Observations about the Hard-won Wisdom of Old Age

October 31, 2022

Professor David Troyansky, of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, discusses the history of aging on the International Horizons podcast.

David Troyansky appears to the right against a black and white background of an older couple kissing

The world population is about to surpass 8 billion, and a growing proportion of people are old, including an increasing number of the so-called "old old" — people in their 90s and beyond. Never before have so many older people inhabited the planet. Are we prepared for them? Given the inevitable medical and health challenges that accompany old age,  are we ready to take care of all these people? We also need to know how people experience old age. Are you really just as old as you feel?

On the 100th episode of International Horizons, Ralph Bunche Institute Director and Graduate Center Presidential Professor John Torpey talks with David Troyansky, professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, about the demographics of aging and the causes of the unprecedented disproportion of the amount old with respect to younger generations. Troyansky also discusses how older individuals’ perspectives can inform research on aging, and whether the intergenerational gap between old people and youngsters may (or may not) yield to conflict. Finally, he addresses sexuality issues in aging people and why it is seen as taboo.

International Horizons is part of the New Books Network of academic podcasts. Subscribe to the RSS feed or find it on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. A lightly edited transcript follows below. 


John Torpey  00:00

The world's population has just passed the 8 billion mark and an increasing proportion of those people are old, including increasingly the so-called "old old" in their 90s and beyond. Indeed, never before have so many older people inhabited the planet. Are we prepared for them? Given the inevitable medical and health challenges that accompany old age,  are we ready to take care of all those people? We also need to know how people experience old age. Are you really just as old as you feel? 

John Torpey  00:37

Welcome to International Horizons, a podcast to the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies that brings scholarly and diplomatic expertise to bear on our understanding of a wide range of international issues. My name is John Torpey, and I'm director of the Ralph Bunche Institute at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. And I want to note that today's podcast is our 100th since we began this series in April of 2020. 

John Torpey  01:05

We're fortunate to have with us today David Troyansky, who is professor of history at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University. He's author of Old Age in the Old Regime: Image and Experience in 18th century France from 1989, and of the book, Aging and World History, from 2016, as well as numerous articles on the history of old age and on aspects of French cultural history. He's currently co-editing with Tim Parkin of the University of Melbourne, a six-volume Cultural History of Old Age (that's the title) for Bloomsbury Press. Thanks so much for being with us today, David Troyansky.

David Troyansky  01:48

Thank you, John. Glad to be with you.

John Torpey  01:50

Great to have you and to talk about this really important subject, I think. So you've spent a lot of your scholarly career really studying the history of old age throughout time, and indeed around the world. So what's new about old age? 

David Troyansky  02:06

Well, let me address that in a couple of ways. First, and in line with things that you said right at the start, in terms of the aging of populations, and then in terms of how historians and other scholars are examining old age in a new way. So as far as the demography is concerned, we live in what British historian Peter Laslett referred to as age-transformed populations. In other words, never in the past, was there such a high percentage of older people in the population, and never in the past have so many people lived into advanced age. 

David Troyansky  02:44

Now, this is sometimes presented as a frightful thing, leading to a budgetary crisis and a crisis of dependency. But it's also presented as a great triumph of life over death. When Pat Thane, another scholar in the UK, who's written a great deal about the history of old age, speaks to a non-expert audience, she essentially says that older people have never had it so good, that we're living in the best time to be old. But it doesn't mean the past was just a nightmare. 

David Troyansky  03:19

And that brings me to the second part of my answer, how have historians and other scholars approached the subject? Well, we're not so completely different from everyone else, trying to navigate between decline narratives of aging, and much more positive understandings of aging and the aged, where older people are better positioned and better respected in the past as their status declined. Or can we talk about societies that are better equipped to deal with the needs of older people.

David Troyansky  03:56

Gerontologists often speak of successful aging or positive aging. And of course, that may set some people up for failure, maybe most of us eventually. But the point is that we're much more conscious of the age structure of the population, and have choices to make. I've noticed that Americans are now speaking as much about the power of the aged, consider the US Senate, as about the fragility of the aged. That's another matter. 

David Troyansky  04:31

When I was asked to write, Aging and World History, I thought of myself as a European historian who worked primarily on France. So I had to think about what it meant to do world history. And I was confronted by the unevenness of the scholarly literature. There was already a pretty significant historical literature on old age in France and Great Britain, in the US, and a few other countries. But I also benefited from the literature that was coming out in the rest of the world, at least in languages I could read. It was great fun to be reading on Africa and Latin America and Asia. Sometimes I was relying on sociologists and anthropologists more than historians. 

