What can History suggest about the ageing of contemporary society?

This paper examines the history of ageing, mainly in Britain, to try to establish what has and has not changed over time. It challenges certain assumptions: that in ‘the past’ few people lived to old age; that older people were normally cared for by their families, in contrast to now; that they were more respected and did not suffer the negativity and discrimination they can experience now. It stresses what older people have always contributed to society, rather than ‘burdening’ it, by caring for others and with paid and voluntary work, and changing patterns of such contributions to the present. Also the persistent poverty of many older people, especially women, perpetuated by the low level of state pensions since their introduction. Despite recent change, especially in expectation of life and of healthy life, there are striking long-term continuities.