Toward a Historical Demography of Aging
David I. Kertzer
Over the past decade or so, historical studies of aging and especially of old age have become increasingly popular topics in social history. As recently as 1982, the historian Peter Stearns could write that "as a field of history," old age "remains shockingly untended," a fact he partly attributed to "the shaky esteem the elderly command in contemporary society" (1982: 1). Yet, writing with David Van Tassel just a few years later, Stearns heralded the sudden rise of the history of old age "from virtual nonexistence to its current status as a promising and provocative subfield of social history" (Stearns and Van Tassel 1986: ix).
As Peter Laslett notes in his introduction to this volume, the history of old age follows other pioneering fields in social history in confronting a mass of popular and even scholarly stereotypes that get in the way. It would be naive to claim that these stereotypes act only as a hindrance to scholarly study, since few historians can resist the allure of identifying a broadly accepted stereotype that they can, through historical study, show to be false. The recent history of old age has, indeed, largely been written as just such a series of attempts at myth slaying, much as the early work on household history—identified with Laslett himself—seized on the historical inaccuracy of common notions of the universality of extended family living in the past.
Yet the burden borne by those who study the history of old age is in some ways greater than that borne by students of household history and many other historical subjects, for there are few historical topics with as much contemporary relevance as that of how old people lived and were treated in the past. Concern for the responsibilities of the state and the family toward the elderly—a concern that is in no small part itself a product of the demographic changes examined in this book and particularly what Laslett here
refers to as the Secular Shift in aging—has focused a tremendous amount of public and political attention on the costs of various systems of old age assistance. The debates that have ensued involve not simply economic issues but moral ones as well, and these are commonly couched in terms of historical understandings. Is our society moving away from a past in which old people were treated with respect? In which they lived with and were supported by their children? In which they continued to participate in the labor force as long as they saw fit?
The history of old age has tended to swing wildly between two extremes in this history-as-policy debate. A romantic view of the past has produced images of a time when the old were treated with respect, when they occupied positions of power by virtue of their control over family holdings, and when they were surrounded and supported by married children and grandchildren. In this view, the history of industrialization and "modernization" has been a tragic one for the lives of the old: they have become the victims of "progress." In making this argument, scholars have seized not only on temporal distance but on spatial and cultural distance as well, pointing to the non-Western, less industrialized societies as still today maintaining much of the "traditional" concern for the welfare of the elderly that presumably marked Western societies in the past.
On the other side, especially notable among European historians, we find a revisionist view, one that sees a far grimmer story of old age, in which old people crowded meager public charitable facilities in search of a miserable lodging, or a piece of bread, to allow them to survive in a society that gave no quarter to those lacking the brawn or the health to earn their daily living. In this view, old people have never been as well off as they are today, when government programs and social legislation protect them and transfer payments force the young to support them.
The chapters in this book demonstrate that neither of these two scenarios provides an adequate understanding of aging in the past. Part of the problem, of course, is that the terms of the debate have been unrealistically broad. While the demographic changes in Western societies have followed a fairly uniform pattern, from low proportions of elderly to much higher proportions and from low life expectancy to high life expectancy, the social and political arrangements for dealing with the older population have varied considerably from society to society and, indeed, in many cases within societies, by such factors as class and gender. This mirrors anthropologists' findings that in non-Western societies there has been and is today a great diversity of situations in which the old find themselves: from valued and comfortably cared for to devalued and impoverished. This should not be taken as a cry of despair, a despair at our ability to make any generalizations, for certain patterns do indeed emerge, and the fact that they are
more complex than earlier generalizations make them no less interesting, either theoretically or in their policy implications.
One of the major issues in the history of old age—and one that ties historical study quite closely to contemporary policy debates—is that of the residence of the elderly: did they co-reside with their children, especially with their married children, or were they (residentially at least) on their own once their children had gotten married? This is a question that is taken up in most of the chapters of this book and one that we will want to consider in some detail. Just what obligations an adult child has toward an elderly parent is a matter of considerable policy discussion in the United States today, combining moral concerns about old folks being packed off to institutions with economic concerns about the high cost of such care.