David Troyansky  05:22

But in adapting their work to history, I was doing something that historians had been doing for a long time: we take from other disciplines. And one of the ideas I played with was whether societies around the world were all converging around a common set of understandings about the aging of their populations, as well as their social policies and cultural representations. Is a world history of aging one story or is it many stories? And I guess people can read the book to find out or at least get some clue.

John Torpey  05:57

Right. Well, we all look forward to the book. But there's one thing I wanted to sort of clarify before I move on to some other questions. And that is, I mean, we haven't really used the term life expectancy. But part of this story is the story of growing life expectancy; indeed, dramatically growing life expectancy over the last century and a half to two centuries. But that doesn't mean that in the past nobody lived to be old, or a few people lived to be old, it really basically was a triumph of the defeat of infant death. The number of people who died before the age of five, basically. And after you got beyond five, you could live a long time, right? So I wonder if you could just say a little bit about, clarifying that that's really what's going on. I mean, it's also true that we have a lot of older people now. But a lot of the difference between now and, say, the mid-19th century really had to do with getting a grip on infant and youth diseases.

David Troyansky  07:05

Well, yeah. But what you're describing, of course, leads in the other direction, towards a more youthful population for a time. But when demographers talk about the aging of populations, they're really talking about two different sorts of things. Think in terms of an age pyramid, and one can talk about an aging from below where the young people are, and an aging from above. So in most cases, we're talking about an aging from below at first. But that's not so much about the triumph over infectious disease and much higher rates of survival of young people, it's about people having fewer children, right? 

David Troyansky  07:57

So basically, when you're thinking about how a population is structured, it's the narrowing at the base. It's basically limiting fertility, which is a part of the demographic transition that results in a different age composition, right? The aging of the population. Now, there's also the aging that occurs at the top of the pyramid. And that's where we're talking about adults and older people who are living longer. And so there are two different sorts of processes. One of the interesting things I've observed in the demographic literature is the way in which some demographers are talking about the demographic transition in a way that includes aging. So it used to be that this transition was all about reducing fertility and reducing mortality. But aging is actually included when a lot of demographers and historical demographers talk about these sorts of things.

John Torpey  09:17

Got it. Okay.

David Troyansky  09:19

One other thing, if I may, because you talked about increasing life expectancy and the fact that they were already people that we would consider old in past time. I like to think of this as a kind of democratization, that more and more people are able to live through that life course. It's not that many people at this point are living longer than anybody ever lived. It's just so many more are able to do that.

John Torpey  10:00

Right. Well, that's helpful. So now we've been sort of talking about demography. But one of the interesting things to me about your new project is that you're sort of emphasizing not just the demographic expansion of old age, but the experience of old age. So, tell us like, what are we missing about old age and how people experience it?

David Troyansky  10:22

Yeah, I think this follows from what I was saying before. And it's something that some historians missed. I mentioned Peter Laslett, he tended to focus on what was happening in the 20th century, or at the earliest, the late 19th century, seeing that demographic shift as most important, but it's not the only story. I mean, it's great that some historical demographers now include aging in the demographic transition; these things are all connected, as I was saying. 

David Troyansky  10:58

But I think we need to recognize that we're dealing with an older story. And there was something called "old", or people called "old" in the past, they were familiar with it. There are lots of examples of numerical thresholds for the start of the last stage of life. People have located them differently, but whether we're looking at ancient China or Mesopotamia or Egypt, wherever, there is an idea of the ages of life, it may be a little bit detached from most people's experience --it is largely detached from most people's experience-- but they would have observed some people reaching old age. 

David Troyansky  11:50

And so then we have to ask, well, what did that mean? Was it all that different because they were fewer people reaching it? Or is there something that we see in the past that looks kind of familiar? And I think this is where historians are always playing with this idea of change in continuity and the degree to which we can almost see ourselves in the past or the degree to which the past is a foreign country. So people understood old age, functionally, if not numerically; they saw it often in the context of power and authority. They also understood old age in cultural terms as perhaps worthy of respect for its experience, or wisdom, or as deserving of censure for one kind of misbehavior or another. 

