old people are boat anchors
Mar. 5th, 2008 @ 04:49 am
I first noticed that old people were a detriment to society when I was about 20 years old. What I noticed -- and it appalled me -- was that older people cared more for appearance than for reality. Or to put it bluntly: appearances tricked old people almost every time. Whether it was dress or haircut or makeup, old people could rarely see beyond to what a person actually said or how they behaved. It was as if their minds had fixated on certain standards of appearance when young, and were incapable of changing. It was worse than that, in fact, because their personal appearance standards had only a weak relationship to biological reality (eg, if a young man had a beard or long hair, the old clucked in disapproval as if there was something unnatural about it.)
Old people (to voice a complaint often made by the young) have petrified minds.
Let me be clear that I'm speaking only in generalities -- there are plenty of old people who don't fit the generality. If like me you are over 50 -- or 60, 70, 80 or 90 -- the fact that you are online reading this is good evidence that you don't fit the generality. Consider yourself excluded from the charges.
Of course I saw, even at 20, that the preference for appearance over reality was also a problem among my peers. I noticed this both in elementary and high school (I spent 7 years in elementary, 5 in high school, and never had a middle school or junior high experience). Kids often make judgments based on appearances rather than reality -- so do teachers. But the flaw is much more prominent in older people -- that's been my experience. This accounts for the nearly universal resistance older generations have against the doings of the young. In fact, is much broader than just a gullibility about appearance: it is a general closed-mindedness toward new behaviors and different ways of thinking. Let's call it the petrified mind phenomenon.
This problem with old minds has a biological explanation. The cortex -- and in particular the neo-cortex -- tends to be stratified between the left and right hemispheres. On the right side of the cortex is where patterns are manipulated and analyzed, where new associations and ideas are formed. On the left side is where those patterns and new associations are stored, thereby increasing the ability to recognize patterns in the future. Using a computer metaphor, you might think of the left hemisphere as the hard drive where information files are stored, and the right hemisphere as the RAM or working memory utilized by applications to run code and manipulate data. (I am greatly oversimplifying, and also pretending that there is more agreement among scientists about brain function than there is -- so please bear that in mind here.)
What scientists have noted is that as people get older, the functioning of the right hemisphere breaks down much more quickly than that of the left hemisphere. Older people gradually lose the "right brain" ability to analyze and combine patterns -- to think creatively, to create new patterns to recognize -- but maintain far longer the "left brain" pattern storage or memory storage. Eventually, as the right brain degrades, old people lose the ability to create new memories to store in the left brain. The common result is the ability to remember something that happened 5 decades ago clear as a bell, but something that happened 5 minutes ago or 5 days ago is gone forever.
For most of human history -- and prehistory -- this aging pattern of the brain hasn't been a problem. In fact was probably a plus. For most of our history the world changed little over the course of a lifetime -- certainly technological changes were mild and easily assimilated even by the old. And there weren't as many old. As a percentage of the total population, few lived much beyond 40 or 50. Those few provided a great continuity of knowledge in a era when continuity of knowledge was worth a premium. The value of those decades-old memories in their left hemisphere was incalculable, and the loss of right hemisphere ability to create new memories and patterns to recognize was insignificant in comparison.
But everything has changed today == that is to say, everything changes rapidly today. The technological changes which occurred over a lifetime in the 20th century were as extensive as all the technological changes of the previous 20 centuries. And the 21st century will easily trump that, assuming we avoid catastrophe. Continuity of knowledge is now preserved in books and digital media. Today, the petrified minds of the old are a liability rather than an asset.
Worst of all, people live far longer: there are dramatically more petrified minds, as a percentage of population, than there ever used to be. What makes it such a vexing problem for societies today is that the petrified minds are voters. They are, in a country like the United States, a majority of voters. That is why our future as a nation is so clouded. The least capable minds are in political control of our society.
As it happens, we have a contest over political control going on in 2008. I have been looking at the exit polls for the primaries, and sure enough the problem of petrified brains voting stands out.
First of all, there are too many old voters. Consider the Texas exit poll, which is more or less typical. In the Democratic primary, 66% of the voters were over 40. Two thirds of the decision makers! 56% (still a majority) are over the age of 45, and 43% over the age of 50. (The Republican primary is evey worse - fully 75% of voters were over 40, nearly a third over 60) Throughout human history, most people simply wouldn't have lived that long. And had they lived that long they would have appeared wise -- after all, technologically and socially the world would have barely changed from the way it was the day they were born. Contrast that to our day. Change is so rapid that by the time someone is 50 (much less 70 or 90) their long-stored memories are woefully out of date -- and constitute not wisdom but an anchor dragging against progress, resisting and preventing necessary adaptation to our changing world.
