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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
in modern society.
For example, as a 15-year-old,
I was considered outstandingly
good at multiplying numbers

because I had memorized the multiplication tables
and I know how to use logarithms
and I'm quick at manipulating a slide rule.
Today, though, those skills are utterly useless
because any idiot
can now multiply eight-digit numbers
accurately and instantly with a pocket calculator.
Conversely, I at age 75
am incompetent at skills
essential for everyday life.
My family's first TV set in 1948
had only three knobs that I quickly mastered:
an on-off switch, a volume knob,
and a channel selector knob.
Today, just to watch a program
on the TV set in my own house,
I have to operate a 41-button TV remote
that utterly defeats me.
I have to telephone my 25-year-old sons
and ask them to talk me through it
while I try to push those wretched 41 buttons.
What can we do to improve the lives of the elderly
in the U.S., and to make better use of their value?
That's a huge problem.
In my remaining four minutes today,
I can offer just a few suggestions.
One value of older people is that they are
increasingly useful as grandparents
for offering high-quality childcare
to their grandchildren, if they choose to do it,
as more young women enter the workforce
and as fewer young parents of either gender
stay home as full-time caretakers of their children.
Compared to the usual alternatives
of paid babysitters and day care centers,
grandparents offer superior, motivated,
experienced child care.
They've already gained experience
from raising their own children.

They usually love their grandchildren,
and are eager to spend time with them.
Unlike other caregivers,
grandparents don't quit their job
because they found another job with higher pay
looking after another baby.
A second value of older people is paradoxically
related to their loss of value
as a result of changing world
conditions and technology.

At the same time, older people have gained
in value today precisely because
of their unique experience of living conditions
that have now become rare
because of rapid change, but that could come back.
For example, only Americans now in their 70s
or older today can remember
the experience of living through a great depression,
the experience of living through a world war,
and agonizing whether or not
dropping atomic bombs would be more horrible
than the likely consequences
of not dropping atomic bombs.

Most of our current voters and politicians
have no personal experience of any of those things,
but millions of older Americans do.
Unfortunately, all of those terrible situations
could come back.
Even if they don't come back,
we have to be able to plan for them
on the basis of the experience of what they were like.
Older people have that experience.
Younger people don't.
The remaining value of older people
that I'll mention involves recognizing that
while there are many things that older people
can no longer do,
there are other things that they can do
better than younger people.
A challenge for society is
to make use of those things

that older people are better at doing.
Some abilities, of course, decrease with age.
Those include abilities at tasks
requiring physical strength and stamina,
ambition, and the power of novel reasoning
in a circumscribed situation,
such as figuring out the structure of DNA,
best left to scientists under the age of 30.
Conversely, valuable attributes
that increase with age include experience,
understanding of people and human relationships,
ability to help other people
without your own ego getting in the way,
and interdisciplinary thinking about large databases,
such as economics and comparative history,
best left to scholars over the age of 60.
Hence older people are
much better than younger people

at supervising, administering, advising,
strategizing, teaching, synthesizing,
and devising long-term plans.
I've seen this value of older people
with so many of my friends in their 60s,
70s, 80s and 90s,
who are still active as investment managers,
farmers, lawyers and doctors.
In short, many traditional societies
make better use of their elderly
and give their elderly more satisfying lives
than we do in modern, big societies.
Paradoxically nowadays,
when we have more elderly people than ever before,
living healthier lives and with better medical care
than ever before,
old age is in some respects more miserable
than ever before.
The lives of the elderly are widely recognized
as constituting a disaster area
of modern American society.
We can surely do better by learning
from the lives of the elderly
in traditional societies.
But what's true of the lives of the elderly
in traditional societies
is true of many other features
of traditional societies as well.
Of course, I'm not advocating that we all give up
agriculture and metal tools
and return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
There are many obvious respects
in which our lives today are far happier
than those in small, traditional societies.
To mention just a few examples,
our lives are longer, materially much richer,
and less plagued by violence
than are the lives of people in traditional societies.
But there are also things to be admired
about people in traditional societies,
and perhaps to be learned from them.
Their lives are usually socially much richer
than our lives,
although materially poorer.
Their children are more self-confident,
more independent, and more socially skilled
than are our children.
They think more realistically
about dangers than we do.

They almost never die of diabetes, heart disease,
stroke, and the other noncommunicable diseases
that will be the causes of death of almost
all of us in this room today.
Features of the modern lifestyle
predispose us to those diseases,

and features of the traditional lifestyle
protect us against them.
Those are just some examples of what we can learn
from traditional societies.
I hope that you will find it as fascinating
to read about traditional societies
as I found it to live in those societies.
Thank you.
(Applause)
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【TED】Jared Diamond: How societies can grow old better (Jared Diamond: How societies can grow old better)

30907 Folder Collection
CUChou published on February 27, 2015
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