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We are all going to die before we get old

DanielMiller2 December 2018

When The Who sang ‘I hope I die before I get old’, the underlying assumption was that unless they died first they would become elderly. For The Beatles we were already sitting by the fireside knitting a sweater or with grandchildren on the knee by the age of 64. As a result it is possible to give a precise date to the ‘death’ of the elderly, which is 28th May 2007, when a band called The Zimmers consisting of people who had to use zimmer frames, sang ‘I hope I die before I get Old’ on the BBC. They later also covered You Gotta Fight for your Right to Party.

When we started this project I was aiming to concentrate on what I called Mid-Life, roughly between 45-70. It didn’t take long to realise I had been hopelessly simplistic. Mid-Life would need to be between two other categories. But this doesn’t really work if people no longer regard themselves as getting old or elderly. What our fieldwork demonstrates is how variable this issue of age and elderly has become. To have a fixed age bracket makes no sense when people rarely live into that bracket in our Kampala site, routinely retire at 50 in Shanghai and are still planting rice at 95 in Japan. But the other major issue is that in each site one senses that becoming elderly is turning into a choice. Visiting our Palestinian site it was clear that many women in their sixties are comfortable taking on the clothing, mannerism and activities designated for that separate senior group that could be called elderly. In my own Irish fieldsite there remain some people where this is still the case. Most conspicuously at the rather misnamed Active Retirement Group that is dedicated to playing bingo and a few mild activities such as tea dances, but clearly rejected the suggestion that they might replace bingo on one occasion with computer classes.

As fieldwork has progressed, it has been increasingly clear that they represent a declining proportion of people, in that most I meet of the same age as those in this relatively (in)Active Retirement Group, feel no affinity with that shift into a category of elderly. Nor do they relate to the idea of mid-life. Instead they state firmly, if slightly apologetically, that they feel in almost every respect youthful. The Rolling Stones were prescient in that apparently, they will Not Fade Away.

The Rolling Stones at Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee, USA, performing at Summerfest festival on June 23, 2015 – Photo by Jim Pietryga (wikemedia commons)

The people I meet really do feel that youth was wasted on the young and they spend their time power walking, and bicycling if they are fit enough, or otherwise playing intensely competitive bridge and learning new skills such as painting or singing. They still listen to rock music and at least consider dating, if appropriate. When, as here, a 13 year old is desperate to see 72 year old Cher at Las Vegas the relationship between music and age is pretty unclear.

The other side to this change is that previously to be senior was to gain ‘wisdom’ and respect. This made sense in an agricultural society where older people were skilled as a result of longer experience. But the skills that matter more today consist of things like using smartphones. Many of these older people welcome this loss of wisdom because it is replaced by continued equality with youth, rather than being placed in another category. On a committee they are listened to simply to the extent that others find their argument convincing, the same as everyone else.

The category elderly is likely to remain but now seems to designate physical disability and the dependence upon others, within which the clearest example is dementia. People recognise that there will eventually be a physical deterioration leading to death, so the category is more about dying and incapacity, rather than entering a different cultural category. Until then they will not regard themselves as having become old, however white their hair or resplendent their liver spots. Different societies are moving in this direction at different speeds but my prediction is eventually we will all die before we get old.