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TED2013

Jared Diamond: How societies can grow old better

March 14, 2013

There's an irony behind the latest efforts to extend human life: It's no picnic to be an old person in a youth-oriented society. Older people can become isolated, lacking meaningful work and low on funds. In this intriguing talk, Jared Diamond looks at how many different societies treat their elders -- some better, some worse -- and suggests we all take advantage of experience.

Jared Diamond - Civilization scholar
Jared Diamond investigates why cultures prosper or decline -- and what we can learn by taking a broad look across many kinds of societies. Full bio

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To give me an idea of how many of you here
00:12
may find what I'm about to tell you
00:14
of practical value,
00:16
let me ask you please to raise your hands:
00:18
Who here is either over 65 years old
00:21
or hopes to live past age 65
00:24
or has parents or grandparents who did live
00:28
or have lived past 65,
00:31
raise your hands please. (Laughter)
00:33
Okay. You are the people to whom my talk
00:36
will be of practical value. (Laughter)
00:38
The rest of you
00:40
won't find my talk personally relevant,
00:42
but I think that you will still find the subject
00:44
fascinating.
00:46
I'm going to talk about growing older
00:47
in traditional societies.
00:49
This subject constitutes just one chapter
00:51
of my latest book, which compares
00:54
traditional, small, tribal societies
00:57
with our large, modern societies,
01:00
with respect to many topics
01:02
such as bringing up children,
01:04
growing older, health, dealing with danger,
01:06
settling disputes, religion
01:10
and speaking more than one language.
01:12
Those tribal societies, which constituted
01:15
all human societies for most of human history,
01:17
are far more diverse than are our modern,
01:20
recent, big societies.
01:24
All big societies that have governments,
01:26
and where most people are strangers to each other,
01:28
are inevitably similar to each other
01:30
and different from tribal societies.
01:33
Tribes constitute thousands of natural experiments
01:36
in how to run a human society.
01:39
They constitute experiments from which we ourselves
01:42
may be able to learn.
01:44
Tribal societies shouldn't be scorned
01:47
as primitive and miserable,
01:49
but also they shouldn't be romanticized
01:51
as happy and peaceful.
01:53
When we learn of tribal practices,
01:55
some of them will horrify us,
01:57
but there are other tribal practices which,
01:59
when we hear about them,
02:02
we may admire and envy
02:03
and wonder whether we could adopt those practices
02:05
ourselves.
02:07
Most old people in the U.S. end up living
02:10
separately from their children
02:13
and from most of their friends
02:15
of their earlier years,
02:16
and often they live in separate
retirements homes for the elderly,
02:18
whereas in traditional societies,
02:22
older people instead live out their lives
02:24
among their children, their other relatives,
02:27
and their lifelong friends.
02:29
Nevertheless, the treatment of the elderly
02:32
varies enormously among traditional societies,
02:34
from much worse to much better
02:37
than in our modern societies.
02:39
At the worst extreme, many traditional societies
02:42
get rid of their elderly
02:45
in one of four increasingly direct ways:
02:47
by neglecting their elderly
02:50
and not feeding or cleaning them until they die,
02:52
or by abandoning them when the group moves,
02:55
or by encouraging older people to commit suicide,
02:58
or by killing older people.
03:02
In which tribal societies do children
03:05
abandon or kill their parents?
03:07
It happens mainly under two conditions.
03:10
One is in nomadic, hunter-gather societies
03:13
that often shift camp
03:16
and that are physically incapable
03:17
of transporting old people who can't walk
03:20
when the able-bodied younger people already
03:23
have to carry their young children
03:25
and all their physical possessions.
03:27
The other condition is in societies
03:30
living in marginal or fluctuating environments,
03:32
such as the Arctic or deserts,
03:36
where there are periodic food shortages,
03:38
and occasionally there just isn't enough food
03:40
to keep everyone alive.
03:42
Whatever food is available has to be reserved
03:45
for able-bodied adults and for children.
03:47
To us Americans, it sounds horrible
03:52
to think of abandoning or killing
03:54
your own sick wife or husband
03:57
or elderly mother or father,
03:59
but what could those traditional societies
04:01
do differently?
04:05
They face a cruel situation of no choice.
04:06
Their old people had to do it to their own parents,
04:10
and the old people know
04:13
what now is going to happen to them.
04:15
At the opposite extreme
04:18
in treatment of the elderly, the happy extreme,
04:20
