A longer life expectancy questions our idea of self-identity

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We can hope to age better if we understand the limits of how much we can control in life, and if we cultivate good relationships

Helen Small, Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford and author of “The Long Life”

When she was 34, Helen Small, now Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford, embarked herself on an ambitious journey: writing a book about old age in Western philosophy and literature. Eight years later, readers could buy a copy of The Long Life, a book that in 2008 was awarded The Rose Mary Crawshay Prize, a literary prize for female scholars, and the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, presented by the University of Iowa on behalf of the Truman Capote Literary Trust. 

Helen’s titanic work, though, is not a history of philosophical and literary ideas about aging - although she weaves them in her writing - but an invitation to broaden the perspective on some of the most pressuring issues related to a longer life expectancy. 

Our exchange for the interview moved along the same line: Helen opened doors and raised questions. We are just beginning to scratch the surface of new territories related to aging, and that’s why welcoming the Humanities into the discourse can bring fresh new thinking about the meanings that shape our lives, as individuals and as a society. Recently, Helen had a chance to introduce some of these ideas at the conference “Narratives of Old Age and Gender” organized by The British Academy in London. Here’s the follow-up of her talk and her answers to my questions.

What are the main contributions you brought to the conference? 

I chose to discuss ‘Old Age’ by the Canadian philosopher Mary Mothersill. She delivered this talk as her incoming Presidential Address to the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in Washington, DC in December 1998. She was 75 years of age at the time and had retired five years earlier from Columbia University. As election to the Presidency indicated, she remained a prominent and active presence in the American philosophical community. 

She observed that there had been a surprising lack of engagement by gerontologists with philosophy. So, she set herself the task of defining what the salient questions should be for anyone wanting to think philosophically about the subject of aging. It is a very thought-provoking lecture, with important things to say about the idea of successful aging and how it sits with the challenges of old age, especially our (statistically) increased proximity to death. 

On this occasion, I was interested in her claims about the difficulty we have today situating ourselves in relation to the sociological and economic data about the experience of aging. ‘Successful aging’ depends largely on defying the statistical averages. But that leaves us with a problem. As she puts it: “We do not know how to feel about a future that we anticipate and that most of us hope for. How do you prepare for eventualities when prediction is, at best, based on statistics? It may be that there is no general answer.” My lecture was attempting to explain that position and work out what the consequences of this kind of ambivalence may be for us as individuals and as a society.

Where does your interest for aging come from?

I think it is one of the great under-explored topics pressing for attention at the moment. It is of huge social and political and personal importance, but only relatively recently have the Humanities interested themselves in it seriously. There are personal reasons as well: my parents (my father in particular) were older than the parents of most of my friends, and they in turn had many friends older than themselves.

I think my mother collected characterful older people. She liked their breadth of experience and was alert to the potential for loneliness in later life. We always seemed to have people in their 80s and older (widowed or single) turning up for lunches or dinners or birthdays or Christmases. Many of them had fascinating personal histories, stretching back to the very early twentieth century, and including two World Wars.

What are the main philosophical roots that you uncovered in your book The Long Life about the way we think about age and aging?

The Introduction to the book sets out a basic distinction (likely to persist) between views of aging that stress the benefits and see them as outweighing the negatives, and those that see only depletion and loss of social and personal standing. Those two positions can be teased out and made a great deal richer by looking closely at Cicero (who articulated the great ‘Stoic’ view of old age as in the way of Nature, and to be accepted as such) and Simone de Beauvoir (who found the personal and collective experience of aging so demoralizing that she concluded it might be better not to think about it too much).

The book then works with a number of philosophers, not all of them primarily concerned with aging, to tease out the implications for old age of their thinking about wisdom, temporality, distributive justice, the persistence or non-persistence of identity, and what, if anything, modern evolutionary biology can add to the picture.

What about women's age and aging?

Tricky subject. Several of the papers at the conference took a special interest in it. Feminism and the successful aging movement have come together in helpful ways to challenge ‘The Double Standard in Aging’, as Susan Sontag described it. There is fabulous practical and thoughtful work being done in the fields of the creative arts, fashion, film making that presses against the old stereotypes. An ‘Older Women Rock’ fashion show was a visual highpoint in the conference.

We also heard some interesting testimony quoted from women who have taken the view that aging is a liberation from the social constraints that limited their experiences and their happiness earlier in their lives (particularly the pressure on sex and sexual attractiveness). The Trans movement and the loosening of binary sexual identities are starting to make a difference to how people think about age and aging, but it may take a while for those differences to show strongly in the general culture.