David Troyansky  12:53

Still, one of the problems I've confronted is that of going beyond the standard cultural representations to people's experience of growing old, and that is harder to get at than the standard sort of stereotypes that exist in a given society. And here, I think this is something that maybe social historians weren't all that equipped to do or interested in doing. Literary sources help, a character's age, or writers' styles change over time. Or people's first person writing evolves. 

David Troyansky  13:36

And in the Bloomsbury Cultural History of Old Age, in each of those volumes, we have people who are writing about first person accounts, but again, there's a problem of trying to figure out how to take those accounts, to what extent are people just rewriting what everybody always wrote about the life course or about growing old, or what leaps out at us as new. And this is something that I'm playing with also in a book that will be coming out next year that is called Entitlement and Complaint: Ending Careers and Reviewing Lives in Post-Revolutionary France (and while Oxford University Press has been threatening to change the title, I think that's what it will actually be). But it's based on a large sample of individuals, in this case of magistrates, who demanded retirement pensions from the state.

David Troyansky  14:39

And I trace them over the course of half a century. They provide proof of their service. There's a kind of bureaucratic system developing, but they also tell life histories. And in cases where they're unsuccessful in the demands, they ask again under the next regime, and for that period of French history, there's another regime every generation. So they age and their presentation of self and their presentation of the past changes. So, rather than focus on broad cultural representations, which is where a lot of literature has been, I'm interested here and getting an individual's take on their own experiences. 

David Troyansky  15:25

There's something institutional about this study, it's sort of organized institutionally, you have to be 60 years old, you have to have 30 years of experience in state service to have a guaranteed pension. But how do we get beyond the setting of rules to how people used institutions? So that's one of my questions in the forthcoming book. And it's a question that has interested other recent scholars, writing about the views of residents of hospitals and old age homes. So this kind of study is exciting. But it usually involves a very close reading of one kind of archival source. So then we have the problem of going from one population or institution to something bigger. And that's kind of where we are. 

John Torpey  16:16

I guess I want to ask a follow up to that, that is self interested in certain respects. As I've gotten older, I've thought more about being old and aging, and all these kinds of things. And so I'm interested in this question that you sort of touched on at some point in your previous answer, about the way in which the old are perceived in different societies. I mean, I think we do have a kind of maybe idealized notion of certain societies in which the old were regarded with esteem and prestige, and they were wise and thoughtful. And,  I have to confess, in certain respects, in my own thinking about the world, I feel like I've come to a greater, I would say, appreciation of the wisdom that older people have. I mean, just the fact that they've been through more and seeing more, suggests to me that, in fact they have a certain edge. It doesn't mean they have the right answer about everything, obviously, but that they do have a certain kind of edge in thinking about the problems that the world faces. I mean, is that image that we have of the elderly as wise, is that a romantic image? Or is that a reality? I mean, there are societies like China, which seemed to me basically, historically, to have been gerontocracies. And, very much so today, even with the Communist Party in charge. And that reflects to me a kind of belief that age brings wisdom. But anyway, I'd be curious, what you would say about all that?

David Troyansky  18:08

What I'd say is that the idea that you've just stated is very widespread. As I branched out from areas I know pretty well, Western Europe, the United States, to areas I know less well. I certainly was discovering certain common features. You mentioned China; actually when Simone de Beauvoir wrote a really influential book on old age back in the early 70s, she presented China as a kind of exception, because of the kind of Confucian tradition. But if you look at Sub-Saharan Africa, if you look at South Asia, if you look at any number of other places, you're going to find similar kinds of representations of the aged as wise. 

David Troyansky  19:13

But at the same time, you will often find people, if you look hard enough, lamenting the fact that it's no longer true. Right? So I remember, one of the things I began my first book with long long ago, was a quotation from someone in the early 19th century, saying, "Oh, we used to revere old age, we used to honor the wisdom of our elders, we don't anymore." And as you go back in time you find other statements like that. So you'll find that in ancient Greece, you'll find that in ancient Rome, you'll find that in a number of other places. And, I have to admit that when I was a lot younger, and I was writing on this subject, I thought of it as a discourse, an idea. I didn't give as much thought, as I have more recently, and as you have, to the reality. "Oh, yeah, we should take seriously this idea of wisdom."