A clear pattern emerges from many non-Western nations, where governments explicitly rely on kin co-residence and kin support of the elderly. The Indian government, for example, relies on the co-residence of old people with their married sons, a norm of care that is in fact commonly followed (Vatuk 1982: 100). Similarly, families are given full responsibility for their elderly members in the Philippines, while in the wealthier Singapore, government support for the elderly is only available for those without children (Treas and Logue 1986: 657). Nor are such patterns foreign to European society, for, as Rudolf Andorka tells us in his chapter, the Hungarian state continues today to rely on the co-residence of older people with their married children to solve problems of old age care. These problems include both the decline in income that comes with retirement—a feature Laslett would associate with the "Third Age"—and the frailty and poor health associated with Laslett's "Fourth Age."
According to traditional Western social theory, societal evolution has entailed movement from a society in which rights and responsibilities were vested in kin groupings to a society in which each individual is an independent actor before the law. This view has been given new expression in work on increased state intervention into the life course and the increased tendency to establish explicit age norms (e.g., Mayer and Müller 1986). In this context, the history of old age, far from being a peripheral subject to be identified exclusively with gerontology and social service, must be seen as a central topic in the history of Western societies. How older people were treated and cared for—and the involvement of state and family in the process—bears centrally on major issues of historical development and social theory, including the extent to which Western societies have followed a distinctive historical path. In addressing these issues, we clearly need not only employ demographic and quantifiable evidence but also a wide variety of more qualitative archival and literary sources. These sources become especially important as we seek to identify
the nature of relationships that tied kin and neighbors together beyond households.
In this concluding chapter I would like to take on some of these broad issues, building on the chapters in this book. I begin by reviewing the demographic changes that have radically altered the population dynamics in Western society, contrasting these with those found in the rest of the world, where the situation today is very different. I then turn directly to the guiding model of change in the lives of the elderly—the modernization model—to evaluate it in light of the historical evidence. Following this, I examine the living situation of the elderly in the past in Western societies, arguing that co-residence with children was much more common than many historians and sociologists have led us to believe and that the contrast between the situation of Westerners and non-Westerners in this regard is less than many have supposed. The centrality of gender to the study of the history of aging is then argued by bringing together the results of various chapters of this book, along with other studies, to highlight certain factors that distinguish the situation of men and women in late life. All this leads me to propose a new view of household systems, arguing that to date the commonly employed household typologies fail to take into account the central role that should be accorded the treatment of the elderly.
In his introductory chapter, Peter Laslett has provided a clear overview of the dramatic changes in both age structure and life expectancy that have occurred in the West over the past century. As he points out, changes in life expectancy—the most commonly employed measure of individual aging—can be highly misleading in tracing the demographic history of aging.
While the dramatic increase in life expectancy over the past centuries is most striking, we note that the declines in mortality rates for older people were much more modest. Taking the very long view, the anthropologist Kenneth Weiss (1981: 50) asserts that the "number of years added since primitive times to an infant's life has been about 50, to a 15-year-old's life . . . about 30, and to a 50-year-old's . . . only about 12 years." This said, there is no doubt that a 50-year-old today is unlikely to view those additional dozen years as trivial.
Looking at more recent centuries, we find that while the life expectancy of a newborn baby girl in Sweden doubled from 1780 to 1965 (from 38 to 76), the increase in life expectancy of a 50-year-old Swedish woman increased only 8.6 years over the same period; a woman who made it to age 50 in 1785 would live, on average, to age 70 (Weiss 1981: 50). Similarly, to take another example, whereas at birth an Austrian boy born in the late 1960s would live more than twice as long as a boy born there in the 1870s (67 vs.
30 years), an Austrian man aged 60 in the 1960s only stood to live three more years than a 60-year-old of the 1870s (15 vs. 12 more years) (Mitterauer and Sieder 1982: 145). Indeed, as George Alter shows us in his chapter, the historical trend of longevity for those who survived to old age could be quite different than for children at birth. The fact that the mortality rate in old age may have actually risen in the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century is a sobering reminder of this fact.
