Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Old Age and Decline: Some Philosophical Reflections

The Four Ages of Man - Nicolas Lancret

There’s an oft-repeated ‘fact’ thrown around in debates about retirement and old age. The details can vary but it’s something to the effect that when the pension entitlement age was set at 65 in the early part of the 20th century, very few people could expect to collect it, and those that did could only expect to collect for a few years (probably no more than 5). This was because life expectancy was so much lower back then. Hence setting pension entitlement at 65 was a relatively low cost gesture for the government. But what was low cost back then has turned into a major expenditure today, now that people are living so much longer and life expectancy has shot up. Whereas most people could only expect to live to their early 60s in the early 1900s, nowadays the majority can expect to live into their late 70s/early 80s. This places considerable strain on public finances and means more people are spending more of their lives in a ‘retired’ and ‘non-productive’ (from an economic/tax-paying perspective) state.

Having done some digging, it turns out this fact is not quite true. While it is true that life expectancy was much lower back then, that was mainly due to high infant and early adult mortality (due to infectious disease and war). If you cleared those early-life hurdles, and made it all the way to 65, you could expect to live a good bit longer, upwards of 13 years in fact (more if you were a woman). That post-65 life expectancy has gone up since then, but by much less than how much life expectancy as a whole has gone up. This doesn’t mean that costs are not increasing — the huge drop in early life mortality means a lot more people are making it to their late 60s. It also doesn’t detract from the fact that more and more people are entering this ‘retired’ phase of life.

But what does it mean to enter that phase of life? Many of us, myself included, have a negative perception of ageing and retirement. We see ‘old age’ as a period of inevitable decline and senescence. It is a phase of life marked by narrowing horizons, and a fall from grace and prowess. Although death looms large in old age, it is not the only negative aspect of the ageing process. If the Epicureans are right, then death itself is nothing to us; it is the period of life just before death — when we retreat from public view and lose our sense of significance, purpose and social meaning — that is the most existentially terrifying phase of life.

Is there anything to be said to quell these fears of ageing? Can we live valuable and meaningful lives in old age? There is a surprising lack of philosophical commentary on this issue. One of the more prominent contributors to the debate (Jan Baars) has argued that Western philosophy’s obsession with death has tended to suck attention away from old age. Nevertheless, there has been some work done on the topic and in what follows I want to share my own, poorly structured thoughts on it. This is a partial and selective take on old age, reflecting my own interests and biases. Still, some of you might find it interesting.

I start by looking at what I take to be the standard, ‘decline’-oriented view of old age. I then consider the alternatives to it.

1. The Decline Argument: A General Schema
There are some cultures where the elderly are afforded a lot of respect. Indeed, there is a famous adage stating that ‘with age comes wisdom’. Nevertheless, a common view in Western societies is that old age is a period of decline and devaluation. Simone de Beauvoir comments on this in her book The Coming of Age. She notes that many people are uncomfortable around the elderly. They see them as a social nuisance — a burden on the productive working population. They see them as something ’other’ or ‘foreign’. They try to marginalise and obscure them from sight through hollow gestures of charity:

Society appears to think that they belong to an entirely different species: for if all that is needed to feel that one has done one’s duty by them is to grant them a wretched pittance, then they have neither the same needs nor the same feelings as other men. 
(1972, p 9)

De Beauvoir links this attitude to the productivist ethos that underscores the modern economy:

The economy is founded upon profit; and in actual fact the entire civilization is ruled by profit. The human working stock is of interest only insofar as it is profitable. When it is no longer profitable it is tossed aside. 
(1972, p. 13)

This resonates. Certainly in debates about pension entitlements one often hears mention of the ‘burden’ that the elderly place on the working population. To be clear, this often comes with a sense of duty to the elderly, i.e. with a sense that they have done their bit for the economy and so deserve some protection, but, still, there is some begrudgery to the arrangement.

We should not, however, get too hung up on the economic devaluation of the elderly. It is significant but there is also a wider sense of decline and devaluation at play. There is the general belief that old age is a state in which you inevitably lose the capacities that make you valuable to yourself and your society (creativity, innovation, productivity, moral foresight, aesthetic beauty, physical prowess and so forth). Consequently, there is the sense that there is an inevitable general devaluation in old age.

This suggests that the following argument scheme undergirds the negative attitudes toward ageing:

  • (1) A life is valuable only if it has properties P1, P2…Pn. [The value premise]
  • (2) In old age, you inevitably lose (or experience some decline in) properties P1, P2…Pn. [The decline premise]
  • (3) Therefore, old age is inevitably a period in which your life becomes devalued.

