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  • To give me an idea of how many of you here

  • may find what I'm about to tell you

  • of practical value,

  • let me ask you please to raise your hands:

  • Who here is either over 65 years old

  • or hopes to live past age 65

  • or has parents or grandparents who did live

  • or have lived past 65,

  • raise your hands please. (Laughter)

  • Okay. You are the people to whom my talk

  • will be of practical value. (Laughter)

  • The rest of you

  • won't find my talk personally relevant,

  • but I think that you will still find the subject

  • fascinating.

  • I'm going to talk about growing older

  • in traditional societies.

  • This subject constitutes just one chapter

  • of my latest book, which compares

  • traditional, small, tribal societies

  • with our large, modern societies,

  • with respect to many topics

  • such as bringing up children,

  • growing older, health, dealing with danger,

  • settling disputes, religion

  • and speaking more than one language.

  • Those tribal societies, which constituted

  • all human societies for most of human history,

  • are far more diverse than are our modern,

  • recent, big societies.

  • All big societies that have governments,

  • and where most people are strangers to each other,

  • are inevitably similar to each other

  • and different from tribal societies.

  • Tribes constitute thousands of natural experiments

  • in how to run a human society.

  • They constitute experiments from which we ourselves

  • may be able to learn.

  • Tribal societies shouldn't be scorned

  • as primitive and miserable,

  • but also they shouldn't be romanticized

  • as happy and peaceful.

  • When we learn of tribal practices,

  • some of them will horrify us,

  • but there are other tribal practices which,

  • when we hear about them,

  • we may admire and envy

  • and wonder whether we could adopt those practices

  • ourselves.

  • Most old people in the U.S. end up living

  • separately from their children

  • and from most of their friends

  • of their earlier years,

  • and often they live in separate retirements homes for the elderly,

  • whereas in traditional societies,

  • older people instead live out their lives

  • among their children, their other relatives,

  • and their lifelong friends.

  • Nevertheless, the treatment of the elderly

  • varies enormously among traditional societies,

  • from much worse to much better

  • than in our modern societies.

  • At the worst extreme, many traditional societies

  • get rid of their elderly

  • in one of four increasingly direct ways:

  • by neglecting their elderly

  • and not feeding or cleaning them until they die,

  • or by abandoning them when the group moves,

  • or by encouraging older people to commit suicide,

  • or by killing older people.

  • In which tribal societies do children

  • abandon or kill their parents?

  • It happens mainly under two conditions.

  • One is in nomadic, hunter-gather societies

  • that often shift camp

  • and that are physically incapable

  • of transporting old people who can't walk

  • when the able-bodied younger people already

  • have to carry their young children

  • and all their physical possessions.

  • The other condition is in societies

  • living in marginal or fluctuating environments,

  • such as the Arctic or deserts,

  • where there are periodic food shortages,

  • and occasionally there just isn't enough food

  • to keep everyone alive.

  • Whatever food is available has to be reserved

  • for able-bodied adults and for children.

  • To us Americans, it sounds horrible

  • to think of abandoning or killing

  • your own sick wife or husband

  • or elderly mother or father,

  • but what could those traditional societies

  • do differently?

  • They face a cruel situation of no choice.

  • Their old people had to do it to their own parents,

  • and the old people know

  • what now is going to happen to them.

  • At the opposite extreme

  • in treatment of the elderly, the happy extreme,

  • are the New Guinea farming societies

  • where I've been doing my fieldwork for the past 50 years,

  • and most other sedentary traditional societies

  • around the world.

  • In those societies, older people are cared for.

  • They are fed. They remain valuable.

  • And they continue to live in the same hut

  • or else in a nearby hut near their children,

  • relatives and lifelong friends.

  • There are two main sets of reasons for this variation

  • among societies in their treatment

  • of old people.

  • The variation depends especially

  • on the usefulness of old people

  • and on the society's values.

  • First, as regards usefulness,

  • older people continue to perform useful services.

  • One use of older people in traditional societies

  • is that they often are still effective

  • at producing food.

  • Another traditional usefulness of older people

  • is that they are capable of babysitting

  • their grandchildren,

  • thereby freeing up their own adult children,

  • the parents of those grandchildren,

  • to go hunting and gathering food for the grandchildren.

  • Still another traditional value of older people

  • is in making tools, weapons, baskets,

  • pots and textiles.