David Troyansky  20:23

I mean, there are gerontologists, who after, I think, a very long time of focusing on the fragility of old age --or accepting the fragility to a certain extent, but not seeing it as the most important story-- they've actually thought about wisdom, in a serious way. Paul Baltes in Germany and other scholars have really emphasized this. I think one of the things that would be great to get at would be how people come to these realizations over the course of a lifetime. And what you describe for yourself, and I can describe something similar for myself. I started out being rather skeptical about these ideas and thinking, well, this is just ideology. 

David Troyansky  21:23

And sometimes it is, look, the people who are in the most secure position in old age have always been in a more secure position because they come from a kind of cultural elite. And so a large landowner, or an aristocrat in the 17th century, is in better shape to weather the aging process than someone who is more marginal and might be accused of witchcraft. Right? So, rather than totalizing, about entire societies, and this is the view of old age, the closer we look, the more we have to distinguish among different segments of the population. 

David Troyansky  22:14

But let me say one other thing about this. When I was looking at the literature on East Asia, and I was also looking at the literature on the Chinese diaspora, there was a tendency for people to write about a kind of unchanging past, in which elders were always respected, in which filial piety was always at the center of things. And my sort of critical historian's move was to ask: really, is that true? Is that what exists on the ground? And I was hearing it also from my students. When I've taught about old age among history students and other students at Brooklyn College, often I find that students who are or come from Chinese and Chinese-American families will talk about the tension they may feel between that Confucian ideal and American reality. And I just wonder whether we're falling into a trap of just accepting the sort of cultural ideal as a reality. It's hard to get at. 

John Torpey  23:38

So whether people our age have wisdom, we'll have to keep exploring, I'm sure. But as for the money, I think it's clearer that the older people have the money. So now, that wasn't necessarily always the case. I mean, Social Security and Medicare largely eliminated the problem of elder poverty in the United States. It was, in that sense, a revolution really for that population. So the ideas that the Republicans occasionally have of getting rid of these things are wildly unpopular, and puzzling, therefore. But in any case there does seem to be a kind of generational tension between the young and the old around the money. And I guess I wonder, generally, given the growth, the expansion of this population, are we ready for this economically? I mean, it's been a drag on the Chinese economy, because of the way things have played out and the decline of younger people because of the One Child and those policies. It's reduced the number of younger people in the labor force to support all these older people. So are we ready for this old age expansion, economically speaking?

David Troyansky  25:09

Let me address that in a couple of ways. I'll get to the surface security issue in a minute. But first, if we look back to the pre-welfare state period, I think the issues you raise about wealth, about power, in that generation they were real. And so one can speak of older people who as long as they have their health and have their strength, if they have property, they are in a relatively good position, and younger people may have greater resentment than what you're describing for the present or the contemporary period. That is, there are tensions over property. 

David Troyansky  26:06

Let me give you an example. There are a bunch of societies where, particularly rural societies, where we can talk about control of land and an older population holding on to it for fear of losing authority. And so one of the things I did long ago when I was working in 18th century France was to look at village societies and the notarized agreements signed between generations; that the older generation will promise something, or may actually hand over authority, but against a promise that they will be supported. It's a written document, right? It's notarized. It's something that can be taken to court if somebody breaks the agreement. So the idea that somehow intergenerational conflict is something that waits for the contemporary period, that doesn't that doesn't quite work. I could say more about this but let me switch to the Social Security question. 

David Troyansky  27:20

And I think you're right that in the Chinese case, we're dealing also with an artificial situation where the one child family sort of set up the problem, but it is a more general problem. There is a relatively easy solution to part of the problem, if we're looking at social security, you can tax incomes above the current cutoff. So last I looked at the maximum taxable income is $147,000. And that's been going up year by year; there's a lot more income to tax now. Is that going to solve the problem on its own? Probably not, it's going to go some way towards solving it. 

David Troyansky  28:09

I think the other issue is age at retirement. And in the US, we've been upping the age threshold for full Social Security. In France, the country I work on most, the retirement age is 62. But President Macron wants to raise it to 65 by the year 2031. And yesterday, in anticipation of battles ahead this winter, he said "well, maybe 64. But we have to tinker with that". So there's a lot that can be done to deal with that. And this was actually the hot topic in French politics, before it got swept off the table by COVID. 

David Troyansky  29:05

There's another element to this kind of calculation about what has to be spent, who's producing and who's consuming. If we think about the way in which shrinking of the base of the age pyramid is what leads, at least in part, to aging, okay, you'll have fewer children to care for. So that part of the dependent population shrinks while the older part grows. I think there's sometimes a lot of fear about all of this. And when we look closely, there are ways of handling these things, the sort of destroying this system, we're privatizing the system. 