I will evaluate the merits of this argument below. Before getting to that, however, it’s worth making a few comments on how it ought to be interpreted and understood.

First, note that this argument is a template that can be filled in with specific examples of the relevant value-conferring properties. You could, for instance, argue that life is valuable only to the extent that it is artistically creative; that old age inevitably brings about a decline in artistic creativity; and hence conclude old age results in an inevitable loss of value. Different combinations of value-conferring properties might make the argument more or less persuasive. Furthermore, these value-conferring properties could emanate from very different philosophical perspectives. For example, one could make the argument with personal value in mind (i.e. the value of a life to the one that is living it), or objective moral value in mind (i.e. the value of the life to the universe/humanity as a whole). Selecting one perspective over the other could make for very different arguments. A life could, after all, lack value from the personal perspective without lacking value from an objective perspective, and vice versa. This is to say nothing of socially constructed metrics of value (such as fame or economic value) and how they could be worked into the argument.

Second, note that there is some fuzziness to premise (2). This must be factored into the interpretation. I’ll say a bit more about the nature of ‘old age’ below, but here I want to point out that — at the limit — the decline premise is almost always true: people must lose some capacities in old age (after all, ultimately they must lose their lives). The only way this could fail to be true is if we invent perfect anti-ageing technologies that mean we can restore any lost capacity. This remains a pipe dream for now. This is important because, given the inevitable (at the limit) association between old age and loss of capacity, it might be tempting to simply define old age in terms of that loss of capacity. We must not succumb to that temptation. Doing so would make the argument trivially true. Old age must be defined as something other than the loss of properties P1, P2…Pn if the argument is to be interesting.

2. What is old age?
But then how should we define ‘old age’? We could lose a lot of time to this question. Jan Baars has some fascinating meditations on the ontology of old age in his work. He notes there are multiple different measures of old age and they don’t necessarily coincide on a common definition.

There is, for example, the standard chronometric measure of age. This is the measure of the number of minutes, hours, days, months and years since a person was born. This is a simple objective fact about the person that is easy to track and record. The problem is that this doesn’t tell you exactly when a person becomes old (if that even makes sense). You would have to pick some arbitrary cutoff point in the chronological measure (e.g. age 65 or 70) and define as ‘old age’ anything above that cutoff point. But that’s not particularly helpful since it doesn’t provide any reasoned justification for the choice of cutoff point.

This arbitrary, chronometric, approach to old age could then quickly lead to trouble. Here’s one: it is common for statisticians to associate clusters of capacities and abilities with chronometric ages (e.g. mental acuity, reading ability, physical dexterity). This allows them to say things like “If you are aged 18, you should expect to have properties X, Y and Z” and “if you are aged 65, you should expect properties P, Q and R”. But these are just statistical averages. You may not have those properties. This can lead to all sorts of odd statements being made about your age relative to the statistical average. For example, when I was younger it was common for students to be told their ‘reading age’ after standard assessments of reading comprehension. I remember I was quite chuffed when I heard that my ‘reading age’ was far in excess of my chronometric age. I was less chuffed, years later, when I was told that the age typically associated with my level of physical fitness was in excess of my chronometric age. This mismatch between one’s actual capacities and the statistical norms associated with chronometric age can lead to ageism, and makes articles like this one (on the ethics of ‘trans-ageism’) inevitable.

The other problem with the chronometric approach is that attitudes toward different chronometric ages are highly variable. The social and biological facts of ageing can change, depending on culture and technology. While 65 might have seemed like an appropriate retirement age 100 years ago, nowadays it doesn’t. That’s one reason why people call for increases in the retirement age (or a complete rejection of the concept). At the same time, as Baars notes, there is a tendency within certain groups to push back the chronometric cutoff to old age in order to promote certain interests. For example, an athlete is considered old in their 30s, ‘older workers’ are often relatively young (50ish), and so-called ‘mature students’ in universities can be very young indeed (early 20s).

As I say, we could waste a lot of time trying to figure out what old age actually is. I don’t want to go there because I don’t think there is a wholly satisfying answer. I do, however, think there are useful paradigm cases of old age that can guide our analysis. Thus, even though there is disagreement around the margins, I suspect most of us would agree that someone in their late 70s and 80s would count as being old age. Why so? I presume the answer lies in a combination of biological and chronometric reality and socially constructed norms and attitudes. Thus, I don’t think being old is a simple objective fact about a person — associated with their chronometric age — but rather is a complex bio-social-physical fact. It is not a fact that can be entirely self-determined (you cannot ‘will’ yourself to be younger), but it is a fact that is somewhat contingent and open to renegotiation (because of changing technological and medical realities as well as changing social perceptions).

