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'Sickness unto death' is becoming a thing of the past

By Brett Neilson - posted Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Two persistent tendencies mark discussions about population ageing. The first is to focus on the effects of this transition upon older members of the community, if not members of particular generations such as the baby boomers. The second is to limit discussion of this demographic change to single countries or jurisdictions.

In reality, population ageing is a global phenomenon. Its effects reach across national borders. They also span across social groups and stratifications, including but not limited to those defined by age.

There are deep affinities between the propensity to understand population ageing by focusing upon specific generations and the tendency to view it within an exclusively national frame. Identifying and analysing these affinities can help to broaden the debate.


The reason why current demographic debate in Australia often focuses on older people is straightforward. Quite simply there will be more of them. In particular, the ageing of the baby boomers will heighten the country’s age profile.

Nobody bothers to deny population ageing. Demography may not be destiny, but it lays out the future in slabs. According to the United Nations, the impact of the current demographic transition may parallel that of the industrial revolution.

Commentators on this matter range from doomsday sayers to sage professors who believe policy can solve the problems. The predominant concerns are economic and relate to the so-called demographic deficit - the prospect that current working age populations will be unable to foot the bill for the care and maintenance of those who came before them.

But as today’s economy mutates through culture, economic analysis alone is insufficient to take stock of the situation. Population ageing is as much about cultural transition: our family and friendship structures, the media and products we consume, our attitudes toward work, sexuality, and leisure.

To focus the debate on baby boomers and their attitudes toward retirement, health, intergenerational transfers, and so on is to potentially obscure a whole series of questions about ageing at the societal level. What does it mean to be young in an ageing society? What does it mean to be poor in an ageing society? What does it mean to be unemployed in an ageing society? These are questions less often asked.

We live in a time when massive funds are expended for research, medical and otherwise, that seeks to achieve the “compression of morbidity” or confinement of the burden of lifetime illness to a short period before death. The experience of what the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called the “sickness unto death” is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.


At the same time, the small but flourishing field of anti-ageing medicine promotes the notion that ageing is a disease in search of a cure. Bolstered by the hype that surrounds biotechnological developments but strongly contested by the geriatric medical establishment, markets now sustain the hope that ageing can be forestalled or even reversed. The discourses and practices of anti-ageing medicine provide a strategic site for analysing the cultural effects of population ageing.

When Sylvester Stallone was charged for attempting to carry vials of human growth hormone (HGH) through Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport in February 2007, some commentators worried the publicity would generate a demand for this substance, widely marketed on the Internet as an anti-ageing agent. But the reasons for the growth of anti-ageing medicine are more complex than this.

Historically, these are not the only times in which such cultures have blossomed. The early 20th century was also a period in which anti-ageing products and procedures, including hormonal preparations, were widely available. The Viennese physiologist Eugen Steinach, who contributed to the development of hormone replacement therapy, advocated vasectomy as a means of restoring and preserving male vitality. Sigmund Freud and W.B. Yeats were among those who underwent the operation. One company manufactured a product called Spermine, composed of semen, bull’s testicles, calf’s liver and calf’s heart.

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About the Author

Brett Neilson is Associate Professor of Cultural and Social Analysis at the University of Western Sydney, where he is also a member of the Centre for Cultural Research. He is the Chief Investigator on an Australian Research Council Discovery Award entitled Anti-Ageing Devices: On the Cultural Politics of Staying Young in a Globalised World.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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