are the New Guinea farming societies
04:22
where I've been doing my fieldwork
for the past 50 years,
04:24
and most other sedentary traditional societies
04:27
around the world.
04:30
In those societies, older people are cared for.
04:33
They are fed. They remain valuable.
04:35
And they continue to live in the same hut
04:38
or else in a nearby hut near their children,
04:40
relatives and lifelong friends.
04:43
There are two main sets of reasons for this variation
04:47
among societies in their treatment
04:49
of old people.
04:51
The variation depends especially
04:53
on the usefulness of old people
04:54
and on the society's values.
04:57
First, as regards usefulness,
04:59
older people continue to perform useful services.
05:02
One use of older people in traditional societies
05:05
is that they often are still effective
05:08
at producing food.
05:10
Another traditional usefulness of older people
05:12
is that they are capable of babysitting
05:15
their grandchildren,
05:18
thereby freeing up their own adult children,
05:20
the parents of those grandchildren,
05:22
to go hunting and gathering
food for the grandchildren.
05:24
Still another traditional value of older people
05:28
is in making tools, weapons, baskets,
05:30
pots and textiles.
05:33
In fact, they're usually the people who are best at it.
05:35
Older people usually are the leaders
05:38
of traditional societies,
05:41
and the people most knowledgeable about politics,
05:43
medicine, religion, songs and dances.
05:46
Finally, older people in traditional societies
05:50
have a huge significance that would never occur
05:52
to us in our modern, literate societies,
05:56
where our sources of information are books
06:00
and the Internet.
06:02
In contrast, in traditional societies without writing,
06:04
older people are the repositories of information.
06:07
It's their knowledge that spells the difference
06:11
between survival and death for their whole society
06:14
in a time of crisis caused by rare events
06:17
for which only the oldest people alive
06:21
have had experience.
06:23
Those, then, are the ways in which older people
06:26
are useful in traditional societies.
06:28
Their usefulness varies and contributes
06:31
to variation in the society's treatment
06:34
of the elderly.
06:36
The other set of reasons for variation
06:38
in the treatment of the elderly is
06:40
the society's cultural values.
06:42
For example, there's particular emphasis
06:45
on respect for the elderly in East Asia,
06:47
associated with Confucius' doctrine
06:50
of filial piety, which means obedience,
06:53
respect and support for elderly parents.
06:57
Cultural values that emphasize
respect for older people
07:01
contrast with the low status of the elderly
07:05
in the U.S.
07:07
Older Americans are at a big disadvantage
07:10
in job applications.
07:12
They're at a big disadvantage in hospitals.
07:14
Our hospitals have an explicit policy
07:17
called age-based allocation of healthcare resources.
07:19
That sinister expression means that
07:24
if hospital resources are limited,
07:27
for example if only one donor heart
07:29
becomes available for transplant,
07:31
or if a surgeon has time to operate
07:34
on only a certain number of patients,
07:36
American hospitals have an explicit policy
07:38
of giving preference to younger patients
07:41
over older patients
07:44
on the grounds that younger patients are considered
07:45
more valuable to society
07:48
because they have more years of life ahead of them,
07:50
even though the younger patients have fewer years
07:53
of valuable life experience behind them.
07:55
There are several reasons for this low status
07:59
of the elderly in the U.S.
08:02
One is our Protestant work ethic
08:04
which places high value on work,
08:07
so older people who are no longer working
08:09
aren't respected.
08:12
Another reason is our American emphasis
08:14
on the virtues of self-reliance and independence,
08:17
so we instinctively look down on older people
08:20
who are no longer self-reliant and independent.
08:23
Still a third reason is our American cult of youth,
08:27
which shows up even in our advertisements.
08:31
Ads for Coca-Cola and beer always depict
08:33
smiling young people,
08:37
even though old as well as young people
08:38
buy and drink Coca-Cola and beer.
08:40
Just think, what's the last time you saw
08:43
a Coke or beer ad depicting smiling people
08:45
85 years old? Never.
08:47
Instead, the only American ads
08:50
featuring white-haired old people
08:52
are ads for retirement homes and pension planning.
08:54
Well, what has changed in the status
08:58
of the elderly today
09:00
compared to their status in traditional societies?
09:02
There have been a few changes for the better
09:05
and more changes for the worse.
09:07
Big changes for the better
09:09
include the fact that today we enjoy
09:11
much longer lives,
09:13
much better health in our old age,
09:15