I hate to be blunt, but it's simply true: old people are a liability to society today. They are a boat anchor in a world where change is the norm and continuous adaptation a necessity. Old people, with their petrified brains, can't adapt. But they can vote, and vote in large numbers, and so sink us all.
And we see an example of this in the Democratic primary vote. There is a stark dividing line between how young people vote and old people vote. In Texas the dividing line is at about the age of 45. In other states it has sometimes been as high as age 55 or 60. But the dividing line is clear: younger voters go very strongly for Barack Obama, older voters strongly for Hillary Clinton.
Why the divide? Not, I think because of racism, even though older people are far more likely to be racist than younger people. Racists, if they are voting, are voting Republican. The key to understanding the age divide is in noting the dramatically different assessment between Clinton supporters and Obama supporters of which candidate has the best chance of beating John McCain. Fully 94% of Clinton voters believe Clinton has the best chance of beating McCain, while 81% of Obama voters think he has the best chance of winning in November. This raises an interesting question: in the face of countless polls which show McCain beating Clinton and Obama beat McCain among all voters, why would Clinton voters so overwhelmingly think otherwise?
The answer, I believe, is primarily due to the fact that Clinton supporters are old people with petrified brains. Appearance trumps reality every time for them. When their brains were young -- in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s -- it was unthinkable that someone with black skin could win the Presidency. They are not voting against Obama because he is black (a blackness, by the way, that is more appearance than reality -- he is after all 50% white too) but because in their petrified brains nobody with Obama's appearance could ever hope to be elected President of the United States.
Old people are boat anchors. They drag us down.
Of course there are individual exceptions, but in general old people are nothing but a liability. It was true when I was 20, and even though I'm over 50 now, my perspective hasn't changed.
This is only minor anecdotal evidence to the contrary, but nonetheless....
When I dyed my hair, I found that white people from your generation had the biggest problem with it. If they didn't know me, they'd come right out and jump on my case for being "rebellious". If they did
know me, they were aghast: "But you're such a smart girl! Why
did you do
it?" On the other hand, black people from your generation frequently complimented my choice in hair color, and I never got a single negative comment from one.
People from my generation all seemed to approve. But for a lot of them (both black and white), they approved because they saw it as an act of rebellion—the same reason their parents disapproved. People my age also approached me completely differently. Guys tended to be very forward and somewhat sexual in their approach, as if I might go run away with them for the night. Girls tended to be particularly outgoing, and were more inclined to vent to me—angrily, almost violently—about various problems in their lives. (But when my hair is its normal color, it's a completely different story. People will even apologize profusely if they accidentally say "shit" or "fuck" around me.)
There were mixed opinions from people from my grandparents' generation. A lot of them thought it to be rebellious and didn't like it. A lot of them stopped me on the street to compliment the hair color. A lot of them just laughed when they saw it, as if I'd told them a joke.
Small children, by far and away, loved it the best. They'd always point my hair out to their parents, who would then tell their children something either along the lines of, "Yes, her hair is
purple. Isn't it pretty?" or along the lines of, "Shhh. Let's go to the next aisle." I can just imagine what sorts of 50+ year olds these two different groups of children will be.
I suspect a lot of it is just a cultural thing.
How is this evidence to the contrary? In all your cases, the people judged you solely based on your appearance and due to how they had been raised or what they had experienced b4. And as he predicted, the older people, whether middle aged or older, had the more negative response. This is exactly what the essay is about.
He was not talking about positive or negative feelings. He was talking about basing decisions on appearance versus reality.
People who based their opinions on personal associations and biases are more appearance-oriented than reality-oriented. That includes people my age who made assumptions about my personality or concluded that I was rebellious. There did not seem to be a correlation between age and appearance-orientation; there only seemed to be a correlation between cohort* and appearance-orientation, with no respect to the actual age of that cohort (excluding the very youngest cohort, who had not yet been exposed to public opinion on hair color).
If age causes one to gradually lose touch with reality, culture probably overrules it (or so my limited personal experience indicates). If someone is raised from an early age to base their decisions on reality rather than appearance, I suspect they'll probably continue to do so throughout life, though that ability may become somewhat impaired over time.*Note that I place middle-aged black people and middle-aged white people into different cohorts, since black people of that group tended to be more reality-based than their young or white counterparts, at least where hair color is concerned.
