If the stern majesty of Queen Victoria defined the 19th century, the 20th century royal icon was the captivating youth and fragility of Princess Diana. Youth was not a subject of social concern before the 20th century. The term “teenage years” did not make an appearance till 1941. Today, one can say the hourglass has reversed and it is old age that has receded into the shadows.
Old age, once associated with wisdom and power, is today seen as a disability. The stereotype of an older person as passive, insulated from the everyday demands of life, is reinforced in popular culture, advertising, the fashion industry and television dramas. The workplace, the education sector and even the art world place their faith exclusively in people under the age of 35. In 1992, the advertising mogul Charles Saatchi and his brother Maurice began promoting young artists — an influence that spread across the art world. It is difficult to imagine a Rembrandt today, making more than 90 self-portraits, meticulously recording his ageing process from youth to the last year of his life.
The seeds were sown as far back as Oedipus and Aristotle, who both saw old age as the helpless loss of virility. Polonius, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, declares, “When the age is in, the wit is out.”
Yet, many studies show that, while the elderly brain works differently from that of young people, it is as effective when it comes to decision-making. It is believed that once past the age of 25, age becomes subjective — one is as young as one feels. In a report, David Robson writes, “Subjective age may be essential for understanding the reasons that some people appear to flourish as they age — while others fade.”
It always intrigued me that when my father spoke of childhood memories, it was as if he was that young person again rather than recalling a distant memory. This can be a source of anguish. The scientist Lewis Wolpert wrote: “How can a 17-year-old like me suddenly be 81?” Sigmund Freud was shocked when he realised that the elderly gentleman he saw in the mirror was in fact his own reflection. T.S. Eliot in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock laments: “I am old… I am old…” and Thomas Hardy wrote in anguish, “I look into my glass /And view my wasting skin /And say, ‘Would God it came to pass /My heart had shrunk as thin’!”
In many societies, the elderly have a constructive role, especially for grandchildren, as a bridge between their heritage and their future.
This anguish has been imposed on the elderly by society that uses terms such as “retirement”, requiring them to step aside to make room for the next generation. It’s a phenomenon of a modern economy-driven society. In many societies, the elderly have a constructive role, especially for grandchildren, as a bridge between their heritage and their future. Among the Native American elders are the decision-makers. Among South Asians elders have a prominent place in the family and community, as they do in Japan, China and almost all African and Eastern societies. In martial arts and yoga, age increases power.
There is a growing movement to restore the cultural space of the elderly. The UN has started celebrating the International Day of Older Persons to acknowledge the contributions to society made by those over 60. One should remember that many of the elderly today were the fiery rebels of the ’60s. The geographer and historian Jared Diamond suggests that the usefulness of the elderly in society determines the respect and value they are given. In 1905, life expectancy was 49 years; today it is 78 years. After retirement from work, a person can expect almost 20 more years of a productive life.
Fortunately, in creative fields, there is no retirement. Poets, writers and artists continue to produce as long as their muse inspires them.
Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 19th, 2019