Emeritus professor Antti Eskola is a different sort of old man

Antti Eskola, professor emeritus of social psychology, is now writing about ageing.

Antti Eskola, professor emeritus of social psychology, is now writing about ageing.

Antti Eskola, an emeritus professor of social psychology, is a man that people seek out to listen and talk to. He has written dozens of books that can be found in university libraries and on the bookshelves of several generations of people. This social scientist of the 1960s, leftist opinion leader and developer of sociological research methods has been listened to, read, admired and even marvelled at.

“I recently read articles by an American psychologist about the changes in people’s action orientation when their perspective of time changes,” Eskola says.

“If people think that their time will continue endlessly, cognitive action will guide them and this can be seen, for example, in how they learn new things. But when people’s perspective of time shortens for one reason or another, and they can see that the end is nearing, their actions change. They find emotional contemplation and value choices more important. Now that I am over eighty years old, I can recognise this aspect in myself,” Eskola says.

Isn’t that a pretty wonderful state of being?

“Yes, it is. One spends more time thinking and contemplating.”

However, there is a fire in his eyes when he says:

“The demand for life-long learning makes me angry! Why the hell should I learn anything more? Couldn’t I just manage the rest of my time with what I have learned already?”

The lion roars

His books, some of which have been co-authored with Johannes Salminen and Leena Kurki, among others, paint a picture of Finnish culture, science and art – including the art of growing old.

In the book Miehestä mittaa, which you co-authored with Leena Kurki, you write about the film “On the Golden Pond”, where Henry Fonda plays the old man Norman and Katherine Hepburn his wife Ethel. Norman rants about the next generation and Ethel says that Norman is “like an old lion who must remind himself that it is still capable of roaring”. You ask whether people should become tame and stop roaring. Have you become tame?

“This here is how the old lion is trying to roar,” Eskola says and bangs a pile of papers on his desk, the manuscript he has been working on for two years for a book with the working title “What can old age be?”

“This text is pretty controversial and I use my own old age as an example.”

You also criticise the current narrative of old age. The elderly mother is always self-sacrificing, tired and suffering, and loneliness and poverty typify old people. Other people are horrified if the elderly feel desire, and if they do not fit the right image, they are thought of as ranting and a bit crazy. You write: “Old people have been driven into the corner where they cannot do anything right, no matter what they do.”

“That is how I feel. In this new text, I write about this phenomenon in more detail. My main point is that old people are very different from one another,” Eskola says.

“Talking about the elderly population irritates me. It is not some unified group of grey people; they have very varied destinies.”

Longing is futile

Eskola, who was born in 1934, gives an example of such differentiation – because he himself also wants to remember that certain things happen with age:

“I would like to use my own class as an example. When we finished high school in 1954, we were pretty much the same in terms of health and other aspects, regardless of our different home environments. When we had our class reunion forty years later we were so different; some of us had married more than once, some were unmarried, there were widows and divorcees – all marital statuses. Some had more children and some had less or none. There were all these differences! Some had already died and some were in such bad shape that they could not make it to the reunion. One guy did not come because he was one of the best senior athletes in Finland and had to train even on that day because he was preparing for a big competition. There was amazing variation!”

Is there something you long for?

“I don’t know how to long for something from the past or the future. What kind of a day tomorrow will be is largely up to me, and the rest depends on something that is larger than me.”

Since his retirement, Eskola has also published three works on religion, but now he says that he will no longer write about faith.

Don’t you long for anything at all from the past, from society as it was?

“Nothing. Longing is useless, what is gone is gone and there is no use clinging on to the old days.”

People call you a rational man.

“I am rational. There is no use delving into the past because we won’t get those times back. This is what having reason means. Bitterness is also as futile as hanging on to the past. I have never understood that part of the Lord’s Prayer where it says that we have forgiven those who have trespassed against us. I cannot think of any such person even if I tried, none at all.”

Irritation and relief

Are there things in today’s world that you dislike?

“There are so many things and there’s no use listing them all. I take issue with the same things as any other reasonable human being. Let’s just say one: global capitalism, which is continuously causing injustice. That is quite obvious.”

Is there something in today’s society that you fear, or is there something that you wish was not there?

“There’s no use being fearful about things that you cannot do anything about. I try to think what I can do and not to worry about things I cannot change.”

Are you able to do that?

“Of course not, who can? I am just saying that I’m trying!”

What are you relieved about?

“It was a relief to retire. I don’t have to write exam questions or read those bloody answers. That was the most boring part of being a professor, which was quite good otherwise. Exam questions and answers – such police work is not suitable for intellectuals. Organising the exams, yes, but passing judgment, no.”
Another thing Eskola is relieved about is that he has reached old age.

“Now things do not matter so much; I don’t have to accomplish anything anymore and I don’t even have to fear death. It will come when it comes.”

In the foreword to his latest work, Eskola writes that he is attempting to reach a synthesis inspired by the Marxist tradition. This means going beyond the see-saw of relief and worry and taking an interest in what actually happens when a person grows old.

Being interested and excited is at the core of Eskola’s life. In 2014, he talked about his own studies and said that the words that best describe his own student days are “enthusiasm about science”.

Searchers and sceptics

Of today’s technological innovations, Eskola uses computers but not email, and he thinks that the world of social media is distant and even trivial. At the end of the preface to his manuscript, Eskola has added his mailing address in Tampere so that readers can send their feedback by letter.

How can a professor of interaction manage without email and Facebook?

“Quite well, actually. The little bit I have looked at debates on social media, I do not miss that kind of a thing at all. When I read in the papers how bad it can get, it makes me happy to think that I’ve got nothing to do with it.”

Professor Antti Eskola et the opening ceremony of the academic year 2013 - 2014.

Professor Antti Eskola at the opening ceremony of the academic year 2013 – 2014.

The University of Tampere was Eskola’s workplace for three decades. He worked as professor of social psychology from 1966 to 1997. Even after retirement, Eskola sometimes meets up with old colleagues.

“I read about the University’s affairs in the papers and I have remained a member of the Finnish Union of University Professors so that I can go to the meetings of the Tampere chapter twice a year to see who is still around and how many professors I’m still able to recognise. I’ve also always tried to come to the opening ceremony of the new academic year.”

The one place this emeritus professor likes to go to is a discussion group for searchers and sceptics.

“That is an important arena for me. About twenty people with various backgrounds come to the group to discuss different things. Last time, we talked about peer support and we will discuss populism and dogmatism next.”

Text and photographs: Taina Repo