Gerontocracy is as old as the world. For millennia, to greater or lesser degrees, it has been the default principle of governance, from ancient Greek city-states to the Soviet republics. Though there have been exceptions, when you look for gerontocracy today, you find it everywhere – aged men and women at the helms of states the world over.
The presidential contest in the United States this year is likely to pit two decrepit men against each other. Were the incumbent to win, he would be eighty-six by the end of his second term. Nor is the aging of politicians restricted to the chief executive of the country, or even an American syndrome. Paul Biya, president of Cameroon, recently celebrated his ninetieth birthday (he was born the same year as California senator Dianne Feinstein, who died in office in September), making Michael Higgins, president of Ireland, appear sprightly by comparison at eighty-two.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. At the birth of political modernity, the French revolutionaries explicitly targeted the empowerment of the elderly: what came to be known as the ‘old regime’. They sought not only to overthrow aristocrats in the name of common people, and fathers in the name of sons, but more broadly to tame the age-old commitment to gerontocracy for the sake of the younger majority. In the decades that followed, after any revolutionary challenge, one counterrevolution after another has restored the authority of elders, and displaced the youthful pretenders.
The indefinite extension of lifespans since the advent of modern medicine in the nineteenth century, combined with much more impregnably defended property, has made the youthful gains of early modernity all but vanish in our time. This extends far beyond the hoarding of political power. The choicest parts of the world’s richest cities, according to demographers, are dense with aged residents. In countries such as the US, where mandatory retirement is lacking, universities have become senior centers and care homes, while a whole generation of younger scholars and intellectuals have been blocked from progressing in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Culture may appear to be a bastion of the young, but it hardly compensates for political and financial power.
Men no longer drop dead as readily as they did a century ago, and can remain in charge for what seems like forever. If modernity has meant challenging the elderly, demanding that they share their power and resources, then our postmodern age is one of their most successful re-enthronements.
What was gerontocracy in premodern times? Elders have turned to the forces of magic and mythology to secure deference from those strong enough to challenge them. ‘Respect for old age has resulted from social discipline,’ observed the sociologist Leo Simmons, an early surveyor of ethnographic literature. ‘There are no signs of deep-seated “instinct” to guarantee to elders either homage or pity from their offspring.’ Instead, the younger generation have had to be domesticated and manipulated into self-constraint.
In early human societies, this approach was remarkably successful – rarely did any cultures recount mythic traditions that emphasized the decrepitude of the aged. A proverb from the Hebrew Bible holds that ‘gray hair is a crown of glory’. In Works and Days, the Greek poet Hesiod may have defined his own age – the iron age, fifth in his scheme of decline – as one of dishonor toward elders, but by and large, culture decreed, longevity brought only gifts of wisdom and experience. When Knud Leem, a Norwegian priest and linguist, visited the Sami people in the eighteenth century, he learned how the old men, when they were too infirm to work, could walk from farm to farm, staying at each for six nights with full bedding and board. Traditions like this span early human history, where cultural programming seems to have almost always resulted in the elderly getting more than their share, until their deaths earned them continuous veneration in the form of ancestor worship.
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