One of the little-studied areas of the historical demography of aging is, in fact, the course of changes in mortality beyond childhood. While Laslett properly focuses attention on the dramatic changes in demographic rates and age group proportions over the past century in the West, there is reason to believe that changes of significance took place earlier as well. The nature of these changes and their causes are not at all well known. One of the few studies examining changes in age at death over these earlier centuries, conducted in Rouen, France, reveals that whereas only 23 percent of deaths in the period 1660-1709 occurred to those aged 50 and above, 37 percent of all deaths in 1760-1800 took place in these older ages (Gutton 1988: 137). What happened during the eighteenth century to account for these differences remains a matter of speculation, though they likely involve a diminished mortality rate for the very young and rather little change in mortality for the old. Alfred Perrenoud's (1982: 47) study of Geneva, for example, shows a large increase in life expectancy at birth from the early seventeenth to the early nineteenth century (from 24 to 40 years) but a minimal increase for those age 60 (from 12 to 13 years).
As Laslett shows, the dramatic aging of Western populations over the past century is primarily due not to increased longevity among the middle-aged but rather to a sharp decline in fertility. The American population pyramid is in fact becoming less and less pyramidal in shape: in 1900, there were over ten children (under age 18) for every old person (age 65+); today there are only two children per old person (Uhlenberg 1987: 185).
The demographic contrast between the Western and other technologically advanced countries, on the one hand, and the rest of the world, on the other, is breathtaking. While throughout the West older people (age 65+) represent over 10 percent of the population, in countries such as the Ivory Coast and Afghanistan the elderly compose a mere 2 percent. Moreover, while the proportion of elderly in the population has been steadily increasing throughout the West (and in highly industrialized countries like Japan), in much of Africa and parts of Asia the proportion who are elderly has actually been decreasing in recent decades (Cowgill 1986: 22, 25).
Again, though, we need to be careful about using these figures to draw conclusions about the experience of individuals, or to contrast longevous people of the West with short-lived peoples elsewhere. In 1980, for example, though an American baby could expect to live a quarter century longer than
a Nigerian baby, American men aged 60 would on average live only three years longer than Nigerian men of that age (Sokolovsky 1982:3).
In the influential modernization model of aging, the social and economic changes associated with modernization produce a relative decline in the status and welfare of older people. Demographic forces are thought to play a role here as well, not only in the putative link between small proportions of old people in the population and their high status in the past but also in a somewhat more complicated fashion. The fact that women bore children until they were about 40, combined with the fact that people presumably did not live as long in the past, meant that there was no old age distinct from middle age (Haber 1983: 10). In this view, with the prolongation of life, the limitation of childbearing to the younger fecund years, and the increased movement of adult children away from the parental home, a distinct period of old age became established, one in which the elderly were increasingly isolated and powerless.
The tendency of old people to become more isolated from work and family with modernization has, however, been denied by many scholars. Criticisms come primarily from two sources. First of all, historians have identified past Western societies in which old people were not provided support by kin and suffered from economic privation. Second, anthropologists and others have demonstrated that not all small-scale societies accorded high status to the old. They have shown that in many non-Western societies today, urbanization has not undercut heavy reliance on extended kin relations. On the contrary, such ties continue to provide older people in these societies with security, and status.
Part of the confusion in all this stems from the imprecise—perhaps muddled is a better term—nature of the modernization concept. Modernization has been identified variously with urbanization, industrialization, the demographic transition, the spread of public, secular schooling, the spread of state-run welfare institutions, the advent of modern medicine, and many other developments. There is no clear reason why all of these forces should be thought to have the same impact on the status or welfare of older people.
One of the most common claims of the modernization and aging literature is that in the past old people were provided a secure existence through co-residence with their children. Such co-residence was often associated with households that were economic units, providing older people both with continued work roles and with control over property that placed them in a position of authority over their adult children. Critics of the modernization model have jumped at the evidence coming in from the work of the
Cambridge Group and others (Laslett 1972) seeming to suggest that extended families were not in fact common in the Western past. As Brian Gratton (1986: 5) explained, "The most striking criticism [of the modernization model] sprang from the startling discovery that the nuclear household was the predominant form in preindustrial Western societies. This discover), led to the conclusion that the aged could not have exercised power through an extended family."