With that clarification out of the way, I will spend the remainder of this article assessing the merits of the decline argument, focusing in particular on ways to object to its two premises. In doing so, I will have paradigmatic cases of old age in mind.

3. Rejecting the Decline Premise
One obvious way to object to the argument is to reject its second premise: the decline premise. The claim that old age is inevitably associated with some decline or obsolescence in value-conferring properties P1…Pn is, undoubtedly, going to be shaped by the statistical averages and social perceptions attached to certain chronometric ages. These averages and perceptions can be challenged.

To make this concrete, let’s consider a specific example. Suppose that within the world of mathematicians it is common to hear claims like “no mathematician over the age of 40 makes a significant breakthrough”. Any mathematician unlucky enough to be over the age of 40 (or should that be ‘lucky enough’ since the alternative fate is presumably worse?) would be devalued by other members of their profession as a result of this belief. But is the belief accurate? Any particular mathematician could undermine by pointing out that the belief does not hold true in her case (i.e. that they have made significant breakthroughs despite being over the age of 40), or by pointing out that it is based on a statistical misperception or error. In other words, they could either argue that (a) they are an exception to the perceived rule or (b) the perceived rule is false.

One or both of these strategies may work, depending on the individual case. In his article on successful ageing, Howard Harriott uses the example of the artist Matisse to illustrate how it is possible for an older person to live a life of significance. In Matisse’s case, his life’s mission centred around art and artistic creativity. He battled against the perception that art is a ‘young man’s game’ and dramatically illustrated how untrue this was through his own example. Despite being lambasted by the critics and suffering from several illnesses and frailties, he embarked on a ‘second life’ in his 70s and produced some of his most memorable work as a result:

In this late phase of his life, he embarks on a series of new works such as Florilége des Amours de Ronsard, Thèmes et variations, collages and innovative cutouts (papiers découpés). He embraces the “colors” of jazz as he transforms the vibrancy of jazz sounds and rhythms into a visual medium and produces his final triumph: the glorious chapel at Vence. Viewing Matisse’s later works, as for instance recently convened at the Musée de Luxembourg, in Paris, one gets the full sense of why Matisse’s work so illustrates the new paradigm of the creative life as seriously possible in old age. 
(Harriott 2006, 120)

Some people may object that Matisse and others like him are unusual figures — the exceptions that prove the general rule — but it’s not clear if that is accurate. It could be that general perceptions of decline in old age are misguided and that elderly people are much more capable than is believed. I have no doubt that there are a lot of ageist, unjustified assumptions made about them. Still, there are limits to this. For at least some value-conferring properties it will be true that old age is inevitably associated with decline and loss. For example, athletic prowess and physical fitness. At best, elderly people can minimise the losses they suffer with respect to those value-conferring properties: they cannot completely avoid them. So even if some formulations of premise (2) do not work; others probably will and the resultant decline and loss of value will be painful.

4. Finding alternative sources of value
A more promising strategy for objecting to the decline argument is to take issue with the first premise. Of course, as noted above, the first premise has no content in the abstract form. You need to identify specific value-conferring properties for it to make sense. Furthermore, it would be odd to reject all potential variations on the first premise: that would be tantamount to nihilism. If you want your life and the lives of others to have value you need to accept the existence of some value conferring properties. So what you need to do is find variations on premise (1) that are either more resilient to old age or not undermined or affected by old age.

This is what Howard Harriott recommends in his article on successful ageing. He argues that life has value to the one who lives it (personal value) when it is characterised by some commitment to ideals. These ideals can take many forms, e.g. commitment to artistic excellence, scientific discovery and so on. If you want to retain personal value into old age then you need to focus on ideals that can sustain your commitment into old age. Again, Matisse is Harriott’s go-to example, but others easily spring to mind. I think a lot of Einstein in this regard. He remained steadfastly committed to developing a unified theory of physics right up until his final days. According to reports, he was scribbling equations in his hospital bed just hours before he died. Admittedly, Einstein’s unified theories weren’t successful in the objective sense, but at least they gave him a sense of purpose right up until his death. He was committed to an ideal — scientific discovery — that was relatively impervious to the vicissitudes of old age. It is also worth mentioning here that studies that have been done on elderly populations suggest that they derive most meaning from sustained social and family relationships, both of which can be sustained despite ageing (although both can suffer too).