He was in fact talking about how an elderly person's hardwired bigotry can have a negative impact on society as a whole. Part of this would manifest in a specific negative reaction to a specific case, such as harshly criticizing yoou hair or simply laughing at it, which is to dismiss you and your hair as irrelevant.
He also conceded the point that this is a generalization, but an accurate one, for his reasoning, and that he has encountered younger people who also hold the appearance bias, though not as often as with old people. So, your examples simply concur with what he is pointing out.
See, I would argue that laughing at someone's hairstyle, rather than being offended or enamored due to prior associations, is a sign of reality-based thinking. Hair color is
Now, it is possible that my experiences (reality-based thinking corresponds to culture) and his hypothesis (reality-based thinking corresponds to age) are both true. In such a case, I would imagine that people who make poor use of reality-based thinking when young will lose that ability as they age. However, those who are raised culturally to be open-minded will not suffer from that loss, or at least not to such an extent. If this is the case, older generations in and of themselves are not
bad for society, but older generations coupled with an appearance-based culture are.
For that specific example, I was trying to say that laughter from a stranger would be dismissive b/c they have some sort of bias against the appearance. Hair dye on men or women was not a trend a few decades ago, so an older person may consider it to be too weird, and would therefore not approve. Much like hair lenght on a man or a man "failing" to wear a tie and/or a hat. However, that's not what laughter would always mean. It could simply mean the older people think your hair dye is actually funny, as in "The things these kids do!", as opposed to disaprroving. I would also say that a younger person could laugh at another young person for hair color or clothes and would be reacting dismissively, therefore negatively, but b/c they don't like the style choice or feel it is "out of fashion."
I would agree with you that both you and Dwight's experiences are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they proabably couldn't be since in order to have a bias against appearance, you have to learn it. The older folks would have grown up being told "weird" styles are synomymous with "bad" or seeing people react that way w/ no counter reaction. I liken it to radical theologians and physicists who argue that evolution and science in general are not anathema to religion, but could co-exist peacefully. Technically, the entire hypothesis of quantum mechanics automatically begs that question.
Also, I think the essay is saying that the negative impact of an older person's inability to adapt to and accept change is that they are unable to make descions that would truly benefit them or the society as a whole b/c all their descions would be based on a past and dead ideal of what is "good and proper". They would make choices based on outmoded traditions as oppsoed on relevant information. So, the preseence of an appearance bias is not actually relevant. That's just one sypmtom of the disease.
I think the essay is saying that the negative impact of an older person's inability to adapt to and accept change is that they are unable to make descions that would truly benefit them or the society as a whole b/c all their descions would be based on a past and dead ideal of what is "good and proper". They would make choices based on outmoded traditions as oppsoed on relevant information. So, the preseence of an appearance bias is not actually relevant. That's just one sypmtom of the disease.
I think you got it right. I should have separated the problem of appearance over reality from the problem with the way brains age and the social/political implications of having so many voters with old brains.
I know I stated things in exaggerated terms ("petrified minds", "old people are boat anchors", etc) which I probably shouldn't have used, but sometimes I like the shock value that can come with stating a thesis dramatically. As our population ages (and since I'm right in the middle of the baby boom generation, in a valid sense I represent the problem), the reality of how brains age means that society faces an increasingly large boat anchor in the form of old people with degraded right hemisphere abilities, although still completely capable thanks to their acquired store of left-hemisphere pattern-matches. It seems to be a simple reality that as people age, the world for which their brains are best suited recedes further and further into the past. Thanks to today's rapid pace of change, that's significant.
I want to make it clear that I advocate full civil and human rights for all people, including the elderly. I would be absolutely against disenfranchising people because of their age. We have to find other ways to address the problem than employing discrimination.
Perhaps a special emphasis by health officials on diet and mental exercise recommendations for the middle aged and elderly, would be appropriate. I also think we need to seriously considering lowering the voting age -- say to 16 -- to get a greater percentage of younger brains into the political decision-making process.
I think we also need to find ways to induce more students and people with jobs to vote. We need to make it easier for people with busy lives or who are away from home. The elderly always vote in high percentages for the simple reason that they are in retirement. So long as their health is adequate, voting is convenient for them. They can go to the polls during mid-morning or early afternoon when polling places are nearly empty -- they are not forced to vote during the crunch just before or right after standard work hours. We need to make voting as convenient for everyone else.
My own experience was not much unlike yours. People who knew me (relatives, friends or acquaintances) did not judge me (far as I know) on my appearance. My observation about older people preferring appearance over reality was based more on general observations of society (including what was effective in tv and print advertising), and not on the behavior of people I knew -- with a couple of exceptions.