Have you encountered any author/artist who is promoting a disruptive concept of aging? That is, maybe we keep thinking about aging in a duality of terms, because we haven't been presented with a viable alternative?

Sure. I would recommend that people take a look at performance art. We heard two papers at the conference focusing on ‘Split Britches’, who have for many years now been challenging gender conventions and the conventions around aging, but doing so in ways that don’t set unrealistic expectations based on exceptional individuals. See their website for examples from their archive.

Your book appeared in 2007. What cultural changes have you noticed about the way we look at age and aging in the meanwhile?

The greater centrality of identity politics to our culture is certainly having an influence on how individuals are aging and on age studies. That can be good, but – obviously – we need questions of identity to be joined up with attention to the general social picture. Hence my interest in Mothersill. When I next write about old age I will focus there, because it is part of a larger problem, hugely affecting politics on both sides of the Atlantic: how to join up the evidence quantitative social science can give us about situations and behaviors with how people feel about their lives. The best advocacy for better late life care takes this into account. A significant change is the increasing visibility of political representation for those in later age, and the social and care needs that accumulate at that time of life.

I find it so fascinating the way you're reframing the social and political debate about the graying society. It's no more a young vs. old debate: but you're inviting us to take meanings into account. Can you tell us more?

There are huge dangers in framing problems of aging in terms of intergenerational conflict, or the potential for conflict. All our lives are happier when we cultivate cross-generational bonds of friendship and support: those bonds should come naturally, and in most cases do (they are built in to our experience of family from the start). But one of the things that demography and political science often seem to have taught us is that the interests of those now entering late life do not align with those of millennials. We hear this in discussions about voting patterns, emergent nationalisms, pressures for public spending, care budgets, and so forth.

It would be a much better debate, and better for all of us experientially, if we resisted the language of conflict and pitched the questions in terms of how to assist a society that looks after everyone, especially those who have the most pressing needs for support – whatever their age. Lynne Segal’s paper for the conference was largely about how important it is to bring this way of thinking to the subject caring is, understanding that we all need care at various points in our life, and can expect to be both carers and cared-for. It follows that we ought, as a society, to set a much higher value than we currently do on those who do the caring when we are unable to do it.

Considering our always-extending life expectancy, do you think we should develop a philosophy of aging and teach and think about it since we're young?

That would be good! But it is also natural to be invested primarily in the needs and interests that flow from how we are developing physically, mentally, culturally, when we are younger. I love watching my young daughter interacting with her grandparents (who are wonderful with her, and have time to give); it can be comical then to see a quick transition from being at ease with them to highly emotional pre-teenage behavior when they leave the room.

How would you summarize this potential "philosophy of aging"?

I don’t have a ‘philosophy of aging’ to offer as a package. What I would prefer to say, from everything I have seen and studied, is that we can hope to age better if we understand the limits of how much we can control in life, and if we cultivate good relationships around us all our lives. The first part is as crucial as the second: a great deal of what is challenging (personally and socially) about aging, is how much luck comes into it, as well as genetics, and healthy living, and prudential planning for it. De Beauvoir wasn’t necessarily ‘wrong’: for many of us there is a limit to how far thinking about it will help us; and we may indeed be better off pursing projects and interests that excite us or have value for us in other ways. But thinking about it can be a project in itself.

One last thing: one of the curiosities you followed when you wrote your book was "what difference it makes to our notion of life if our life is lived much longer." What answers have you found to this question?

It clearly makes a difference to our experience: all sorts of things flow from living ‘much’ longer. More experience, most simply, but things will get harder at the point where the experience includes your own increased frailty or physical or cognitive difficulties, and considerably harder when loved ones and friends die sooner. Samuel Scheffler is one of several people writing well about why we should adjust our expectations for what is ‘normal’ behavior in relation to losses and griefs, as we get into late life.

The fact that so many of us now live into our 90s and beyond is a great achievement of our modern societies and of the medical profession. The huge social and physical challenge still to be faced is how to make sure that, for as many people as possible, the increased years and months on life expectancy will be healthy, happy, productive years. But you are asking what difference it makes to our notion of a life. I think it puts some pressure on important questions about identity—how far identity persists over time; how much change we can undergo before we become so different from what we were that an earlier identity is in some sense broken or left behind. I am inclined to think (like some others) that there may be different types of person—but also different situations—which mean that some people change more than others. That is a neutral description.

  1. Change can be good or bad. Everything depends on how much you value what you currently are, and how you currently live. Perhaps that is a platitude. One of the most interesting things in writing and thinking about old age is that it requires you to get a critical grip on a subject where there are a lot of platitudes, and a lot of stereotypes, in need of challenging.