This paper strives to make intelligible those public interventions, which, over a period of nearly forty years (1945-1981), have given structure to the relationships between old age and society. State interventions have, for the most part, gravitated around three major axes: retirement, lifestyle, and employment. Approaching this question by bringing together the essential elements of French public policy has made it possible to distinguish three periods, each of which correspond to a different combination of these three dimensions. By recreating the play of antagonistic or complementary social forces responsible for the generation of public interventions in each case, it has been possible to demonstrate that the way issues relating to old age are managed in the public sector reflects, at any particular historical moment, the type of relationship, in perpetual tension and transformation, between the order of the State and the order of social relations. By laying bare the action systems which are at the heart of the development and evolution of policies relating to old age, the author has attempted, in conclusion, to identify some of the mechanisms which have engendered what we refer to today as the crisis of the Welfare State.