David Troyansky  29:53

So I think there are issues that we have to address as a society, but, at least so far, the most serious needs, the most serious health needs, are ones that come very late in the story. That is, when we talk about a period of old age, we're talking about a growing period, but one in which things really go downhill, whether we're talking about physical health or cognitive abilities, and so on, at the end. There's the open question of what's happening with various forms of dementia, and how long people are living with that. So, you know, societies are facing these kinds of things. But I would advise people who panic at the current budgetary issues or the projected ones, to look a little bit more closely. 

David Troyansky  31:03

And finally, on this question of intergenerational conflict, back in the 1980s and 90s, there was a lot of talk in the world of demography, and particularly among people in political science and economics, about the coming conflict between the generations. And I think people looking back on that would say, "it didn't pan out." Now, maybe it'll be different now. That's quite possible. But the last time we went through this --and it was a particularly fraught debate in the United States, though, it was occurring elsewhere as well-- it just didn't happen the way people had feared. And what will happen in the future? I don't know; I'm a historian, I deal with the past.

John Torpey  32:02

Good move. So perhaps one last question, as we're sort of running out of time, and I mean, not to go prurient on you. But one of the things that comes up, shall we say, when the question of old age and the aging population comes up is the question of sexuality. And I'm curious, on the one hand it's thought to be impossible, and on the other hand, it's sort of grotesque. So, I wonder whether it's not getting a bit of a bad rap?

David Troyansky  32:42

I think it has gotten a bad rap, and it continues often to get a bad rap, but I think to some extent it's changing. Maybe the aging of the Baby Boom generation has something to do with that. But the idea of the older wealthier man taking younger women off the marriage market is old and it's visible in lots of literary sources. The images of the dirty old man or the oversexed woman, particularly a widow, was very common in the past. And it was a way of censoring certain behavior by making people ashamed. But it doesn't tell us very much about how people actually behaved or understood themselves. So how can we get at that?

David Troyansky  33:36

We know that widowers have almost always remarried more quickly and commonly than widows. We know something about sexuality outside of marriage, that is historians of sexuality. But as you say, sometimes, we have to be both clever and lucky in finding appropriate sources. 

David Troyansky  34:01

I think it's mostly in recent times that we see new understanding of the sexuality of the aging, whether at home or in institutions, where it may be seen to be a problem. And I think for a topic like this one, we might have to rely more on literature and the creative arts and on film than other kinds of sources. One of the features of that old Simone de Beauvoir book was that she used some journals by writers particularly in the 19th century to get these kinds of issues. So, writers aren't necessarily typical of the entire population, but sometimes we're dealing with those sources and we deal with the sources that we have. 

David Troyansky  34:57

But I think we also should pay attention, and I think we see it all around us, to what physicians and psychologists and social workers have to say. The sexuality of the aging may take us into the area of pharmaceuticals, of Viagra, of hormonal therapies. But those who write about the sexuality of the aging also emphasize different kinds of intimacy. 

David Troyansky  35:26

And I think one of the reasons why the sexuality of the aged gets this bad rap, as you call it, is that we lump old people together as if they're not individuals, and, of course, that they're closer than the rest of us to death. But that lumping together is dangerous and wrongheaded. And I want to refer to something that the Irish geriatrician Desmond O'Neal likes to say about this. He says that it's younger people who are all alike. Older people are all individuals, all originals, and it's the reverse of what we sometimes think. And so, I would like to put that question about sexuality in the larger context of the individual self and the history of intimacy. Again, not always the easiest things to get at, but certainly worth trying to get up.

John Torpey  36:32

Very interesting. I mean, Desmond O'Neal's observation is one of the hard born wisdom of old age, I suspect. In any case, fascinating discussion. Thank you so much. That's it for today's episode. I want to thank my colleague David Troyansky for sharing his thoughts, his insights on aging and world history and on old age today. 

John Torpey  36:55

International Horizons is part of the New Books Network of academic podcasts, please subscribe to our RSS feed or find and rate International Horizons on Spotify and Apple podcasts. I want to thank Oswaldo Mena Aguilar for his technical assistance as well as to acknowledge Duncan Mackay for sharing his song "International Horizons" as the theme music for the show. This is John Torpey, saying thanks for joining us and we look forward to having you with us for the next episode of International Horizons.