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How societies grow old: Jared Diamond at TED2013

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Photos: James Duncan Davidson

Photos: James Duncan Davidson

Jared Diamond: Why do societies collapse? Jared Diamond: Why do societies collapse?

Growing old in traditional societies

Jared Diamond is the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, which was a provocative answer to the question of why Europe dominated the world for much of recent history. More recently, he has written The World Before Yesterday, an investigation of traditional societies, and what the modern world might learn from them.

For this talk, he’s focusing on one chapter of that book and asking the question: what can we learn about how to treat elderly people from traditional societies? There are many, many traditional societies, and they are very different from modern societies. “Tribes,” says Diamond, “constitute thousands of natural experiments in how to run a society.” He is quick to add that they shouldn’t be scorned as primitive, nor romanticized as happy and peaceful.

Now in our society, most old people end up living separately from their children, and away from the friends they grew up with. In traditional societies everyone lives out their lives among their children and friends. That said, their treatment varies wildly.

At the worst extreme, many get rid of the elderly by one of several methods:

  • Neglect and not feeding them.
  • Abandoning them when the group moves.
  • Encouraging suicide.
  • Killing them.

This happens, says Diamond, mainly under two conditions: Nomads that are incapable of physically carrying them, or people living in marginal or fluctuating environments, such as the arctic or deserts. To us it sounds horrible, “But what could those traditional societies do differently?”

On the opposite extreme are the New Guinea farming societies he has been studying recently and most other sedentary farming societies. There the elderly are fed, remain and live in the same hut or a nearby hut to their children.

Elizabeth Lindsey: Curating humanity's heritage Elizabeth Lindsey: Curating humanity's heritage

What does this mean?

There are two reasons for this variation, the usefulness of old people and the society’s values. There are many things that elderly people contribute to their societies: They may be effective in producing food. They can babysit grandchildren, freeing their children to hunt and gather. They can craft things. And often they are the leaders and the most knowledgeable. The last point has a huge significance that would never occur to us in literate societies, “It’s their knowledge that spells the difference between survival and death.” In other cases, the society places an emphasis on respect for the elderly, as in East Asia. That contrasts strongly with the United States. Here, the elderly are at a huge disadvantage. For example in job applications, or in hospitals — in that case there is an explicit policy to treat younger people first.

TED2013_0071148_DSC_9312There are several reasons for that low status: The Protestant work ethic, the emphasis on self-reliance and indepenence, and the cult of youth. Clearly, there have been many changes for the better, but there have also been changes for the worse:

  • There are more old people and fewer young people than at any time. This makes each elderly person more of a burden.
  • The breaking of social ties with age. Americans move on average every 5 years, and are likely to end up away from their children and friends.
  • Formal retirement from the workforce, and the loss of self-esteem which accompanies that.
  • They are, “Objectively less useful than in traditional societies.” The slow pace of change there means what you learn as a child is still useful. Not in ours. (For example, the TV set Diamond grew up with in 1948 had three knobs, today he has a remote with 41 buttons.)

What can we do?

Cynthia Kenyon: Experiments that hint of longer lives Cynthia Kenyon: Experiments that hint of longer lives

The lessons

This is clearly a huge problem, but Diamond thinks there are a few good takeaways from traditional societies about the value of our elders:

  • Elderly people are becoming more and more useful for high-quality child care, particularly as women enter the workforce. Compared to the alternative of paid child care, they may offer better, more motivated child care.
  • They have gained in value because of the experience in living conditions that are gone, but might come back. None of the young people, including most voters and politicians, have lived through a depression, or a World War.
  • While there are many things they can’t do as well, there are many things they can do better. Some skills increase with age, like understanding of people and human relationships, the ability to help others without ego, and understanding and making connections between large, interdisciplinary data sets. That makes them better at supervising, administrating, advising, and similar roles.

It’s a lot of food for thought. Diamond reminds us that we should consider, without romanticizing, that, “Traditional society elders have traditionally more rich lives. They think of dangers far less than we do, and they don’t die of heart disease and diabetes.”

Jared Diamond’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on »