  • In fact, they're usually the people who are best at it.

  • Older people usually are the leaders

  • of traditional societies,

  • and the people most knowledgeable about politics,

  • medicine, religion, songs and dances.

  • Finally, older people in traditional societies

  • have a huge significance that would never occur

  • to us in our modern, literate societies,

  • where our sources of information are books

  • and the Internet.

  • In contrast, in traditional societies without writing,

  • older people are the repositories of information.

  • It's their knowledge that spells the difference

  • between survival and death for their whole society

  • in a time of crisis caused by rare events

  • for which only the oldest people alive

  • have had experience.

  • Those, then, are the ways in which older people

  • are useful in traditional societies.

  • Their usefulness varies and contributes

  • to variation in the society's treatment

  • of the elderly.

  • The other set of reasons for variation

  • in the treatment of the elderly is

  • the society's cultural values.

  • For example, there's particular emphasis

  • on respect for the elderly in East Asia,

  • associated with Confucius' doctrine

  • of filial piety, which means obedience,

  • respect and support for elderly parents.

  • Cultural values that emphasize respect for older people

  • contrast with the low status of the elderly

  • in the U.S.

  • Older Americans are at a big disadvantage

  • in job applications.

  • They're at a big disadvantage in hospitals.

  • Our hospitals have an explicit policy

  • called age-based allocation of healthcare resources.

  • That sinister expression means that

  • if hospital resources are limited,

  • for example if only one donor heart

  • becomes available for transplant,

  • or if a surgeon has time to operate

  • on only a certain number of patients,

  • American hospitals have an explicit policy

  • of giving preference to younger patients

  • over older patients

  • on the grounds that younger patients are considered

  • more valuable to society

  • because they have more years of life ahead of them,

  • even though the younger patients have fewer years

  • of valuable life experience behind them.

  • There are several reasons for this low status

  • of the elderly in the U.S.

  • One is our Protestant work ethic

  • which places high value on work,

  • so older people who are no longer working

  • aren't respected.

  • Another reason is our American emphasis

  • on the virtues of self-reliance and independence,

  • so we instinctively look down on older people

  • who are no longer self-reliant and independent.

  • Still a third reason is our American cult of youth,

  • which shows up even in our advertisements.

  • Ads for Coca-Cola and beer always depict

  • smiling young people,

  • even though old as well as young people

  • buy and drink Coca-Cola and beer.

  • Just think, what's the last time you saw

  • a Coke or beer ad depicting smiling people

  • 85 years old? Never.

  • Instead, the only American ads

  • featuring white-haired old people

  • are ads for retirement homes and pension planning.

  • Well, what has changed in the status

  • of the elderly today

  • compared to their status in traditional societies?

  • There have been a few changes for the better

  • and more changes for the worse.

  • Big changes for the better

  • include the fact that today we enjoy

  • much longer lives,

  • much better health in our old age,

  • and much better recreational opportunities.

  • Another change for the better is that we now have

  • specialized retirement facilities

  • and programs to take care of old people.

  • Changes for the worse begin with the cruel reality

  • that we now have

  • more old people and fewer young people

  • than at any time in the past.

  • That means that all those old people

  • are more of a burden on the few young people,

  • and that each old person has less individual value.

  • Another big change for the worse in the status of the elderly

  • is the breaking of social ties with age,

  • because older people, their children,

  • and their friends,

  • all move and scatter independently of each other

  • many times during their lives.

  • We Americans move on the average

  • every five years.

  • Hence our older people are likely

  • to end up living distant from their children

  • and the friends of their youth.

  • Yet another change for the worse in the status of the elderly

  • is formal retirement from the workforce,

  • carrying with it a loss of work friendships

  • and a loss of the self-esteem associated with work.

  • Perhaps the biggest change for the worse

  • is that our elderly are objectively

  • less useful than in traditional societies.

  • Widespread literacy means that they are no longer

  • useful as repositories of knowledge.

  • When we want some information,

  • we look it up in a book or we Google it

  • instead of finding some old person to ask.

  • The slow pace of technological change

  • in traditional societies

  • means that what someone learns there as a child

  • is still useful when that person is old,

  • but the rapid pace of technological change today

  • means that what we learn as children

  • is no longer useful 60 years later.

  • And conversely, we older people are not fluent

  • in the technologies essential for surviving