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1In this ambitious work, Élise Feller clearly and methodically deconstructs the idea that the condition of old age only began to be institutionalized in France after World War II. Directly confronting this myopic perspective, widespread in studies of old age, she draws on multiple sources and viewpoints to demonstrate that the first half of the twentieth century was a crucial period in the evolution of representations of old age. And the institutionalization of retirement entirely transformed the French understanding of the life cycle.

2The first part of the book covers the “figures” and “words” used to represent old age over the period under study. Ageing was first perceived as a threat to French national power, particularly when the country compared its situation to that of its European neighbours. In fact it was the low birth rate and the persistence of child mortality, rather than longer life expectancy, that explained the rising proportion of older generations in the French population at the time. As the author succinctly puts it: “France aged in the first half of the twentieth century but it was only in the second that French people themselves aged” (p. 60). Her analysis here is highly stimulating as it helps explain why demographic discourse at the time so often took on an ideological tone: denunciation of the low birth rate actually expressed “a desire to bring a segment of the population characterized by lax morals back to the values of family and work that represented the nation’s strength” (p. 38). The analysis of women’s situation here reveals that old age was seen not solely in terms of biological change (the supposed age at which one attains old age); representations were also shaped by moral considerations. Women (as well as confirmed old bachelors and spinsters) became old people earlier in life than fathers, heads of families. The scientific arguments were very slow to evolve: demographic fatalism was still being stressed as late as 1948, on the occasion of a three-day conference entitled “Scientific study of ageing in the population”. In the second chapter Feller takes up popular representations of old age. Here the author draws on a great variety of sources to show how little those representations themselves varied: old people were undesirable figures, excluded, for example, from the nascent art of cinema in favour of the first (young) screen stars. This review of discourses on old age also highlights how loosely the notion was linked to the real age variable: gender, occupational category and marital status were all factors understood to accelerate or slow entry into old age.

3Part II takes up the question of medical views and approaches to old age in the early twentieth century. While there were signs in the nineteenth that a specialized medical approach to old age was taking shape, the political preoccupations of the early twentieth put a stop to this development. In the aftermath of World War I, youth and young people became a priority for medicine. The only subjects studied in connection with ageing and the elderly were menopause and tuberculosis. And the motivations behind this research tell us much about physicians’ priorities: for menopause, the aim was to understand when and how female fertility ended in order to prolong it and increase birth numbers; with regard to tuberculosis, the aim was to isolate infected older persons from the rest of the population to avoid contagion. Last, extremely poor old persons were relegated to hospices alongside indigents. At first, and until around 1930, these institutions were relatively effective in meeting old people’s needs: with the law of 1905, assistance became compulsory and arguments in favour of solidarity – solidarisme – were applied directly when it came to managing these establishments; religious works too played a major role in them. Hygiene theories were also applied to improve living conditions for this segment of the population. Presenting many detailed local examples, the author illustrates the hospice’s “golden age” in the 1920s. However, increasing demand and limited resources due to the 1930s economic crisis later turned these places into mouroirs (dying rooms) for the poor and underprivileged old.

4The last part of the book and the most fully developed takes up the social construction of old age in France, a process in which the early twentieth century constitutes a key moment. “In half a century, France progressed from private management of old age centred around the family, private means or charity, to collective management, at first only partial, centred around the figure of the indigent old person, and later much more thorough and centred around the figure of the pensioner” (p. 165). France was a more rural country than its European neighbours and ageing in private circumstances was considered the most desirable experience there. In direct contrast to this often over-idealized situation, indigent older persons were the first to benefit from social legislation (law of 1905). This first image of institutionalized old age highlights that state solidarity was structured first and foremost by the notion of assistance. Though the first forms of it were clearly insufficient, the structures implemented (for example, benevolent organization canvassing of local needs) worked to change representations. Alongside this development, retirement through capitalization systems began to develop and flourish through the “mutual benefit” movement – mutualisme – where unearned income to be used in old age was insured through accounts taken out with the national pension fund and, for state pensioners, a new pension system. Though the amounts deposited were absurdly low – notably given the level of inflation, which ruined individuals with unearned incomes – the idea of collectively managing retirement pensions was gradually making inroads. The working classes remained largely excluded from this development, as demonstrated by the early failure of worker and farmer retirement pensions (law of 1910). The majority of workers rejected the system, which they saw as a potential means of re-establishing on-going control over their mobility and behaviour. Moreover, the system was still conceived in insurance terms – inconceivable for workers, whose income did not allow them to save, who had difficulty thinking of themselves as permanent employees, and who at that time were not even likely to live to legal retirement age. In the 1930s, when social insurance became generalized in France, retirement gradually came to be considered by the population at large as a normal period in the life cycle. So though it was first “conceived by employers as a means of social control, it later came to be perceived by employees as a time of freedom and independence following the constraint of working” (p. 339). Surveys conducted after World War II – notably by INED – clearly show a revolution in mentalities that reflects “the integration of the retirement period into the individual and family life cycle” (p. 349).

5In the last chapter, Élise Feller presents the main conclusions of her study of archived retirement files of employees of the Paris transport system. Through her analysis of over 600 files on workers born between 1860 and 1880, we see the emergence and consolidation of a “special” regime for this category of workers. Up against the demands of modernizing urban transport techniques, the highest priorities were work force stability and competence. While the retirement system made it possible to maintain the work force and to let go of senior workers without difficulty, employees too adopted the new system and made it their own. Retirement thus became a full-fledged period of the life cycle, involving new residential projects (returning to settle in the region of one’s birth, for example, or purchasing a free-standing home on the outskirts of Paris).

6The author offers us a particularly complete, nuanced panorama of the history of old age in France in the early twentieth century. It may seem regrettable that she chose to organize the work thematically, which results in some repetition. It is also unfortunate to have separated the case study of transport workers’ special retirement regime: the links between its advent and the more general movement underway in French society could have been studied in greater depth. However, these criticisms weigh little against the high quality of the research and its presentation. As Vincent Caradec writes in his afterword, Élise Feller’s book will be of great interest to the disciplines of history and the human sciences, as it fills in a considerable gap in our knowledge of old age.

  • Feller Élise, 2017, Du vieillard au retraité. La construction de la vieillesse dans la France du xxe siècle, Paris, L’Harmattan, 438 p.
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