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Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues. .

Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues. By Pat Thane (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. xi plus 536pp. $42.00).

Pat Thane is not the first historian to challenge the narrative of decline in the history of old age, but she is certainly the most thorough. Though stronger on modern than pre-modern England, her book is the most comprehensive national history of old age yet to appear. It surveys a considerable secondary literature on the aged and offers a critical look at works ranging from historical demography and economic history to cultural history, social gerontology, and the history of the welfare state. In returning to her own original contributions on the welfare state, including a 1970 Ph.D. thesis on old age pensions in the United Kingdom, 1878-1925, and providing a sensible reading of contemporary social scientific data, she goes beyond the basic requirements of a survey.

At the most general level, Thane puts to rest the master narrative of decline. In setting forth the ancient and medieval high cultural backgrounds to early modern English representations of old age, she reveals the common rhetorical tendency in virtually every period to speak in terms of decline and, at the same time, the diverse and even conflicting images that have existed. Like others before her, Thane points out the wide range of aged characters from Chaucer to Shakespeare. She provides hints of changing medical views of post-menopausal women but opts for continuity from ancient and medieval to early modern representations--"green" old age has always had potential, decrepitude has been with us too. She contrasts such continuity with shifts observed by historians of France (including myself) in the eighteenth century. But early modern England is one area about which we will know more after the publication of some current work in progress.

More detailed than the sections on representations but still constructed mainly from secondary sources, chapters on material life, work and welfare, and family life in premodern England depict what Olwen Hufton has described as an "economy of makeshifts." Thane demonstrates that functional definitions of old age were most important. Most of the aged were poor and labored as long as possible. Communities provided some assistance, but Thane's early modern elders led "active lives, giving to their communities as well as receiving. There is no obvious sign that they were despised or degraded because they were old, any more than were poor people of any age" (p. 118). In describing early modern family life, she denies any social obligation to house elderly relatives but does report on cases of coresidence at the very end of life, modest support of aged parents, and some poor relief. In early modern and modern periods, she demonstrates a fairly consistent desire to maintain both independent residences and contact wi th nearby kin. Her discussion of the Old Poor Law concerns a small but variable communal supplement to other sources of income; income packaging is nothing new. In the debate over the extent of Poor Law support, she agrees with Thomas Sokoll that David Thomson went too far in claiming falling state support for the aged since the early nineteenth century. She sensibly contrasts the certainty of welfare-state support with earlier variation and expresses skepticism over the literature that purports to find structured dependency in the position of the aged or to distinguish neatly between those who depend upon family resources and those who depend upon state support.

Thane's own contribution is greatest in the modern period, tracing the invention of the old-age pensioner, the experience of greater longevity, and the positive contributions of the welfare state. As in her critique of Thomson, she engages the literature by debating with some of the more influential scholars in the field. For example, while she accepts some of the emphasis Peter Laslett placed on twentieth-century demographic change, she finds that old age became viewed as a social problem well before the demographic aging of the English population. She criticizes John Macnicol's "political economy" approach to the development of the welfare state as too monocausal and finds his evidence of employers' disciplining younger workers and marginalizing elders unconvincing. His reading of English old-age policy history is the only one that rivals Thane's, and sometimes she engages directly with his argument. For him, the aged lost status-giving employment in the late nineteenth century; for her, movement to degradi ng ways of making a living had been traditional for aged workers, so pensions conferred greater dignity. Specialists will want to read their books side by side--both push the focus on the welfare state back from William Beveridge in the 1940s to the 1920s. They will appreciate, too, that Thane criticizes her own earlier work for claiming that late nineteenth-century discussions of old-age poverty excluded women. To the contrary, she now claims, they were certainly discussed, and they formed the majority of pensioners in the early twentieth century.

Thane's treatment of twentieth-century aging reaches beyond historical studies to social gerontology. She criticizes a common tendency to see marginalization and structured dependency in the contemporary world, and provides a more optimistic perspective on old age in the period of the welfare state. She goes beyond the problem of poverty. "The certainty of receiving a pension changed the lives of middle--class people as much as those of the poor, gradually creating fixed and predictable retirement ages, and a secure if sometimes minimal income after retirement, and a period of later life free from paid work, which could be planned for" (p. 255). Paid retirement came from a variety of sources, from public sector pensions in the eighteenth century to occupational pensions in the nineteenth and state pensions in the twentieth.

Thane has read enough on other countries to place the English experience in international context. Thus, she notices the relatively low level of pensions paid in England and the British failure to act as effectively as the French and Germans to defend the interests of retirees in the second half of the twentieth century. Thane, like Macnicol, puzzles at the praise that the Beveridge Plan continued to receive for half a century. Her English experts of the 1930s, especially among eugenicists, contributed to alarm over demographic aging, a situation Patrice Bourdelais discovered in France at the same time. Here she departs from her generally positive representations of old age in the English past, and she suggests that negative views may have resulted also from health and living conditions of the 1930s and 1940s. Such is the background for the major shift she describes in the middle of the twentieth century, as a majority of English people came to expect to live to a secure, retired, and relatively healthy old a ge.

The history of pension policy drives the book, but Thane has sometimes made eloquent use of the voices of the aged. They include public figures whose aging drew comment, published authors describing their own aging, and otherwise unknown individuals who happened to tell their stories to royal commissions and interested social scientists. She makes use of medical investigations by J.H. Sheldon at the Royal Hospital, Wolverhampton, in 1945-47, the well-known sociological studies of East London by Peter Willmott and Michael Young and by Peter Townsend in the 1950s, the interview-based study by Paul Thompson, Catherine Itzin, and Michel Abendstern of South London in the 1980s, and the Mass Observation study of old age at the University of Sussex in the 1990s, Thus, in an aspect of the book that should prove very influential, she historicizes the major studies that contributed to British gerontology.
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Author:Troyansky, David G.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2002
Words:1263
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