As various chapters in this book make clear, while we may want to abandon modernization theory for all sorts of reasons, the absence of extended kin co-residence in the European past is not one of them. It is not at all certain that older people in general lived apart from their children in the European past, nor even that they do in all places today. Michael Mitterauer and Reinhard Sieder's (1982) characterization of living arrangements in Austria is of interest here. In harmony with the traditional modernization model, they argue that "historically speaking, the isolation of the aged . . . is a relatively recent phenomenon. It is mainly a result of industrialization and urbanization" (153). They bolster their case by pointing to contemporary Lower Austria, contrasting the high proportion (44 percent) of people over age 60 in the rural population who live with one of their married children to the low proportion (14 percent) among the nonrural population.
Let us, then, review the evidence that is provided both in this volume and in other recent studies regarding this central question: to what extent and in what circumstances did older people in the Western past live with their children?
Living with Adult Children
The "startling discovery" that old people in the European past lived in nuclear family settings and not in multigenerational households leads to another conclusion: the family lives of the elderly in the West were radically different from what was found in the rest of the world. In this view, while outside the West older people have always been cared for by their children, in part through co-residence, in the West the old were left to fend for themselves or to rely on nonkin sources of support, such as those provided by the community, church, or state.
The chapters in this book should lead to the rejection of any such simple revisionist view. Before turning directly to the Western societies, though, let us take a brief look at the situation outside Europe today, for the historical debate over Western exceptionalism is linked to the question of whether today's non-Western family pattern of elderly care represents a kind of system away from which Westerners have moved or whether the Western-non-Western contrast is itself of many centuries duration, predating any of the forces associated with "modernization." For the sake of simplicity, I
focus here on South and East Asian societies, avoiding the complexities associated with the high rates of polygyny in Africa or the question of whether Latin American societies can properly be contrasted with the "West."
The predominance of the extended family in the lives of the elderly in South and East Asia today is unmistakable. In India, continued high fertility is often attributed to the felt need to ensure old age support by bearing sons. As Sylvia Vatuk (1982: 72) writes, "In India it is universally expected—or, at least, hoped—that the elderly person will be provided shelter and care by his or her adult offspring, in the setting of home and family." This is seen as the responsibility of the married sons and their wives, and study after study shows a majority of the elderly in fact living with their married sons. In a Delhi study of two thousand old people, for example, 62 percent lived with a married son and only 6 percent with a married daughter (Vatuk 1982: 88). A recent community study of a rural Rajasthan community 700 kilometers southwest of Delhi found two-thirds of all elderly residents living with at least one married son, including one-fourth of all elderly residents co-residing with two or more married sons, all in the same household (Hashimoto 1991: 376). A recent review of the subcontinent concludes that "the majority of South Asian elderly coreside with their offspring" (Martin 1990: 98).
In East Asia we find a comparable pattern, even in urban areas. Eighty percent of Korean parents over 60 lived with one or more of their children in the 1980s, reflecting a deeply felt cultural norm. A study conducted in the mid-1980s of Seoul residents over age 55 found 81 percent of them living with at least one child, including 58 percent living with a married son. The patrilocal bias is strong here as well: only 6 percent lived with a married daughter (Sung 1991: 436, 443). And in Japan, though the trend is very slowly moving away from co-residence of the old with their children, just about two-thirds of all Japanese over age 65 in 1984 lived with a child (Kumagai 1987: 237). A comparable situation is found today in the parts of China for which we have information. A study conducted in the rural suburbs of Shanghai in 1986 found roughly one-third of all those over age 60 living with a married son and about 8 percent living with a married daughter. Among the widowed, a majority lived with their married children, although unlike the other Asian cases mentioned thus far, a significant proportion of widows lived alone (Gui 1988: 160).
