Hendrik Hartog: Bargaining for a Child’s Love

Hendrik Hartog is a professor of history at Princeton and the author of “Someday All This Will Be Yours: A History of Inheritance and Old Age.”

ECONOMIC malaise and political sloganeering have contributed to the increasingly loud conversation about the coming crisis of old-age care: the depletion of the Social Security trust fund, the ever rising cost of Medicare, the end of defined-benefit pensions, the stagnation of 401(k)’s. News accounts suggest that overstretched and insufficient public services are driving adult children “back” toward caring for dependent parents.

Such accounts often draw on a deeply sentimental view of the past. Once upon a time, the story line goes, family members cared for one another naturally within households, in an organic and unplanned process. But this portrait is too rosy. If we confront what old-age support once looked like — what actually happened when care was almost fully privatized, when the old depended on their families, without the bureaucratic structures and the (under)paid caregivers we take for granted — a different picture emerges.

For the past decade I have been researching cases of family conflict over old-age care in the decades before Social Security. I have found extraordinary testimony about the intimate management of family care: how the old negotiated with the young for what they called retirement, and the exertions of caregiving at a time when support by relatives was the only sustenance available for the old....

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