Those relate to my high school but were typical for schools at the time.
For example, there was a strict dress code for the Augusta school system which seemed unrelated to education. On boys sideburns that dropped below the ears were forbidden, and hair could not touch the ears. Male ears had to be fully exposed at all times. This was justified on the grounds that if hair touched the ears it would disrupt the classroom and cause students to get bad grades. Gym teachers ganged up on anyone violating the rules and forcibly cut their hair.
This was 1971, long after the Beatles and other rock bands had made long hair on popular. Yet in high school if hair overlapped male ears, older people thought the world would fall apart. They thought if your hair touched your ears it would cause you to tune in, toke up, and drop out.
When I was a junior, Carlos Sullivan (a straight-A student) was kicked out of school because his hair was too long. He took the school system to court and amazingly won -- the judge didn't find the claim that hair length caused bad grades very convincing. This brought an end to the worst aspects of the dress code in Augusta, but the point is that this story was not unique to Augusta: it was repeated all over the country. To me it was an irrational focus on appearance instead of reality.
Another example from my personal history: shortly before my senior year ended, our coach was absent from PE class. We were told that another teacher was in charge of our class -- however she was in some other part of the school. Our class (about 14 people) sat down in the bleachers, waiting for the teacher to show up and tell us what to do. There was a large PE class of Juniors in the gym, sitting on the other side of us -- their coach came up to them and instructed them to start setting out chairs for a school assembly. He spoke to his own class -- didn't even look at us, so we ignored him. Meanwhile I played chess with Gary Patrick, who was on the football team.
After 30 minutes we were called to the Principal's office. When we arrived he was screaming about a sit-down strike, told us he wasn't going to tolerate it and that we were all kicked out of school. Most of us were too shocked and intimidated to even say a word, but one white kid (who in fact was a Junior not a Senior, and the only one who belonged to the PE class that had
been instructed to set up chairs -- the rest of us we never told to do anything) piped up and argued that in his opinion setting up chairs was not a valid PE activity. Unknown to us, he apparently had
been conducting a sit-down strike. At any rate, his big mouth made our claim not to be conducting a strike unconvincing.
The kid who spoke up was white, it is important to note. My Mother called the school the next day to find out their side of the story, and the assistant Principal explained that it had been a sit-down protest "led by some Black Panther types".
Ok, about a third of our PE class was black. But they hadn't "led" anything. They were mostly jocks -- their hair did not touch their ears, even in 1972 not an afro among them as far as I can remember. I never heard them talk about politics -- never got any sense at all that any of them were radical (if anything that would have been me, not them). Yet because their skin was darker they automatically became "Black Panther types" and leaders of a non-existent protest.
They also got detention hall for twice as long as the white kids.
The principal (white, by the way) and the assistant principal (also white) both subsequently became school superintendents. My impression of them was not so positive, to say the least.
I would expect that the opposite is also true: people under the age of 20 contribute far less to society than people over the age of 50. And...the most dangerous members of society - the ones that are MOST harmful to society are the 'career' criminals in their 20's and 30's.
I'm sorry, but in general people are at their peak in acquiring and assimulating new knowledge, and at intellectual innovation, when they are in their late teens, twenties, thirties. The peak of influence in society (politically or intellectually) generally comes later, when people are in their forties, fifties, sixties, seventies.
You mention career criminals, but they are a only a small fraction, and their crimes are generally less harmful to society than the crimes of high-powered politicians and CEOs (think Key Lay). Sure, we see an occasional young rogue investment banker who for some strange reason is allowed to place billions of dollars in risky trades, resulting in the collapse of a billion dollar company.
But overall the misdeeds of powerful and infuential older people dwarfs the misdeeds of the young. Consider, for instance, the damage that the Bush administration has done to the Unites States over the past 8 years. How can a few career criminals match that?
Actually, the brain is probably at its peak for acquiring knowledge when we are babies and children. But we're talking about people old to be able (as a general group) to contribute intellectually or otherwise to society.
"people under the age of 20 contribute far less to society than people over the age of 50" -- well I'm sure you're right. But it's not a fair comparison. Most of those under 20 are children. It is a mistake to expect children to contribute to society.
The better idea is for society to contribute to the well-being and education of children so that once those children become adults they are ideally positioned to contribute to society. Today, because society is so complex and technologically advanced, the adequate education of children takes a good 20 to 24 years, I'd say. After that, expect them to contribute, but not before.