The polemics that have followed Laslett's (1965) "world we have lost" thesis, catalyzing the study of household systems in European history, have also had an effect on our understanding of the lives of the elderly in the West and on how these have changed over the past centuries. In the traditional view of the European peasant past as one dominated by multigenerational living arrangements, older people's welfare was guaranteed by their co-
residence with married children, in much the same way as we have seen occurs today in South and East Asia. A corollary of this traditional view is the progressive residential isolation of the elderly prompted by those changes loosely identified with "modernization." In the revisionist view, in contrast, Europe and the West were always different from the East, with European emphasis on individualism contrasting for centuries with an emphasis on corporate family units in both Asia and Africa.
Over the past two decades, some of the enthusiasts of the revisionist view have come under criticism for overgeneralizing from limited English evidence to speak of western Europe or even Europe as a whole (Kertzer 1991). It is now clear—as is evident in both Andorka's chapter on Hungary and the Kertzer and Karweit chapter on Italy as well as from research on the Balkans (e.g., Halpern and Anderson 1970) and eastern Europe (e.g., Czap 1982)—that complex family systems were typical of various parts of Europe in the past. What implications does this have for the lives of the elderly, and for our understanding of the changes in the position of the elderly over the past century or two?
The Italian and Hungarian cases point out one kind of exception to the view of the residential isolation of the elderly in the European past, an exception based on the existence of nonnuclear household systems in large parts of preindustrial Europe. In central and much of northern Italy, joint family households rather similar in some ways to those found in South Asia (i.e., based on the residence of all married sons in the parental home) were common, and those who lived in such households faced no empty nest stage, nor did they face the prospect of being left alone on widowhood. In substantial portions of Hungary, as in much of central and eastern Europe, complex family household arrangements were as common as nuclear families, and this naturally supported the co-residence of older people with their married children. This was not simply a matter of patrilocal postmarital residence but, as Andorka tells us, also involved a strongly held norm that obligated married children to reside with a widowed parent even if the two generations had not been co-residing prior to widowhood.
One conclusion that might be made in light of such evidence from southern, central, and eastern Europe is that the supposed residential isolation of the elderly in the Western past pertains only to northwestern Europe and its descendant societies in North America and elsewhere. This, after all, is the area said to be the epicenter of individualism, neolocality, and nuclear family residence. Laslett's claims about the residential isolation of the elderly in the past, though generalized with undue haste by others to Europe as a whole, after all principally concerned England. It was in this context that he wrote—in words that he now believes overstate the case—of "the rule of continued independent residence by the old."
We have described the old in preindustrial England as having in general been left as they were, and where they were, watching their children grow up and leave home never to return, and not receiving into their households their own elderly relatives for company, nor joining those relatives for the same reason. (1985: 227)
In this context, Richard Wall's chapter raises some fundamental questions, for he concludes that in preindustrial times elderly English couples often lived with children. Here his findings mirror Jean Robin's (1984) study of the English village of Colyton in 1851-1871. Of the aged parents (age 70+) of the cohort she was able to follow during these years, more than half were residing with a child (515). In Wall's figures for his sample of English communities in the preindustrial period (1599-1796), 49 percent of the men over age 65 and 37 percent of the women of that age lived with at least one child, with comparable proportions found in the first decades of the twentieth century.
The implications of nuclear family systems for the residential isolation of the elderly differ markedly between preindustrial times and recent times due to demographic changes. The major change of importance here is the constriction of childbearing to the younger years that has marked recent decades, combined with the more modest decline in mortality at older ages. In the past, the relatively late age at marriage combined with higher rates of adult mortality meant that even in a strict nuclear family system, people would have spent relatively little of their adult lives living apart from their children. Of course, those who had never married or had no surviving children would still—in such a system—live alone.
To understand whether a true nuclear family system actually operated with respect to the elderly, it is not enough to have data on those over age 60 or 65 in general. Instead, we need to see what happened to older people as they lost their ability to run their own independent households. This typically happened in one of two ways—as a result of illness or frailty, or as a result of loss of a spouse. The first is difficult to investigate historically in any systematic, quantitative way (although Ransom and Sutch's chapter shows some of the important research that can be done on this topic). By contrast, the second offers more direct and widespread possibilities for analysis.
