Early Modern Society

Early modern Europe—the age of Montaigne and Shakespeare, of Petrarch and the revival of Ciceronian Stoicism, and later of the Protestant Reformation—was an age of widely disparate images of old age (Troyansky). It was also the period when quintessentially modern ideas and images of the human lifetime were born (Cole). During the Reformation, the traditionally circular representations of life's stages were recast iconographically into a rising and falling staircase, a visual map of the life course, complete with virtues and vices for each stage of life. This new iconography encouraged urban burghers to envision life as a career, a sequence of events over which individuals had some control. Long before longevity became a realistic expectation, Protestant writers and artists urged people to seek a long, orderly, and stable life. They wove together qualifications for salvation with requirements for longevity, thus drawing the cultural cognitive maps for the secular, institutionalized life course of the modern era.

Historians no longer identify the transition to modernity as the key to understanding changes in the lives of older people. In the shift from rural, communal, preindustrial to urban, individualist, industrial society, old people did not simply lose venerated positions of power or security and become scorned outcasts of the past (Stearns). While historians have spilled considerable ink debating the power and status of older people in North America since the colonial period, we still lack sufficient empirical data to justify strong generalizations (Achenbaum; Fischer; Haber).

It is clear, however, that the experience of growing old in modernizing Western societies was shaped by basic changes in the structure of the life course conceptualized not simply as an aggregate of individuals, but as "a pattern of rules ordering a key dimension of life" (Kohli, p. 271). Beginning in the late eighteenth century, shifts in demography and family life, as well as the growth of age-stratified systems of public rights and duties, forged the modern life course. Demographically, age at death was transformed from a pattern of relative randomness to one of predictability (Imhoff). Average life expectancy rose dramatically, especially after 1900. By the mid-twentieth century, death struck primarily in old age, and with much less variance than in the past. (The AIDS [acquired immunodeficiency syndrome] epidemic that began in the 1980s altered this trend.)

Meanwhile, the experience of a modern family cycle (including marriage, children, survival of both spouses to age fifty-five, "empty nest," and widowhood) became increasingly common and standardized (Hareven and Adams).

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