The important lesson to learn from both Einstein and Matisse is that retaining value in old age is a function of choosing ideals that are resilient. But what if your ideals are not so resilient? What if, for example, your ideals are built around physical fitness and athletic prowess? The answer is that you could probably sustain some version of those ideals into old age, but it might require some modification. If you were once an elite athlete, you will have to accept that you won’t be able to compete to the highest levels into your dotage. But you could continue to be the best within your age range (injuries permitting) or you could switch to training and educating future generations of athletes. In other words, if you have some flexibility of mind, you can sustain value in the face of changing circumstances.

This last point is worth emphasising. In classic Stoic and Epicurean philosophy, people were encouraged to ‘thanatise’ their desires so as not to be so afraid of death. In other words, they were encouraged to accept the unavoidability of death and factor that into how they structured and planned their lives. Jan Baars recommends a similar strategy when it comes to ageing. He thinks we need to accept that everything in life (peak productivity; cognitive capacity; physical prowess etc) is finite and subject to decay. We need to build a conception of a meaningful life that recognises and makes space for that finitude.

That sounds good in theory, but might be hard in practice. One reason it might be hard is because this whole line of argument assumes that people can simply pick and choose their own values rather than having them imposed from the outside. The great tragedy of ageing in the modern world is that devaluation results from the imposition of values and standards from the outside. How do you deal with that problem?

5. The Value of Escaping Imposed Ideals
One way to cope with that problem is to take solace in the fact that if you are no longer perceived to be valuable in the eyes of others you are both (a) more free to determine your own value in life and (b) exempted from the burdens and expectations that are imposed on younger people. This can be liberating and uplifting.

Consider once more the productivist ethos that pervades much of modern life. According to this ethos, you are valuable only to the extent that you make some productive contribution to society. This could take a number of different forms, but for most people it is economic productivity that matters most. While making economic contributions can be very meaningful to some people, it can also be exhausting and dispiriting. Instead of following your passions and talents, you have to fit within the demands of the labour market. You have to do something ‘useful’ and avoid idle luxuries. You have to compromise on your values and sell yourself to others. You have to impress them and suck up to them. You have to ingratiate yourself with the powerful and shower them with false praise. In return, they might do the same for you. As a result, you all benefit from increased perception of social value. But at what personal cost? No longer being seen as productively valuable might give you a nice excuse to be rid of all this fakery and flattery.

There could also be a significant gendered aspect to this. Simone de Beauvoir comments on the different expectations of age in her work. And while researching this article, I randomly came across a piece written by the philosopher Andreas Blank about ageing and self-esteem in the writings of Anne-Thérèse de Lambert. Lambert was an 18th century French intellectual and essay writer who wrote about the ‘economy of self-esteem’ and ageing in women. Blank argues that her views provide a contrast with those of the well-known maxim-writer La Rouchefoucauld. Whereas he essentially accepted the modern view that old age was a period of decline from former prowess, she argued that it could be liberating, particularly for women. In a society that did not value women for intellectual ability or economic productivity, but essentially valued them only for looks, charm and fertility, there was something to look forward to in old age. Freed from the burden of erotic expectation, and from the need to impress powerful men, women could cultivate a more intellectual and satisfying mode of life. As she put it:

[Old age] liberates us from the tyranny of opinion. When one is young, one only dreams of living in the idea of someone else; one must establish one’s reputation and create for oneself an honorable place in the imagination of others, and be happy even in their idea; our happiness is not at all real, it is not ourselves whom we consult but others. In a different age, we turn to ourselves, and this return has sweetness, we begin to consult ourselves, and to believe ourselves; we escape chance and illusion; men have lost their right to deceive us… 
(Lambert, quoted in Blank 2018, 299-300)

This is, no doubt, naive and optimistic but there is something very appealing in what she has to say. The idea that old age can free us from the ‘tyranny of opinion’ is one that I find comforting.


  1. Really interesting piece. I've read your book and wonder how our view of old age might change should we come to live in a virtual utopia of the kind that you describe. Michael Hauskeller's work on 'mental ageing' comes to mind.


    1. I wrote about Hauskeller's arguments before: https://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.com/2013/12/can-mind-stay-young-forever-part-two.html