"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Ageism Is A Good Idea–Make Way For The Young

No matter how much older American are convinced that their views are not only right but absolutely right, they are wrong.  All the stereotypes about elder calcified thinking, living in the past, nostalgia for ‘the good old days’, and reverence for just about anything that has come before are true.  We are antiquated in our thinking, supernumerary in a youthful world, and of marginal value to society.

Yes, we have the wisdom that comes from our long years.  Yet those valid insights about the ineluctability of human nature, the predictably cyclical nature of history, and the inevitability of war, violence, and family feuds usually come with a good dose of  intemperance.  It is not enough to see the world as it has always been; and satisfaction only comes with a mean spirit.  Those who do not feel the weight of history but deny it, believe instead in social progress, an end to conflict, and an eventual equitable world are ignorant according to the old. 

Wisdom becomes distorted.   The value of historical insights and reflections on long lives of endurance is lost in spite, resentment, and anger. 

Not everyone older succumbs to this nasty view of modern life; but it is hard to resist when society seems to be disassembling.   It is not easy for anyone raised in an era of traditional religion, patriotism, family, social homogeneity, and Jeffersonian ideals of individualism and community to feel comfortable in today’s culture .  Radical feminism, gay rights, black power,  pluralism, and defiance of traditional public and private institutions are not easy to take. As much as we try to understand, there seems something wrong when Biblical authority is challenged; when the principles of democracy are distorted by venal individualism; when identity is valued more than assimilation.

It is almost impossible to take in stride the progressive radicalism on college campuses, the conditionalities that erode the nature of personal responsibility, advancing secularism, or provocative displays of sexual pride.  Even those older Americans motivated by concerns for social justice and enlisted in progressive causes cannot look admiringly at the changes occurring at what seems to be a bewildering and unstoppable rate.

How can we, then, contribute productively in a workplace whose demographics are far from ours, where the zeitgeist is one of positivism and idealism, and where decisions are based on what could be rather than what has been?

It is true that the insights of the old have some value.  For example after 40 years working in the bush, a seasoned development economist can reasonably predict tribal behavior, the corrosive nature of persistent nepotism and its inevitable impact, the inevitability of individual enterprise and the equally inevitable struggle to suppress  it for political gain.  Yet he cannot as reasonably or easily envision innovative solutions.  The irony of his intelligence and historical insights is that they limit his creativity – i.e. understanding the new era, new belief systems, and the new approaches derived from both.

Which is why, for better or worse, old people need to get out of the way, cede power and influence to the young and wish them well.  The world changes, but the old do not.  While an elder employee has the advantage of historical knowledge if not insight, a younger worker with the same intelligence and talent for insight, and with a new version of  curiosity and will; and with a natural flexibility and energy that his older colleague has lost, has every right to take the reins.

The world of politics is no different.  Why should we be entrusting the country to septuagenarians?  They are sure to be as fossilized as the rest of us, unable to imagine the future because of the trappings of the past and obliged because of upbringing, education, and old-fashioned worldview to look at problems in old-fashioned, predictable, and necessarily inappropriate ways. 

There is a limit to intelligence.  No one denies that of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump who never would have risen to power and influence without natural intellectual ability, logical discipline, and intellectual rigor.   Yet pure brain power is not enough.  It is no accident that the greatest scientific and mathematical discoveries were made by young men.  

Niels Bohr, Planck, Newton, and Galileo would have been stuck in their ways like everyone else had they lived longer.  Einstein remained remarkably fertile until his death at 76, but he was as trapped in the thinking he did in his twenties and thirties as anyone, and he was not surprisingly unable to conclude a Unified Field Theory.

In some fields like literature and art, the best works are produced when artists have achieved a certain maturity; but artistic production is as much a progressive development of technique and application than pure, original insight.  The first works of Eugene O’Neill are immature grand guignol, but Long Day’s Journey Into Night and later plays relying on historical insight and a keen, long observation of human behavior are brilliant.

In those fields which require instant insight, innovative risk-taking, and an almost visionary look at future possibilities, discoveries are made by the young.  Once again it is no accident that Silicon Valley is run by young’uns.

It is also true that young politicians can be inept, ignorant, and unacceptable for high office.  Youth does not automatically confer genius.  Yet it is still surprising that two seventy-year olds are running for the American presidency. Why can’t our youthful nation produce any young, smart, determined, creative candidate?  Youth and intelligence would be enough; because smart young people are quick studies who can survey the landscape, absorb volumes of information, and come to reasonable and appropriate conclusions.

There is one last, compelling reason for the old to turn over the reins to the young – pessimism.  For most older people it is very hard to maintain enthusiasm, social commitment, and idealism after a certain age.  Anyone who has been paying attention has to conclude that individual enterprise is temporal, insignificant, and quickly forgotten.   At best the old are thinking of eternity and not how to improve the world they will never see.  Those lucky enough to have been born with congenital curiosity and intellectual energy never seem to wear out, and continue to learn; but in their heart of hearts they know that learning is a pastime, an exercise to fill the interstices of a shortening life.

Even the most energetic politician – and Trump and Hillary are more energetic than most – will have trouble keeping the black dog away.  No such concerns should bedevil a President.   It is better to put up with youthful blunders than to suffer under a regime of age-related ignorance at best, and depression at worst.

So, advice to my generation – Get out of the way! Everyone will be better off for it.  Our time is for reflection, family, and leisure.  Eventually even those of us with a Type A retirement – teaching, writing, classes, Kant, and political engagement – will eventually slow down and face the music.  “We all die alone”, said Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s short story of the same name; and sooner or later we need to come to grips with that unpleasant fact.

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