Summarised from a paper presented by Peter Laslett to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts

A National Trust for the Future Run by Third Agers

by Peter Laslett [1]


The future requires representation in the present if the duty which we all owe to posterity is to be properly fulfilled. Those now in the Third Age of their lives are best suited to fulfil that representative function, and they should accordingly regard themselves as trustees for time to come. The crown of life comes in the Third Age after the workplace is left behind, when there is sufficient freedom from family obligations, economic, social or political compulsion, freedom in fact from the trammels of the Second Age, that of middle age. Such investigation as has so far been made of the attitudes of peoples in the various Ages yields surprising results: neither those in the Second Age nor the First have as great an interest in the future as those in the Third. For only with the Third Age can come that consciousness of freedom in the time dimension which alone can give rise to a duty to represent the future as a trustee. They are closer to the future for the reason that they live much more than do their juniors in the subjective mode of age and ageing. And they identify themselves with those who are to come, with their grandchildren for example, and increasingly with their great-grandchildren. But even those without offspring are well aware of what time to come is likely to be like, because they have seen so much of time already.


Much could be gained and much could be learnt, by extending the theory of the existing National Trust for this new and much wider purpose.

In the grandiose phrases of Edmund Burke, the National Trust represents 'a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.' It is a partnership requiring from everyone a vigilance even more constant than John Stuart Mill required for the retention of our liberty:

Never to use too much water, too much heat, too many materials; never to pollute anything anywhere; never to discard anything which will not disappear instantly and of itself; never to join in any activity which will tend to depopulate the earth of any of its species, defoliate the landscape, upset the global atmosphere, desolate our habitat and so the habitat of all our successors.

It is for members of the Third Age, seeing themselves as the nominated trustees of those who are to come, to prompt, inform, and support the administrators, curators, keepers and librarians.

Every sensitive, informed, conscientious member of the Third Age should do everything possible to be aware and informed of the needs of posterity, of the rights of posterity, of things which posterity would most wish to inherit from us and of the things which menace those rights, of the habits and outlooks which have to be transformed if posterity is to be given its due.


'We do for those who follow us what has been done for us by those who preceded us'

If it is to be asked on what principle we are compelled to fulfil this debt to our successors in the world, the answer can be summarised as follows. We are obliged to hand over to them what we have inherited from the past in the condition in which that inheritance was received. We do for those who follow us what has been done for us by those who preceded us.

It has been the aristocracies which until recently have had the means, the leisure, the cultivation and the taste to act as trustees of the cultural and national societies and for such entities as the society of Europe at large. You only have to contemplate the elderly eighteenth century aristocrat who supervises the planting of a great avenue before his splendid house, knowing that he himself would never live to see the trees grow as tall as his own shrunken height, to recognise that these past patrons of the arts must have been conscious that they were representing the future.

It is the leisured members of the Third Age who should recognise that it is for them to take over where the dukes, the earls, baronets and plain esquires have had to relinquish their responsibilities


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Peter Laslett, Director, Ageing Unit, Cambridge History of Population and Social Structure, Trinity College, Cambridge, was one of the Founders of the University of the Third Age.

The article was reproduced from the website of the Global Ideas Bank