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  • Du vieillard au retraité. La construction de la vieillesse dans la France du xxe siècle by Élise Feller
  • Pierre-Antoine Bilbaut
Feller Élise, 2017, Du vieillard au retraité. La construction de la vieillesse dans la France du xxe siècle [From elderly person to pensioner: the construction of old age in France in the twentieth century], Paris, L'Harmattan, 438 p.

In 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.

The 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.

Part 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 [End Page 531] 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...


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pp. 531-533
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