What does growing old mean today?

John Keane

Written during a period when the gap between rich and poor was fast widening in post-Jacobin France, Thomas Paine's Agrarian Justice opposed to Agrarian Law, and to Agrarian Monopoly (1795/6) is among his most far-sighted writings.

It sketched an entirely original plan for setting up a National Fund out of which every man and woman reaching fifty years of age would receive an annual citizen's pension.

Paine thought that old age was not straightforwardly 'natural', and that older people were therefore capable of living happier and more fulfilling lives.

His pioneering vision of a new politics of the elderly gained ground and saw successes in the nineteenth-century campaigns by friendly societies and the labour movement to win support for retirement policies and state pensions, designed to improve the living conditions of growing numbers of older people pushed from gainful employment into retirement, simply because there were no jobs for them.

Paine's vision has an entirely new relevance for our times, John Keane proposes in this lecture, times which are defined by an astonishing development: the addition of a whole generation to the average person's life span during the past century in countries otherwise as different as Japan, France, Britain and the United States.

The lecture explores the profound implications of this trend, to show that Paine's spirit is very much alive, and that it forces us to see that life for older people is no paradise on earth - that there is a new case for providing meaningful spaces for the elderly to live meaningful lives in new and socially more interesting ways.

[Click here to read John Keane's lecture]