and much better recreational opportunities.
09:17
Another change for the better is that we now have
09:21
specialized retirement facilities
09:23
and programs to take care of old people.
09:26
Changes for the worse begin with the cruel reality
09:30
that we now have
09:32
more old people and fewer young people
09:34
than at any time in the past.
09:37
That means that all those old people
09:39
are more of a burden on the few young people,
09:41
and that each old person has less individual value.
09:44
Another big change for the worse
in the status of the elderly
09:48
is the breaking of social ties with age,
09:51
because older people, their children,
09:54
and their friends,
09:56
all move and scatter independently of each other
09:57
many times during their lives.
10:00
We Americans move on the average
10:02
every five years.
10:04
Hence our older people are likely
10:06
to end up living distant from their children
10:08
and the friends of their youth.
10:10
Yet another change for the worse
in the status of the elderly
10:13
is formal retirement from the workforce,
10:16
carrying with it a loss of work friendships
10:20
and a loss of the self-esteem associated with work.
10:23
Perhaps the biggest change for the worse
10:27
is that our elderly are objectively
10:29
less useful than in traditional societies.
10:32
Widespread literacy means that they are no longer
10:35
useful as repositories of knowledge.
10:38
When we want some information,
10:41
we look it up in a book or we Google it
10:43
instead of finding some old person to ask.
10:45
The slow pace of technological change
10:49
in traditional societies
10:51
means that what someone learns there as a child
10:53
is still useful when that person is old,
10:55
but the rapid pace of technological change today
10:58
means that what we learn as children
11:02
is no longer useful 60 years later.
11:04
And conversely, we older people are not fluent
11:07
in the technologies essential for surviving
11:09
in modern society.
11:12
For example, as a 15-year-old,
11:14
I was considered outstandingly
good at multiplying numbers
11:16
because I had memorized the multiplication tables
11:20
and I know how to use logarithms
11:23
and I'm quick at manipulating a slide rule.
11:25
Today, though, those skills are utterly useless
11:28
because any idiot
11:31
can now multiply eight-digit numbers
11:33
accurately and instantly with a pocket calculator.
11:36
Conversely, I at age 75
11:39
am incompetent at skills
11:41
essential for everyday life.
11:44
My family's first TV set in 1948
11:46
had only three knobs that I quickly mastered:
11:49
an on-off switch, a volume knob,
11:52
and a channel selector knob.
11:55
Today, just to watch a program
11:57
on the TV set in my own house,
11:59
I have to operate a 41-button TV remote
12:02
that utterly defeats me.
12:05
I have to telephone my 25-year-old sons
12:07
and ask them to talk me through it
12:10
while I try to push those wretched 41 buttons.
12:12
What can we do to improve the lives of the elderly
12:17
in the U.S., and to make better use of their value?
12:20
That's a huge problem.
12:24
In my remaining four minutes today,
12:25
I can offer just a few suggestions.
12:28
One value of older people is that they are
12:30
increasingly useful as grandparents
12:32
for offering high-quality childcare
12:36
to their grandchildren, if they choose to do it,
12:38
as more young women enter the workforce
12:41
and as fewer young parents of either gender
12:44
stay home as full-time caretakers of their children.
12:46
Compared to the usual alternatives
12:50
of paid babysitters and day care centers,
12:52
grandparents offer superior, motivated,
12:55
experienced child care.
12:59
They've already gained experience
from raising their own children.
13:01
They usually love their grandchildren,
13:04
and are eager to spend time with them.
13:07
Unlike other caregivers,
13:09
grandparents don't quit their job
13:11
because they found another job with higher pay
13:14
looking after another baby.
13:17
A second value of older people is paradoxically
13:20
related to their loss of value
13:23
as a result of changing world
conditions and technology.
13:25
At the same time, older people have gained
13:29
in value today precisely because
13:31
of their unique experience of living conditions
13:34
that have now become rare
13:37
because of rapid change, but that could come back.
13:39
For example, only Americans now in their 70s
13:42
or older today can remember
13:45
the experience of living through a great depression,
13:47
the experience of living through a world war,
13:50
and agonizing whether or not
13:53
dropping atomic bombs would be more horrible
13:56
than the likely consequences
of not dropping atomic bombs.
13:59
Most of our current voters and politicians
14:03
have no personal experience of any of those things,
14:05
but millions of older Americans do.
14:08
Unfortunately, all of those terrible situations
14:10