The pattern here is evident from both Myron Gutmann's chapter on nineteenth-century Texas and Tamara Hareven and Peter Uhlenberg's discussion of census results from the northeastern United States in the early twentieth century. Gutmann's chapter in many ways supports the nuclearity view, although the frontier characteristics of the Texan population make it especially inhospitable to multigenerational living arrangements. However, he notes that where we find older people living with a married child, it is primarily following the death of the older person's spouse. Whether the de-
gree of frailty of the surviving spouse was a factor in the decision to move in with a married child remains unknown.
The U.S. census data provided by Hareven and Uhlenberg show that more than three-fourths of all older widows were living with children in 1910, and Daniel Scott Smith's studies of the 1900 U.S. census point to a similar pattern. Of those women aged 65 to 74 without a spouse, 36 percent lived with a married child and another 29 percent lived with an unmarried child. Of the unmarried men of the same age, 30 percent lived with a married child and another 21 percent lived with an unmarried child. Among the eldest group (age 75+), 42 percent of the unmarried (primarily widowed) women lived with a married child and another 32 percent with an unmarried child. Similarly, 48 percent of the eldest unmarried men lived with a married child and another 21 percent with an unmarried child. Smith concludes that in the pre-World War II period, "older couples typically lived with unmarried children, the widowed old with married children, and the never married, especially spinsters, with their siblings" (1982: 91, 107). The elderly who lived with married children, then, did so as a result of joining existing households of their children following their own widowhood. The result is that for all Americans over age 65 in 1900, a sizable proportion (roughly 30 percent) did indeed live in households containing three generations (Smith 1979: 290).
This is a rather striking figure for a society practicing neolocal residence. Indeed, what I would like to suggest is that such evidence must force us to revise our notions of Western nuclear family systems. But before I draw out such conclusions, it is well to focus our attention on a key element whose implications must themselves be considered very carefully: gender.
Gender and Old Age
The historical demography of aging does not take us very far unless we recognize the fundamental significance of gender. Among the most important topics for historical research here is the differential impact of demographic changes on the lives of older men and women, as well as the societal implications of these changes. As Laslett's introduction points out, old age itself has become increasingly feminized in the West. In Canada, for example, at the beginning of this century there were 105 men over age 65 for every 100 women, a proportion that may be partially attributable to gender disparities in immigration to Canada. By contrast, in 1976, there were only 78 older men for every 100 older women (Denton and Spencer 1980: 12). The United States shows a similar pattern, with a sex ratio of 102 for those over age 65 in 1900, sinking to 67 in 1985, or, in other words, three older women for every two older men. For those in the oldest age groups the imbalance
had become even more dramatic, with only two men over age 85 for every five women (Uhlenberg 1987: 189).
The history of the sex ratio disparities at older ages is still not well known, though the overwhelming predominance of women at older ages in the West today is certainly a recent phenomenon. Andorka, for example, notes that in Hungarian villages of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were more older men than women, and Wall points out that gains in female life expectancy have far outpaced those in male life expectancy in Europe over the past decades.
But the fact that the predominance of women at the upper age range is largely a twentieth-century phenomenon should not blind us to the fact that older men and women in the past were also greatly affected by sex differences in demographic rates. In the Western past, the two principal gender differences involved remarriage propensities and age at marriage (i.e., the marital age gap). Indeed, these two are linked, as Andorka points out for Hungary, where, following widowhood, men were not only more likely to remarry than were women but in such second marriages were likely to marry women substantially younger than themselves (for Europe more generally, see Dupâquier et al. 1981). This relationship is probably also responsible for the large marital age gap (over seven years) found by Gutmann for Texan men over age 50 in the late-nineteenth-century censuses. The higher the rate of male remarriage compared to female remarriage, the more likely it is that old men will have a spouse present in their household and the more likely old women will be widows, even in the absence of any difference in male and female life expectancy.
