The Long Lines. Sociological observations on ageing and ageism. (2010)

On this special occasion, I want to show you something that I have never allowed anybody to see. I will offer you a peek into my private life. 2 This is the very first page of my personal diary, written when I was still fifteen years old. The first sentence is: ‘This is an important moment in the life of a young man, namely: me.’  I mention the day, May, the second, 1964, I mention the hour: five minutes past six on my inaccurate wrist watch. This is the first page of the diary that I have been working on until this very day. Nobody is allowed to read it, I hide it even from my wife and my children, this is really private property, so I hope you realize how privileged you are to see this picture Every idea that I have presented in a book, an article a lecture,  this one included, or even in an informal conversation started its life here, in this diary. I am developing, testing, comparing, falsifying, challenging, elaborating my ideas every day of the week in those pages and I have been doing that for 46 years now. If there is just one single piece of advice I may give to you, it would be that you should at least consider to follow my example, if you are not yet doing it. You have to brush your teeth every day, you must check your email every day and you must comb your thoughts every day. The best way to do that, is to write about all those ideas that daily go through your head – ideas that need to be written down, so you can pick them up, hold them in the air, turn them around, regard them from every angle.

Sometimes I hear people say: ‘I have to think about this’. 3 I never quite understood what they meant. Do you have to sit in an armchair, looking out of the window, with a pensive face? When I try to do this, my mind wanders off, I cannot stay with the subject I had promised myself to think about. Or all of a sudden I feel very hungry and I am overwhelmed by the desire to eat a hamburger. 4 But when I am writing in my diary I thínk, I sometimes really think very hard, I feel my mind is working overtime. I just cannot think any other way.

People are different and maybe what I say is not true for everybody here, but if you have a brain that is just a little bit wired like mine, you have to keep a diary.

When I look back at my life this is the first thing that I discern: thousands and thousands of pages in my diary, forming a long line, stretching over nearly five decades now, showing the continuities and the changes in how I tried to make sense of, get a grip on, the world into which I was thrown, 62 years ago, without my consent, as far as I can remember.

But in this lecture I do not want to look back, although the organizing committee asked me to do so. I now want to turn around 180 degrees and look the other way, look at the long lines stretching out into the future like the railroad tracks you just saw. Today, in this so called Last Lecture, with its frightening undertone of impending doom, I do not want to look at what lies behind, but at what lies ahead of me. I just turned 62. What is there in store for me?

A few weeks ago, I took a tram in Amsterdam. 5 It was overcrowded. I had gone through a rough day and I was very tired, hoping against hope, that there was a place where I could sit. Suddenly, an apparently North African guy in his twenties stood up and said to me: ‘Please sir, take my seat, no problem.’ 6 It was the first time in my life that this happened to me. And like the day when I wrote the first page of my diary, I was very much aware of the fact that this was a momentous event. I thanked my benefactor and I sat down, saying to myself that from now on my grey hair might bring me more tokens of friendlyness.

The following day I told my friends and colleagues about this small occurrence. They are roughly my age. They all reacted the same way: ‘Come on, Bart, don’t let it bring you down, that guy was certainly pulling your leg, those Moroccan youngsters have trouble estimating the age of Dutch people, you don’t look so old, man, etcetera. But I had not taken any offence, on the contrary, I was as happy as a child with what had happened. It was then that I discovered something I had not quite been aware of: the members of my babyboomer generation are scared to death of getting old. They believe that what lies ahead is terrible and they do not want to be reminded of it, and especially not by acts of kindness from the younger generation. They do not want to become dependent on anybody.

It is probably a general characteristic of the culture in modern Western societies with its admiration for youth, health, sexuality, strength and work to think of old age as something that is to be feared. That is strange, because those modern Western societies have witnessed over the past century an unprecedented increase in life expectancy and in the quality of life. 7 The expectancy of a healthy life has risen spectacularly in countries like Sweden, Norway or the Netherlands and it is amongst the highest in the world. The life expectancy in good health has risen to the age of 63.5 in the Netherlands, life expectancy without physical impediments has risen to 69.5 and life expectancy without mental impairments has increased to 74.3 in the year 2008. 8

