The French are aging, so we are told over and over. Between “the wrinkled French”, “the grandpa boom ”, “the gray panthers”, we are constantly being informed that the number of senior citizens is increasing. Well, now, there’s a curious understatement. Old people are referred to as senior citizens nowadays. Old is politically incorrect. It’s derogatory. But I do remember a short story by Alphonse Daudet entitled ‘Old People’, a lovely story, smacking delightfully of sunlight, furniture wax and homemade jam.

Among the many alignments of figures counting and recounting our national aging process, we find a commentary by Population et Sociétés (a monthly published by the French Institute for Population Studies) (March 2000) on the latest census and the INSEE (the official French statistical institute) findings, telling us that, what with the low birth rate and the increasing life expectancy, this aging is unavoidable. But still, the rising life expectancy is slowing down somewhat : in the past, it gained “three months each year” ; now it is only somewhere around two months a year. Nonetheless, it is still progressing. Nearly 16 % of the population are now “age 65 or over”, whereas they will allegedly be 20.6 % twenty years from now.

At this point, I say to myself : does that mean that there are more and more old people ? Who, in fact, is old ? The other day, my godfather celebrated his 60th birthday. Not being even half his age, I complimented him respectfully. But he seemed extremely cheerful. He had just read in some magazine that we are physiologically programmed to live 120 years. He said : you see, I’m just at the half-way mark ; and considering my experience of my past errors, I have a very promising prospect in store. He showed me a chart published in the magazine, with the survival curve, for different ages, of a generation born in 1850, one born in 1900, etc. up to the present. The curves changed from one period to the other, suggesting that the line would indeed tend toward a rectangular form, an ideal form in which everyone would live to age 120 (and would die, all at once, having reached that point).

My great-aunt Clara Halbschatten attended that birthday party, of course. She is perked up by her stay in the Alps, following her accident last summer, and with her hundredth birthday not far away, she stays out of drafts but is always lively and alert. I told her of my godfather’s boasting.

 — That’s quite true, said she, but what’s important is not the number of years you live, but your health. I’ll show you a statistic - I don’t know it by heart - showing that the number of healthy years is increasing as well.

 — But then, Aunt, do you mean that a person who is, say, eighty years old today is not really older than one who was seventy in the 1950s ?

 — He or she is even younger ! Here, look.

We were in the library, and there were some recent issues of the magazine Futuribles (a multidisciplinary journal concerned with medium and long-term futures of societies) lying on a shelf. She opened one of them (her ability to stalk out the most varied publications has always astonished me) and showed me a review of Peter Drucker’s latest book. I suspect he was an old pal of Aunt Clara’s. He is 90 and has just published another book. The author of the review notes that he publishes one a year, at his age, and that he always has something new to say. He reports that “a life expectancy of 79 years today is equivalent to 65 in 1936, the year in which the United States were the last Western country to adopt a national retirement plan”. And the author goes on to conclude outright that “within the next 20 or 30 years, the age of retirement will have to be pushed back to 79”.

I went home very upset, and with the feeling I had learned something very new, telling me, just out of adolescence, of a very long forthcoming period of youth. To return to the INSEE statistics : is age an accurate indicator for measuring the so-called aging of the population ? Is aging relative ? Just as the INSEE often sets the poverty line conventionally at half of the median income, perhaps the old age level should be set conventionally at twice the median age ? This reminds me of something Jean-Didier Vincent wrote (I ask his forgiveness, I don’t remember in what book) : “an old person is someone who no longer builds his future”. I can imagine a survey in which people would be asked : do you build your future ? Yes or no ? Check the right answer. And a percentage would be drawn from it. To be compared from one period to the next, and from one country to another. At last, we would know what it means to be a nation of old people...

Mélanie Leclair
November 2000

Penumbra, 2001 June