The problem of older generations taking up space
What's our plan to make enough room for the youth to thrive?
Part of the longevity conversation that fascinates me is the discussion of societal changes related to our increasing health-span. When we combine that with a persistent downward pressure in the birth rates of developed countries we get a powerful agent for change.
Economists have been tolling the bell for these changes for awhile now due to the predictable impacts on macroeconomic factors like GDP, pensions, and health care costs. A significant increase in the percentage of people in retirement age produces pressure on pension and health care systems. That percentage increase comes from people living longer and fewer young people entering the workforce.
Countries are already taking steps to address these changes. France, contentiously, has increased its retirement age following a number of other EU countries. Japan and China are both introducing incentives for young couples to, well, couple more. Clearly these are important to keep businesses running and army boots filled.
But I think there is more to it than that.
Obviously the days of the tribe leaving the old and infirm to be picked off by wolves or cold are far behind us. For most people in the developed world any semblance of a tribe is long gone. One thing that still remains in the dynamic between old and young is the drive, impetuousness, and “I know what’s best” of youth. The youth’s disaffection with the current state of the world will always be present.
Why does that matter? Because at least in the past they could see a path to the older generation ceding control as they died out. When we look at a society with fewer young people and more older people, the younger are going to need to yell a lot louder to have a voice. “Yell” here means riot, assert greater control of the message on social media (and the general media narrative), and so on.
God save the queen
She's not a human being
and There's no future
And England's dreaming
Don't be told what you want
Don't be told what you need
There's no future
No future for you
— God Save The Queen, by The Sex Pistols (1977)
Folks on the left of US politics have been recently buoyed by the impact of the GenZ vote: young people are voting at a higher rate and are decidedly more liberal. Now imagine if there were fewer of them, percentage-wise, and they stayed home because they couldn’t see a path to overcoming the chokehold of the older block of voters and their "traditional values”. That’s the type of problem we’re talking about here.
People in the 3rd and 4th quarter of their lives are taking up an increasing amount of space: in the popular vote, seats on airplanes, cars in traffic, event ticket sales, characters in TV shows, as home owners and land owners, beds in hospitals, and so on. They control an increasing amount of wealth and thus the halls of power. This creates a competition for resources that the smaller, younger generation is destined to lose.
And a youth with no hope is a recipe for upheaval.
Don’t believe me? Here are some examples:
check out the statistics here showing that the median age of a U.S. homeowner has increased by 21.3% since 2001
Sports Illustrated just had an 81-year old Martha Stewart on the cover, Vogue featured a 106-year old tattoo artist on the cover. It goes without saying that these magazines are trying to make money: it was an editorial choice to attract an older audience.
the median age of voters continues to increase: in 1996, 44% of U.S. voters were older than 50, in 2020 that number had gone up to 52%
What can we do to help?
We can have a smaller footprint, we can mentor, and we can help causes that give the younger generation a voice and a chance at living their own dreams.
Reducing our footprint.
Remember that ‘competition for resources’ problem? We can choose to not take part or at least not take more than our share. This flies in the face of the consumer culture that we are taught in the West. In fact, thinking about what ‘our share’ of resources is sounds a might like communism to some. Whatever. I call it taking care of the Earth and my fellow man.
In concrete terms this means we should do things like eat less, buy less, fly less, drive less, use less gas and electricity and water, grow our own food, and create less trash. We should make the lifestyle changes now to avoid time in the healthcare system later in life. Very few of us can say they couldn’t make some of these changes. I’ll point out here that these goals are 100% aligned with reducing the rate of climate change.
Most of us reach our 50’s having gained at least some wisdom that we can share with younger people. That might be how to navigate career choices, to take care of financial matters, or how to best work with the tools at hand. Mentorship carries on an ages-old tradition of providing a trusted guide for a younger person: we can be that guiding hand. With the advent of useable AI younger people are equipped with all the knowledge in the world along with whatever wisdom a generative AI can provide. That gives them a huge head start in any domain but they will still need help knowing how to ask questions and how to ask the right ones.
Engage younger generations and their concerns.
From the position of an older, wiser person it’s easy to take the approach of bringing the tablets down from the mount or of an ivory-tower academic pronouncing this is how things are. What is more difficult is to see the world from the perspective of younger generations.
For example, maybe we’ve successfully adapted to the newest technology or the ever-changing descriptions of sexuality and gender. But they were born into it.
Once we are set - we have our house, our retirement income, our stability - it becomes easy to turn into the “Get off my lawn/I’ve got mine” type of person. Our response to change is fear, questioning why, calling it out as a societal failure, and framing it as a poorer version of the good ole days. Anything that looks like it could interfere with our happy place is scary.
This calls for a Beginner’s Mind.
It helps to remind ourselves that whatever happens, the younger generation will inherit this world from us. They will be here after we’re gone so we are serving the greater good by helping them.
My two children are currently in their early 20’s. Although I will continue to ask them, their concerns are quite clear:
LGBTQIA+ equality / Women’s Rights
What can I do to advocate for their concerns? Well, since my stability gives me a position of a little more influence I can use that as an advantage. I can align my voice and my spending with those causes. I can be a voice for the changes that serve them.
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Be More, Be Less
Longevity - longer lifespan and healthspan - and its concomitant disruptions are already here and growing.
But we do have a voice in how deeply those disruptions will impact the next generation. We can choose the easy, selfish route of being set in our ways, or we can choose the more difficult path of looking out for the needs of younger generations.