Maybe you read in the newspapers a few months ago that in the Netherlands life expectancy has increased with five years over the last 25 years. And the life span continues to expand. You might suspect that this news was an occasion for self-congratulation. Speaking in terms of assignments: your final assignment, your ultimate deadline has been revoked,  and all of you guys have been given a general extension of five years! Five more years! Five more years! Let’s party! Now the newspapers and the television shows took a very surprising U-turn. 9 They told us that this is nothing less than a catastrophy. How will we be able to pay the pensions? How are we to pay the health care for these elderly people? Young people will have to work very hard to enable the old people to continue their endlessly stretched out, idle lives. The Dutch economic system is weighed down by a burden that may simply become too heavy. The implicit message of this media coverage was clear: the unhappy phase of human life between your 70th birthday and your death will only extend and the age-group of the babyboomers who have retired and rely heavily upon the services of the caring institutions will have to be financially supported by those hard working young people, who see themselves robbed of a substantial part of their well deserved income. 10 The keyword here is that infamous Germanicism Vergreisung. The number of grey-haired people will rise, turning our society into something utterly colourless: grey, grim and gloomy.

Recently we have witnessed in the Netherlands a discussion that bears a similarity to this one: the debate about the right to end your own life when you feel that your life is complete. 11 During the so called ‘actieweek voltooid leven’, the week of the completed life, (the week of February 8, 2010) this question was discussed in the newspapers and in television shows and a lot of attention was given to a civil initiative to change the law. This is a very important debate. The supporters of this initiative believe that everybody should have the right to end his or her own life, when they have come to the conclusion that their life has reached a certain state of completeness and that they should be given the opportunity to do this in a non-violent, peaceful way. Whatever you think about this matter, the debate has a latent implicit message. The hidden message is that in many cases life after a certain age – let’s say 70 – has no value any more. This was certainly not intended by those who instigated the discussion. But sometimes the implications of a debate may differ from the noble goals of those who started it. The debates about euthanasia in cases of unbearable and incurable physical  suffering, euthanasia in the case of unbearable and incurable psychological suffering, euthanasia when Alzheimers disease has been diagnosed, euthanasia when life is experienced as fulfilled,  all those debates that fill the newspaper columns and the television screens convey a subliminal message: the phase of your life after seventy is not something to eagerly look forward to, because it is the phase of life when you will be menaced by physical hardships, mental diseases and a more generally by a loss of meaning.

12 The debate about raising the age of retirement has a comparable implication. I do not doubt for a second the good intentions of those who oppose these measures. But here again one can discern a hidden message: people who have passed the age of 65 are physically and mentally so exhausted, that we should not subject them to more labour. It is often noticed that this says something very negative about how labour is perceived in our society. But what remains unnoticed is that it also implies something very negative about everybody over 65.

13 Listening attentively to these media-discussions, I could not refrain from thinking that the way we, in our twenty-first century Western society, think about the elderly is similar to the way Norbert Elias, in his book The Established and the Outsiders described how the inhabitants of a small town in England perceived the newcomers in their community. Those immigrants were seen as ‘not like us’, as a threat, an army of foreigners, who do not want to work, who are like parasites living their idle lives off our hard work. The figuration of people under 70 and people over 70 is in many ways comparable to this figuration of the established and the outsiders. That is a very unfortunate development, if only because there is so much interdependency between those who are under seventy and those who are over seventy. One of the simple reasons is that everybody under seventy will eventually become somebody over seventy. You don’t have to do anything difficult to get there: eat your greens, sleep well, don’t smoke, watch out when you cross the train tracks and then just one day you may be the surprised witness of your own sixty second birthday. Economically, politically, in an affective and in a cognitive way: the interdepencies between the generations are pervasive, because everybody travels the same traintrack through time. And everybody is dependent on everybody else, all these generations are interconnected.

This is something that you may have your doubts about. Is it really true that we are so very interdependent? Let me explain.

In modern Western societies many people believe that every individual is almost completely autonomous. Human beings are capable of taking their destiny in their own hands. Unlike our predecessors in traditional agrarian societies, we are not any more determined by social forces. This strong sensation of personal autonomy is present in how we feel and think about ourselves. According to the classic sociologists like Emile Durkheim and Max Weber modernisation is in part a process of individualisation and this attitude towards life reflects it. Although everybody is dimly aware of the fact that in some respects we depend on other people, in our culture the crucial idea is that one should primarily rely on one’s own strength, one should at least try to be self-supportive. This conviction is related to the feeling that there is a deep opposition between on the one hand the brave little individual who must fight for himself and on the otherhand the collectivity, the always trying to crush the solitary fighter.