Cultural norms encouraging male remarriage and discouraging female remarriage are found widely around the world (though they are not universal). Similar patterns appear in both South and East Asia (Palmore 1987: 98-99). As is shown in my chapter with Nancy Karweit, men were two or three times more likely to remarry following widowhood in nineteenth-century Casalecchio, Italy, a pattern not dissimilar to that found throughout most of Europe at that time. One of the intriguing findings not only of that research but of work in Germany and elsewhere in Europe is that through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century there seems to have been a continuous decline in the rate of remarriage for both men and women (Mitterauer and Sieder 1982:15). Even today, though, the gap between male and female remarriage rates remains and, indeed, may well have increased. In the mid-1980s, elderly widowed American men had remarriage rates more than eight times greater than women's (U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging 1988: 137). In this respect, American society has been evolving in a direction more closely approximating traditional Hindu society.
The implications of these demographic differences are starkly apparent in figures on the marital status of the older population in different societies.
A comparison of widows and widowers in the "less developed" and "more developed" countries of the world around 1980 shows a curious pattern. While the proportion of the population that is over age 65 is vastly different between the two—only 4 percent of both men and women in the former countries compared with 10 percent of the men and 15 percent of the women in the latter—the sex differences in marital status are remarkably similar. In the less developed countries, just 16 percent of the old men are widowers compared to 54 percent of the old women, while in the more developed countries, 18 percent of the old men and 59 percent of the old women are widowed (Palmore 1987: 95-96). Different demographic forces lead to an uncannily similar result: while life expectancy differences between men and women are much less in the developing countries—a fact that would lead to more similarity in widowhood rates between men and women—the marital age gap tends to be larger and rates of male remarriage often higher.
In some parts of Asia, at least, these rates have remained stable over the past century. In India in 1881, for example, 28 percent of the men over age 60 were widowed compared to 84 percent of the women. Ninety years later, the proportions widowed were 22 percent for men and 69 percent for women (Vatuk 1982: 73). Something oddly similar has been happening in the United States, for with all the other changes taking place, the proportion of those over age 65 who were married changed only modestly between 1900 and 1985. The proportion of married men rose from 71 percent to 79 percent, while the proportion of married women declined from 24 percent to 16 percent (Uhlenberg 1987: 189). Historical changes in sex differential remarriage and mortality rates combined with changes in divorce rates to bring about this result.
These demographic differences have a powerful impact on living arrangements of the old, leading to stark differences between men and women. It appears that these differences are even greater today than they were in the past. Wall points out that a smaller proportion of elderly women lived with a spouse in England and Wales in 1981 than had been the case in preindustrial times. Loss of a spouse, though, had very different implications for men and women. This was true not only because of men's greater ability to remarry but also because loss of spouse more often meant social demotion—away from household headship—for women than for men, as discussed in my chapter with Nancy Karweit.
Rethinking Household Systems
Our understanding of living arrangements in the European past has been conditioned by a series of household models highlighting the contrast between nuclear and complex family systems, the latter encompassing "stem,"
"joint," and "multiple family" households. These two main types are thought to have radically different implications for the lives of the old. In the nuclear family model, the individual lives in an ever-shrinking household as her or his children grow up and establish their own independent households at marriage. In old age, in this model, the individual lives either with a spouse or, more commonly as one grows older, alone. By contrast, in the complex family household, one or more of the parents' children remain in the parental household after marriage, bringing in their spouse and repopulating the household with their own children. In such a system, older individuals live in a supportive household environment, surrounded by kin of the second and third generation, until the end of life.
What these models share is a virtually exclusive focus on norms of post-marital residence as the diagnostic element of household systems: a nuclear family system is one in which newlyweds establish their own independent household at marriage; a stem family system is one in which one—but only one—child brings his (it is usually a son, not a daughter) spouse into the parental home, while a joint family system is one in which multiple children may (and generally should) remain in the parental home after marriage, bringing in their spouses.
Of these three classic types, only one—the joint family—is characterized by a household formation point other than marriage. The second transition arises from demographic vagaries: in a joint family system any family having more than one child per generation bringing a spouse into the household would become unduly large within a couple of generations. The result is a provision for the splitting of households into constituent groups of kin, a splitting that comes not with marriage but at some later time (Hajnal 1983: 69).
