Old people have never been as quick or energetic as young people, but societies have often valued them for their accumulated skills, knowledge, and wisdom. The ancient Egyptians considered a person to be truly old at age 80, though Ramesses the Great lived to perhaps 90 or 91 and Pepi II may have lived to 98. In a continuous culture that spanned 3000 years it would be quite reasonable to ask someone born 80 years earlier about best practices in art, agriculture, architecture, construction, or military technology.
What has the increasing pace of technological development done to old people in our age?
Let’s start by considering factual knowledge. An old person will know more than a young person, but can any person, young or old, know as much as Google and Wikipedia? Why would a young person ask an elder the answer to a fact question that can be solved authoritatively in 10 seconds with a Web search?
How about skills? Want help orienting a rooftop television aerial? Changing the vacuum tubes in your TV? Dialing up AOL? Using MS-DOS? Changing the ribbon on an IBM Selectric (height of 1961 technology)? Tuning up a car that lacks electronic engine controls? Doing your taxes without considering the Alternative Minimum Tax and the tens of thousands of pages of rules that have been added since our senior citizen was starting his career? Didn’t think so.
The same technological progress that enables our society to keep an ever-larger percentage of old folks’ bodies going has simultaneously reduced the value of the minds within those bodies. It is sad to contemplate. Perhaps the answer is for every old person to become an expert personal computer and network administrator. Those skills always seem to be in demand by the general public.
Another answer would be to develop obvious wisdom. Unfortunately, the young people who are most in need of an elder’s wisdom are the least likely to realize it. Only a small percentage of old people throughout history have managed to maintain high status and value purely through wisdom. Examples that come to mind include the Buddha (died at 80) and Confucius (died at 72). Their would-be modern counterparts are most likely forwarding cautionary emails to younger relatives about the dangers of opening particularly virulent email messages.
I recently wished a friend a happy birthday. He is in his 50s with a young wife and two-year-old children. All his life he has been valued for and earned his living with musical creativity. Here’s his reply:
I have been declared inept by my household! It only gets worse. You are not judged by your intelligence but by how well you do menial tasks. I have been spiritually castrated. I am a walking corpse. The only freedom is when I write.
Good ideas for maintaining relevance and value in old age would be welcome in the comments section.