14 The rise of this cultural imagery has been described by historians, sociologists, psychologists. It’s the well-known story of the individualist Renaissance painters, like Leonardo, the Calvinist church reformers, modern scientists in seventeenth century England, the romantic movements in music, painting and literature in the 18th and 19th century. Every phase in this process, every realm into which this complex was propagated has been described and analysed in many beautiful studies.

Exactly in the same period, the modern social sciences started to develop. Sociology, ethnology, economics and political science came to life in the 18th and 19th century. In those new sciences the values of autonomy and individualism were clearly visible as a kind of birth-mark. You can recognize it in Adam Smith or Herbert Spencer and still today you can smell it in for example Rational Choice Theory. On the other hand and more importantly, the social sciences also criticized this type of individualism as illusory and fundamentally misleading. Let me give you just one example. 15 In 1844 Karl Marx wrote in his Theses on Feuerbach: ‘The human essence is no abstraction, inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.’ (Marx, 1844) Until this very day this is a difficult idea, it conflicts with the way we feel about ourselves in modern societies. 16 The image of the lonely cowboy, the brave sheriff, fighting against the misguided collectivity is deeply engrained in our culture, from the movie to the computergame, from the liberal manifesto to the postmodern treatise, from Gary Cooper and Grace Kelley  to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. 17  The idea that people are in a fundamental way dependent upon each other does not fit in with the spirit of our times. But social scientists from Marx until Norbert Elias have tried to convince people to see it otherwise.

It is not just a problem for social scientists who try to develop a more realistic model of human societies. In the political debate or in common discourse, the idea of individual autonomy is an obstacle if we want to seriously understand the problems we are confronted with. As long as we are incapable to comprehend ourselves as networks of interdependency, we will remain unable to solve the social problems facing us today and this also includes the problem of the interdependencies between the younger and the older generations.

How can we use this sociological vision in order to better understand this relationship? 18 In the sixties and the seventies of the 20th century the problem was often framed in terms of ageism. People were discriminated on the grounds of their calender-age. They were stereotyped and stigmatized on the basis of just one characteristic that they are just as incapable to influence as their gender or the colour of their skin: their age-group. Those were the days of anti-racist movements, so it is no surprise that anti-ageism-groups would use the same terminology and the same action strategies.

In the Netherlands the AOW and the AWBZ enabled the elderly to remain independent for a longer period of their lives. The principle of indidual autonomy was extended to the elderly. Everybody should be enabled to fight for his or her own rights. And those who appeared to be unable to do that should be supported, coached, trained, empowered. The paradox here is that this ability to fight for your own interests, ‘zelfredzaamheid’ in Dutch, was advocated as a solution for a group of people for whom it is often difficult to aggressively defend their rights. The friendly and well intended advice to take their fate in their own hands, was part and parcel of the individualist complex, that can be so very misleading. By framing the problem in this way, a very important element was pushedsuppressed from the discourse: the indeniable fact that the older generations are in several ways dependent upon the younger generation..

It would help if we would study the interdependencies between those age groups: who needs who and for what reasons? It would be advisable to study long term changes in the relationship between the yonger and the older generations, focussing on their financial, political, cognitive and affective dependencies over time. One of the topics that I personally would be interested in is when and why this idea of  old age as the most horrible episode in the human life span became so predominant in Western culture and how it is related to the civilizing process?

But serious studies by cultural historians, sociologists, anthropologists and gerontologists are only one thing.

19 What we also urgently need today is a second wave of anti-ageism. In the sixties and the seventies, complementing the more visible so-called second wave of feminism, one could observe, less conspiciously, but clearly discernable, the first wave of anti-ageism, a small revolution of grey panthers, as those activists called themselves in the US. But these efforts to fight for the rights of elderly people have also demonstrated how difficult this struggle is. The sociological reasons for this are not hard to discover. As a collectivity the elderly share nothing but their elevated age, and this is the characteristic they are least proud of. Under those conditions a Klasse an sich will not easily morph into a Klasse für sich.