What I would like to propose here is that complexity comparable to that used in dealing with complex family households be added to our model of the nuclear family. The cultural norm of neolocality does not by itself produce a pure nuclear family system. The fact that people establish their own households at marriage need not exclude a phase of complex family co-residence as a part of the normal life course. For a pure nuclear family system to be found, we must have an additional element: the lack of any norm leading married couples either to take in frail or widowed elderly parents or to move in with them. By contrast, where such norms operate, we are not in the presence of the classic nuclear family system at all. Rather, we find a variant, one that might in fact have had as broad a historical distribution as the pure nuclear family system. We may call this a nuclear reincorporation household system. If we were as attuned to look at the latter end of the life course as we are to look at youth and young adulthood, the significance of reincorporation to household systems would have been established long ago. Instead, while we now have a fairly good map of the historical distribu-
tion of various postmarital residence systems throughout Europe, our understanding of the residential lives at the older end of the life course is distorted by the error of linking neolocality to pure nuclear family systems.
England and its descendant societies have been viewed as the type cases of the nuclear family system. So influential has the historical work on these societies been, in fact, that sociological and historical texts today are full of wild overgeneralizations about the nuclear family household as having been the norm throughout "Western" or "European" history. But even as we look at the data in this book from Richard Wall on England or Tamara Hareven and Peter Uhlenberg from the northeastern United States, we must ask whether a pure nuclear family system actually operated in these societies in the past.
I propose, in short, that we shift the terms of the debate over household complexity in the past in northwestern Europe (and other areas marked by neolocality). To date the historical debate has largely been framed in terms pitting those arguing for a nuclear family system against those arguing for a stem family system. Low cross-sectional proportions of complex family households have thus been alternatively explained as either demonstrating a nuclear family system at work or showing the results of developmental cycle factors in a stem family system. For example, Steven Ruggles (1987) argues that the proportions of three-generation households in nineteenth-century England and America show a preference for stem family principles, kept in check by various demographic constraints.
What I am proposing here has implications for both sides of this debate, for where nuclear reincorporation principles are at work, both sides of the nuclear versus stem family household debate may be wrong, or at least misleading. The champions of the nuclear family may be wrong through over-simplifying the developmental cycle of family life, while the champions of the stem family may be wrong in interpreting the co-residence of two adult generations as indicating a nonneolocal system of postmarital residence.
We are, unfortunately, very far from knowing the distributions of a nuclear reincorporation system versus a pure nuclear household system. The difficulty of even being able to tell the difference between a population following the rules of stem family formation as opposed to nuclear reincorporation, using common cross-sectional methods, is cogently demonstrated in Gene Hammel's chapter in this volume.
These difficulties are compounded by the fact that in actual practice, behavior reflects norms only as filtered through a complex prism of other forces. In any given community, the frequency of reincorporation is the product not only of abstract cultural norms but also of such demographic factors as the availability of adult married children of the right sex, as well as various economic factors. Wealthier individuals may have had less need for reincorporation, being able to arrange their own support system
through hiring servants and able to generate income without needing a spouse (in the case of the widow especially) and in the face of declining physical strength for manual labor.
To what extent such support was provided by the collectivity (as Laslett 1988, 1989 and Richard Smith 1984 argue for preindustrial England) as opposed to the family remains an open question, a question of no small historical significance. Nor is this a question lacking in contemporary policy relevance, as debates over the propriety of state versus family responsibility for the elderly rage in the public arena. Such debates resound with references to the great historical changes that have taken place in family life and care of the elderly, references that more often than not reflect a poor understanding of the history of aging, demography, and family life.
The research agenda for the emerging historical demography of aging, as these examples make clear, is a rich one. The work to be done not only promises to provide us with a much better idea of how older people lived in the past but precious insight as well into the lives of all members of society, young and old. Moving away from an exclusive youth-centered viewpoint to take a perspective from the later years of life will continue to challenge some of our most deeply held paradigms of society in the past and enrich our theoretical models of society.
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