities have value that self-esteem arises. When the young are herded together for similar activities, the idea is that they can afford to wait, and in the meantime they need to be kept off the streets. To the aged, however, despite the fact that they have countless unfilled hours from day to day, time is the commodity above all others that is in short supply: what else does getting old mean? And by social work’s own avowed understanding of the matter, society must find the way to keep them on the streets, not off.
In short, so much discussion of the problems to be faced in retirement revolves around what look like sensible ideas on how to “prepare” people for leisure, how to provide them with “real” interests, how to get them to use their “resources,” and so forth, that everyone tends to lose sight of the fact that idle time is not the same thing as free time. Time can only be free when its possessor is using it to do what he wants to do and respects doing.
People in the Golden Age clubs may dance and may sing—they are asked to do so even from their wheelchairs in the nursing homes—but this is not the makings of a new life in retirement; it is a pasteboard version of the old. The aging may out of desperation accept it, but can anyone expect them to be “fulfilled” in doing so?
In this connection it is baffling how little of the professional, or merely the interested, talk ever gets around to the mention of money. Naturally, everyone knows that money has more than anything else come to be regarded as the measure of a successful life, and therefore of a man’s sense of his own worth; and this much everyone does say—and piously deplores. The money that is not talked about, as though it were impolite to mention it, is another kind of money: the money that buys things.
There is a whole body of American folklore dedicated to the question of what money can and cannot buy. In its application to old age, the folk wisdom for some reason seems to concentrate on the “isn’t everything” aspect—maybe because rich and poor alike get wrinkled (though in the case, of women, even this is not necessarily true), or maybe because the sentimentality that is the usual response to death reflects backward on the old age that foreshadows it. But if money, as they say, cannot buy health, it can buy the most comfortable alternatives to it: the retirement cottage in Florida or New Mexico, the services necessary to carry on a relatively normal life without strain. If it cannot buy happiness, it can, for most men, help to provide the means of expressing strength of spirit—whether this be the regular pursuit of a hobby, the exercise of power over others, or worthwhile civic activity. It can most of all, despite our pieties, buy the elementary kind of respect that is extended to people who do not have to depend on others.
Money is something not very many of the aged have very much of. It is hard to be precise about this because the collectors of data must depend on individual reporting, but what figures there are indicate that as of January 1960 nearly 60 per cent of those over 65 had a cash income of less than $1,000 per year per individual; around 25 per cent had between $1,000 and $2,000; the rest had over $2,000, but of these only 4 per cent had more than $5,000.
In their eagerness to avoid confronting the bearing of such figures—even allowing for inaccuracies—on the question of leisure as we know it, sociologists have engaged in some curious studies and made some curious findings. One such study that comes to mind is an investigation of the relation between the preferred uses of leisure and class attitudes.2 Seventy-five per cent of the former managers interviewed, and only 55 per cent of the former manual workers also interviewed, said they were getting as much fun out of life as they used to. On the other hand, 41 per cent of the manual workers as against only 25 per cent of the managers felt that they would be interested in joining a Golden Age club. Now, what sociologists mean by class attitude may indeed greatly influence certain choices of leisure—for example, the kind of thing a man prefers to spectate, whether ball games or symphony concerts, or even (though all this is far more taken for granted than it has a right to be) whether or not he is apt to spend time reading books and newspapers. But when it comes to “getting fun out life,” to the large, over-all choices about how to fill up and shape one’s declining years, there is something almost comic about the sociologists’ inability to come right out and say that the amount of money a man has to live on will, more than anything else, determine his sense of the possibilities that exist. (A researcher somewhere has even made the startling discovery that there is a significant correlation between level of income and the use of travel as a leisure activity.)
In any case, an income of one or two thousand dollars leaves a man very little alternative but to fall into the benign hands of gerontology—if, indeed, it can even carry him that far out into the world. I do not mean to imply that the unhappiness of the aged is yet another of those social problems that leads on a straight road back to the question of the inequitable distribution of wealth in this country; primarily it is not. But for that tiny percentage who manage to make a wide enough detour, there are many, and very real, compensations.
Just about everyone takes a significant cut in income upon retiring, a point which goes beyond the merely socio-economic and becomes a paradigm of life itself. The way things stand now, a man must in the course of his working life earn both his current keep and his future (or his widow’s) support in idleness. The prolongation of life means that he must either earn more—financially, spiritually, emotionally—or there will be less to go around in the late years. Therefore the leisure we speak of these days is a condition that would not traditionally have gone by that name. Traditionally leisure was the result of an unearned abundance, or at least a quickly and easily earned one. Retirement, at its very best, is a geometrically diminishing pay-off for a life of hard work and careful attention to the rules.
And here we come to the heart of the problem—for all of us, but the aged particularly, in whom it stands most brutally exposed. Not a sudden inactivity, which might be pleasant; not the absence of familial or community concerns, which might be a welcome relief; not even the approach of death, which can only mean what men make it mean: it is the rules by which Western urban men have been taught to live that lie at the base of a bitter or empty old age. The faces of resentment that we see beneath the whitening hair are the faces of people who have been “had”—and for whom it is too late to do anything about it now. They have been had in several ways. They have worked hard and worried much, as they have been told they must do, only to find that all the work and worry was for the sake of those who come after, and who must anyway themselves go through the same round of work and worry, eternally. They have saved their money, only to find it serving as a crutch against debility, or at the most as a weapon against the disregard of the struggling young. They have sacrificed great quantities of their human substance, their longings, itches, and imaginings, to the working and the saving—only to find that the spirit is a substance which turns rancid in storage.
Our “senior citizens” are people who were once taught that by denying themselves what D. H. Lawrence called the “good, warm life” they would be earning some great reward at the end—and who are living long enough to watch all the possibilities run out. The cry of the woman on the park bench, and of all her sisters and brothers, rich or poor, loved or unloved, would be, if she could make it: “But I never lived, and now I’m never going to.”
The system of rules that sets up its steady tattoo in the nervous system, “Save, defer, lay by, put off,” is a system that was devised when life was brutish and short. The reward it promised was Heaven. Put to the test in our time, when there is so much space between the cessation of toil and the end of life, the system reveals its great empty gaps. Old age is a period in which it must become increasingly difficult to deceive oneself. Many of the aged may still believe in the Heaven they have been striving to earn; but, as their troubles tell us, they can no longer find this belief a sufficient preparation for solitude and death. That, as the poets and philosophers have always known, can only come from the collection of all those present moments that might one day become real and self-defining remembrances.
1 For those who have always lived alone, the problem is entirely different—probably, except for its aesthetics, very little affected by age. Where such people are concerned, self-involvement is not the earned privilege of time and nature but a spiritual disease having a very early onset. The World Health Organization estimates that somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent of the world's aged population are “isolates,” but it is difficult to know how many are the victims of plain injustice and how many represent the kind of human tragedy that social thought has always been powerless to deal with.
2 As reported by Mr. Max Kaplan in his chapter in Handbook of Social Gerontology (University of Chicago Press, 1960).