There are other groups who occupied in the past a disadvantaged position and who improved their condition, partly as a result of a powerful collective process of emancipation. How is it possible that in the Netherlands the gay community has been so extremely succesful? Here we have a group of people who only recently were considered outcasts: scorned, despised, rejected. The gay community succeeded brilliantly in escaping from this prison of prejudice. The outcome is spectacular. Whatever the differences between our political parties, in one respect they are of the same mind: we should fight the scourge of homo-hatred. Not only VVD and PvdA agree, but there is a complete consensus on this matter from SP and Groen Links to CDA and Christen Unie. The politicians of PVV like nothing more than propagating draconian measures against those who are guilty of violence against homosexuals, which is by the way one of the reasons why it is difficult to assign that party a place in the extreme right wing corner of the political spectrum.. How did the gay community succeed in getting there in so short a period? It is truly breathtaking. Is there something we can learn from them?

One of the most effective strategies has been to convince prominent and talented people to come out into the open and stop hiding their homosexuality. Famous scientists, leading artists, admired media personalities, great entertainers, writers, painters… sooner or later they all came out of the closet and if they refused to do so, they might be ‘outed’ against their will. The result was a new cultural stereotype: the image of homosexuals as people who excell in the arts and the sciences, people leading very happy lives, people who did not only consider their sexual preference as something problemetical. On the contrary, being gay was presented as a source of pleasure and pride, in some cases giving way to feelings of superiority vis-a-vis the boring heterosexuals. Flamboyant Pim Fortuyn versus dull Ad Melkert. 20 Slowly but surely the heterosexual majority became convinced that being gay was not only acceptable, but that it could actually be fun as well. Within the homosexual community the sense of gay pride became stronger, self consciousness became more positive, if only because now one could identify with those famous people who turned out to be members of their club. 21 Every year this pride is demonstrated, often in the most extravagant ways, on the Amsterdam canals during the gay pride parade. Other cities, like Berlin, Paris or San Francisco, developed similar ceremonies.

No, I do not suggest a gray pride parade. 22 But it might help the social power and cohesion of the elderly if a more positive image of the final phase of life could be propagated and maybe that strategy bear certain similarities with the way the gay entrepreneurs did it. Of course, it is not simple. It does not help to line up the admirable elderly in Dutch society from Leo Vroman to Georgine Sanders. 23 If those great poets find pleasure in being admired, I am certain  they want to be admired for their poems and not for their advanced age.

But there is another possibility. When the famous sociologist Norbert Elias was approaching the age of ninety,  everybody who knew him well was aware of the fact that also in his case old age came with its ailments. The old professor had eyesight problems and he became hard of hearing. But with the help of his assistents he continued to publish beautiful books and articles, his memory remained extremely good, his thoughts continued to be sparkling, he was bursting with life. 24 One day he explained to a handful of students, including me, how interesting it was to reach such an old age. Elias had written important books about long-term processes. He had become world famous with a study on civilizing processes. And now, he told us, he had reached an age at which he could actually begin to see those long-term processes, extending over his own biographic time. At last he could observe them with his own old eyes. He had witnessed the German emperor, he had been a hospital soldier during the first world war, but he also witnessed the fall of the Berlin wall. He could compare the way students in Amsterdam interacted with their professors in 1988 with the way students in Heidelberg or Frankfurt addressed their professors around 1930. And he really enjoyed it. To reach a very high age appeared to be in his case a privilege that is only offered a happy few, an unexpected surprise for everybody who has the good fortune to have been spared the physical and mental illnesses that so often spoil old age, a source of secret pleasures that younger people cannot even suspect. And maybe the Jewish professor also derived some satisfaction from the idea that Hitler had been unable to rob him of his long life.

The thing I personally learned from Elias is that I should not fear the final phase of my life, that in a way this is a phase you can look forward to, even though you are accutely aware of  the increasing health risks. But Norbert Elias was not the only man to celebrate the pleasures of old age. 25 In a recent book, De kunst van het ouder worden, edited by Joep Dohmen and Jan Baars, you will find the collected articles of the great philosophers of the past and present about the art of getting old. Sociologists, psychologists, philosophers and literary authors have written about the attractive aspects of reaching a high age. But in our present society their voices are drowned out by other, shriller sounds. What they have to say is miles away from the dominant discourse today. The elderly that are interviewed in the newspapers, the protagonists in documentary movies, often seem to be selected with the unhappiness of their lives as the main criterion. This conjurs up a very threatening image of old age for those who are still young and at the same time it is a menace for the self-image of those who have reached the age of the people who are portrayed in this chilling light.

