The Best Is Yet to BenThe “problem” of the elderly innAmerica is turning into a majornindustry for the social sciences.nMuch of the discussion turns on thensupposed mistreatment the old receivenin the country of the young.nPop gerontologists portray the plightnof the elderly: poor, sick, abandonednby their children, stigmatizednby society as ugly, sexless, andnpowerless. The third edition ofnGrowing Old in America: New Perspectivesnon Old Age (edited by BethnEarless and Elizabeth W. Markson;nTransaction Books; New Brunswick,nNJ) helps to dispel many ofnthe old myths.nThe old consensus on aging,nbased on the “modernization theory,”nblamed the problem on industrialization,nwhich broke up thenold mulhgenerational households,ndivided the elderly from their children,nand abandoned them to thentender mercies of the modern state.nIn recent years, the modernizationntheory has come under attack fromnmany quarters. Historians like PeternLaslett have demonstrated convincinglynthat the multigenerationalnhousehold was never a standard patternnin Britain or America, whilenMichael Anderson has shown thatnin 19th-century Lancashire, atnleast, the elderly in cities were morenlikely to reside with relatives than innthe country. Other researchers havenexploded the idea of an honorablenold age in traditional societies. AsnCorinne Nydegger points out in thisnvolume, old age per se is very rarelynvalued, decrepitude never: it is thenwealth, power, and special skillsnpossessed by some old people thatnconfer high status upon them.nAll this revisionism is a welcomencorrective so long as it is not takennat face value, Consider Laslett’snnow universally accepted argumentnagainst multigenerational residence.nWhat it demolishes is, to angreat extent, a straw man. Thenolder standard view was not sonmuch that several generations livednin the same house but in closenenough proximity for them to lendnREVISIONSneach other mutual support andncomfort. Besides, as Guy Lee argues,ncensus data indicate that “atnthe turn of the century over sixtynpercent of the elderly . . . livednwith at least one child; the comparablenfigure for 1970 was aboutneighteen percent.”nThe aged may never have hadnespecially high prestige in our civilization,nbut historian Brian Grattannprovides evidence enough tonsuggest a significant decline. Considernthe ways in which people lienabout their age. Like Jack Benny,nmany people continue to reportnthemselves as 39 (or 49) long afternthey have turned the corner. Inn18th-century America, however,n”Instead of excess number of personsnstating that they are 39, or 49,nexcess numbers report themselvesn41 or 51.” Grattan concludes thatn”the view Americans took towardnage was utterly different in the lateneighteenth century.”nAre the elderly really poor andnneglected in America? In an excellentnintroductory essay, Beth B.nHess provides a balanced discussion:nWhite males do rather well,nothers not especially, although thenincidence of poverty among thosenover 65 is only 14 percent—justnslightiy higher than the overall averagenof 11.4 percent—but most ofnthem have been poor all their lives;nage is not the reason. Besides, 70npercent of the elderly own homes,nand four-fifths of the houses are freenand clear. Some of them are innneed of repair, but there is nonjustification for the conventionalnpicture of vast numbers of agednpeople dragging out their last daysnin unheated rooms.nThere is no question that to benold in America is not a mark ofnprestige. Part of the problem comesnfrom the tendency to early retirementnencouraged by Social Security.nIn a commercial republic, prestigenand respect are very largely anfunction of work. Men, especially,nface a terrible crisis upon retirement.nThey become feminized,nhelp out with.the housework, andnbecome a nuisance to their wives.nnnThis is not an exclusively Americannphenomenon. Linda Evans Coolnand Justine McCabe provide ancross-cultural comparison by reportingnon the effect of old age inntwo Mediterranean societies innwhich the women grow in influencenand the men seem to shrink.nMuch of the women’s prestige hasnto do with their success as mothersnand the strong ties they have establishednwith their children. Thenmen, on the other hand, spent theirnvital years exulting in their freedom.nLike many an American father,nthey never got to know theirnchildren. In later years, withoutnwork or power, they are at loosenends.nIn a highly mobile and industrializednsociety like the U.S., therenare inevitable problems in growingnold: retirement brings loss of prestige,nchildren move away, the elderlynretreat into false pride, independence,nand most recently—nresentment. Some do not escapenthe temptation to see themselves anvictimized minority. At least, somenof these difficulties are caused byngovernment policies like SocialnSecurity—policies which, let us remember,nwere the bright ideas ofnthe current generation of men andnwomen over 65. Of course, there isnno golden age to return to but it isntime to release some of the pressuresnwhich work against intergenerationalnunity and affection.nGrandparents have a natural stakenin their children and grandchildren.nIn circumstances of alHueneen(even in the Depression, Americanwas a comparably affluent society),nfamilies are free to express theirnnatural affections—as so many donstill in the U.S. Our only realnproblem with the elderly is that theynare cut off from all the associationsnof family and friends which givenmeaning to anyone’s life. The verynleast we can do, as Allan Carlsonnhas suggested, is to restructure SocialnSecurity and the tax structurento alleviate some of the governmentndiscrimination against families, ccnAPRIL 1986145n