could come back.
14:13
Even if they don't come back,
14:14
we have to be able to plan for them
14:16
on the basis of the experience of what they were like.
14:18
Older people have that experience.
14:21
Younger people don't.
14:23
The remaining value of older people
14:25
that I'll mention involves recognizing that
14:26
while there are many things that older people
14:29
can no longer do,
14:31
there are other things that they can do
14:33
better than younger people.
14:34
A challenge for society is
to make use of those things
14:36
that older people are better at doing.
14:39
Some abilities, of course, decrease with age.
14:42
Those include abilities at tasks
14:45
requiring physical strength and stamina,
14:48
ambition, and the power of novel reasoning
14:51
in a circumscribed situation,
14:54
such as figuring out the structure of DNA,
14:57
best left to scientists under the age of 30.
14:59
Conversely, valuable attributes
15:03
that increase with age include experience,
15:05
understanding of people and human relationships,
15:08
ability to help other people
15:11
without your own ego getting in the way,
15:14
and interdisciplinary thinking about large databases,
15:16
such as economics and comparative history,
15:20
best left to scholars over the age of 60.
15:23
Hence older people are
much better than younger people
15:26
at supervising, administering, advising,
15:28
strategizing, teaching, synthesizing,
15:32
and devising long-term plans.
15:36
I've seen this value of older people
15:38
with so many of my friends in their 60s,
15:40
70s, 80s and 90s,
15:43
who are still active as investment managers,
15:45
farmers, lawyers and doctors.
15:48
In short, many traditional societies
15:51
make better use of their elderly
15:53
and give their elderly more satisfying lives
15:56
than we do in modern, big societies.
15:59
Paradoxically nowadays,
16:01
when we have more elderly people than ever before,
16:03
living healthier lives and with better medical care
16:06
than ever before,
16:09
old age is in some respects more miserable
16:10
than ever before.
16:13
The lives of the elderly are widely recognized
16:15
as constituting a disaster area
16:17
of modern American society.
16:20
We can surely do better by learning
16:23
from the lives of the elderly
16:24
in traditional societies.
16:26
But what's true of the lives of the elderly
16:28
in traditional societies
16:30
is true of many other features
16:32
of traditional societies as well.
16:33
Of course, I'm not advocating that we all give up
16:36
agriculture and metal tools
16:39
and return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
16:41
There are many obvious respects
16:44
in which our lives today are far happier
16:45
than those in small, traditional societies.
16:48
To mention just a few examples,
16:51
our lives are longer, materially much richer,
16:53
and less plagued by violence
16:55
than are the lives of people in traditional societies.
16:58
But there are also things to be admired
17:01
about people in traditional societies,
17:04
and perhaps to be learned from them.
17:06
Their lives are usually socially much richer
17:08
than our lives,
17:11
although materially poorer.
17:12
Their children are more self-confident,
17:14
more independent, and more socially skilled
17:17
than are our children.
17:20
They think more realistically
about dangers than we do.
17:22
They almost never die of diabetes, heart disease,
17:26
stroke, and the other noncommunicable diseases
17:30
that will be the causes of death of almost
17:33
all of us in this room today.
17:35
Features of the modern lifestyle
predispose us to those diseases,
17:38
and features of the traditional lifestyle
17:42
protect us against them.
17:45
Those are just some examples of what we can learn
17:47
from traditional societies.
17:49
I hope that you will find it as fascinating
17:52
to read about traditional societies
17:54
as I found it to live in those societies.
17:56
Thank you.
17:59
(Applause)
18:01

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Jared Diamond - Civilization scholar
Jared Diamond investigates why cultures prosper or decline -- and what we can learn by taking a broad look across many kinds of societies.

Why you should listen

In his books Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse (and the popular PBS and National Geographic documentaries they inspired), big-picture scholar Jared Diamond explores civilizations and why they all seem to fall. Now in his latest book, The World Until Yesterday, Diamond examines small, traditional, tribal societies -- and suggests that modern civilization is only our latest solution to survival.
 
Diamond’s background in evolutionary biology, geography and physiology informs his integrated vision of human history. He posits that success -- and failure -- depends on how well societies adapt to their changing environment.

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