This leads to a de-solidarising effect within the figuration of the elderly. Nobody wants to belong to a club that is associated with pittiful unhappyness. This is why the elderly who lead happy lives try to distance themselves from their own age-cohort. When an important writer, politician, painter or scientist with an advanced age is interviewed, the journalist will often tell the audience that she looks and behaves as if she is a lot younger than she actually is. The subject of the interview will undergo this praise with a smile, often adding that she, unlike her age-mates, does not feel as old as the calender says she is.

But it is not just a matter of solidarity between people who share a certain age. The underlying problem is this modern ideal of complete independence. In modern societies where everybody feels so menaced by the collective, where everybody is afraid to lose control over his or her own destiny, we are all, whether we like it or not, afraid that once the day will come that we have to ask other people to take care of us, because in some respects it becomes difficult to take care of ourselves. Seen from a purely sociological point of view there is nothing special about being dependent on other people, we started our visit on this blue planet being completely dependent on adults to take care of us and during our whole life, also in healthy adulthood, have we relied upon our social networks. But in a cultural climate in which there is a strong tendency to suppress that simple sociological fact-of-life, it is an unbearable prospect to end up one day in a position in which you clearly have to rely upon social networks whose dynamics are beyond your control. In modern civilized society this prospects may be experienced as so extremely degrading that some of the elderly may even decide that they prefer to regard their life as completed and bring it to an end, before finding oneself in a state of dependency that is conflicting with all the values that they cherished all through their life.

In 1959 a small book was published by an American sociologist, Charles Wright Mills The Sociological Imagination. 26 In that book the author says that the sociological way of interpreting the world will become the common denominator of modern culture. In the fifty years following the publication of that book his prediction did not materialize. In the eighties the social sciences fell out of grace with a larger audience, de number of students enrolled in the social sciences decreased and there was a feeling of stagnation and malaise. But in the last fifteen years things have changed. The social sciences flourish like never before, the universities have a problem handling the growing influx, sociology has become more trendy and fashionable than it ever was. Maybe Mills’ prediction will at last prove to be correct. And maybe the non academic general audience may also develop a more realistic sense of what it is like to live in a human network, to be a network.If that were to be true, then, and only then, would it be possible to develop a better way to understand and improve the situation of the elderly in contemporary society.

Maybe that cultural change would enable us to see ageing not just as a deficit, as losing physical opportunities, sexual potentialities, economic chances, but also and even more so, as an opportunity for new possibilities. 27 Recently a friendly colleague of mine, Bram van der Loeff, who was very influential in my decision to choose this subject for my Last Lecture, sent me a forthcoming article by gerontologist and psychiatrist Arjan Braam, called ‘Gerotranscendence’. Braam is reviewing here the work of Swedish sociologist Lars. Tornstam, who believes that after the age of seventy new values have a better chance to be developed in our lives: the values of quiet reflexivity, recreation, playfulness, an increased feeling of affinity with past generations, a decreased interest in superfluous social interactions, an outpouring of creativity and maybe also a quality that has in traditional societies always been associeted with old age: the wisdom that only comes with the years. 28 [By the way: this is the advantage of lecturing in front of a PowerPoint-presentation. In the text you may say something very serious, but behind you, a picture may be presented that includes a certain ironic comment on what you just said…]

29 I am looking forward to a moment in the future where I hope I can reread my diary, not so much because I might find thoughts and ideas there that I could use in a sociological article or lecture, but because I want to survey those long lines of thousands of pages, discover the veins stretching out through my life, giving it unity and meaning. In fact, at the age of 62, I already start doing that and believe me, it is a very pleasurable experience. 30 There lies a deep satisfaction in looking back on one’s own life, this brief moment of light between two infinities of eternal darkness, and discovering that one begins to vaguely discern now, after all the sound and fury, those long lines that gave this earthly existence its coherence, its intrinsic structure, its dazzling strangeness and its stupefying beauty

‘The LongLines’. Lecture in a series called The Last Lecture organiezed by students of the Liberal Arts and Sciences in Room DZ1 (Gebouw Dante) of the Katholieke Universiteit van Tilburg May, 20th, 2010. The numbers in the text refer to PowerPoint-slides, but the lecture can be read without the benefit of the PowerPoints, as they were only added when the speach was completed.