Jared Diamond: How societies can grow old better

Jared Diamond: How societies can grow old better


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)

68 thoughts on “Jared Diamond: How societies can grow old better

  • That face looked familiar… Hmmm so does that name…
    OH! Its the writer of Guns, Germs and Steel! (great book about why the west is in control while other parts of the world lagged/are lagging behind – a must read! or must watch)

  • A youth-orientated society where the old folk have the largest voting power and politician's selling out their children's futures just to win this demographic? Where the old folk have reaped the best materiality the world has ever offered and pulled up the ladder after them so their own children will be worse off? Give me a break. Sick of hearing about how poor old people are and how we should feel sorry for them.

  • It's a good talk, but I heard very few answers to the problem being discussed. I also heard not so much about how older generations could help themselves to a small degree by allowing a certain openness towards modern society, instead of tending to shy from it (many do). That aspect is also extremely important. I do agree (being very close to someone who works in elderly care) that the quality of care is becoming worse and less of an important issue and this is due in significant part to the fact that nursing work conditions are becoming worse in some areas of the world. This is not good at all, however the converse reality is just not profitable, which is another good point Jared delivered. It is vital for older generations to never cease learning the world around them. In all of their golden experience (and it certainly is that) they must surely realize that societies modernize and there is no stopping this fact, therefore younger generations need to devise ways to help them (and they be willing  themselves) to become acquainted with important developments and technologies. If you are in your teens and you have a grandparent in state-funded or similar elderly care then take a good interest in how they are treated and consider how this may degrade by the time you are sitting in those chairs yourself. Time is slippery. 

  • So if an old person hasn't bettered them self in all the years they lived they should still be offered jobs, which a young person would better be able to do?

    Also, people move away and of course their friends and family may end up in a different place or home than before, but that's not society fault, that's individuals choosing where they wish to stay for them-self. 

    And when it comes to "experience", we have so many documents on what has happened in the past (within last 80 years), just because a person is old doesn't mean they know how to deal with a situation better than we can now, most of their practices are outdated, and not efficient.


    If you wanna be old, and not have to struggle, achieve something in the next years of your life, and 99% of those problems wont exist, and you can choose what you want to continue doing with your life. On the other hand, dont create a income, or savings or anything of relevance, and when your 60 and have to retire, it's not going to be awesome.

  • I disagree with the reason he states that hospitals prioritize the young when resources are limited. my understanding is the real reason is because younger patients are more likely to survive a major surgery.

  • haha Jared Diamond. i laughed when i saw the name. this is the guy who wrote the infamous pseudo-scientific multiculturalist bible "Guns, Germs, and Steel" which tries to claim that Africans are dumb because they didn't have good land and contradicts itself constantly in the process. this man has zero credibility and a wicked cultural Marxist agenda.

  • If you have to choose who gets the organ, I think going with the younger person makes sense. They've had less time to live. An 18 year old versus a 70 year old? Shouldn't we give people a chance to have a little life? The productivity rationale may be practical, but it's kind of cold. 

  • the issue i see is that "older people" in tribal societies were 40ish rather then 80ish.  the problem with taking advice from such a source should be obvious

  • Why don't you take that experience you have gathered for over 60 years and use it to figure out how to change channel on your tv..  Coca Cola is targeting their ads against young people because old people have already made up their mind about the product.. And people move to different places because they want to, not because of old people (well sometimes old people are a pain and you move)

  • It pains me to hear Jared plead for the utility value of older people. Many of his arguments are a stretch to say the least.   

    The only reason why we should value and respect older people is because we want to become old one day ourselves. That's why we want to built a society that is capable of taking care of those that are performance wise redundant rather than forcefully trying to make every cog in the machine spin.

  • Everybody has read his book, "Guns, Germs and Steel," but he has also written the great books: "Collapse" and "The Third Chimpanzee." These latter two seem to get less publicity, but I suggest that you read these books, for they are excellent. 

  • Jared Diamond's latest book, 'The World until Yesterday', as lucidly written and accessible as usual, deals in greater depth with the theme of his current talk.
    In chapter 6 of the same book, he brings back the valuable lessons that he learned in the treatment of the elderly while studying the traditional Fijian society and shares it with his 'youth worshipping' society.He is doing the right thing.That is a real problem in the West.
    However, it is also becoming a problem for those traditional societies that are now blindly copying everything from the West in their fast drive to 'open up and develop '. I am concerned with that mimicry. I am concerned with Ethiopia's aping in that regard. 
    It is not just that we are discarding or devaluing our senior citizens and the indispensable cultural values and wisdom residing in them.
    We have also allowed that our wealth distribution mirror the inequalities of the West without even the mitigation of the Welfare State.
    We are oblivious to the glaring fact that our Epidemiology while still showing the huge burden of infectious diseases, it is also exhibiting the increasing prevalence of metabolic disorders including the various Cancers particularly in our urban canters.
    How are we to safeguard our well- being ?
    There are more fundamental questions to ask.
    What should be our idea of 'development'? When is it that we can rightly say we are growing  economically?
    What should we do in resisting the big Juggernaut of Market Economics and Globalization?
    Aren't there any better ways to HUMANIZE OUR ECONOMIES and really FREE ( Amartya Sen's 'unfreedom' comes to mind) the poor?
    How do we fight against our acculturation?
    How do we again dignify the elderly and through them, connect with our living and vital past?

  • loved it! ageism is a serious problem,especially in advertising!I  find particularly disturbing the ads which show almost always a young person(who is usually underaged) as the face for a specific brand(starting from Zara and ending with Coca Cola).The thing is they focus on young people because they are considered to have the strongest power to buy products of any kind.Parents should take a stand and start to discipline their kids and not to give into  every wish,starting from nike schoes to iPads because "everyone in the class has one and I have to have it".Adults make the rules and adults make decisions,so you d better start making new ones,because I already see the generation that comes after me and man,it s not looking good at all!

  • TV Remotes are the epitome of an unusable piece of technology. There are things that are much easier for people of any age to use. 

  • "We older people are not fluent in the technologies essential for surviving in modern society." Over-generalization! Multitudes of older workers in high tech fields have been long conditioned to constantly re-learn changing technology at a blistering pace. They age yet remain quite fluent in tech. So, they can babysit the grandkids PLUS help them use their favorite tablet app!

  • What dialect is this? I'm from germany and I don't know much about regional varieties of American English, so please help me out here 🙂

  • J. Diamond… why at the end you had to disappoint me… traditional societies, or better said tribal societies. are far better in terms of their conflict resolution than the country usa. just see how much terror your country produces and how much hate it has accumulated through out the years. dont forget everything that has happened we dont. just wanted to clarify that. and if the 3ww comes by you know already how its gonna start and the responsible's for it… nuclear or what ever you drop its your fault! with your faulty gov. and repressive system!

  • Grandparent child care, in our experience, is amazing. Our children have the most unique life experiences being cared for five days a week by their Grandpa. Most kids in North America don't have the same benefit.

  • I think Jared Diamond has some excellent points. To encapsulate: youth in the Western Culture do not take advantage of the resources in their own back yard, their parents. Coca Cola and beer ads are aimed at the young because biologically certain organs can only filter these beverages for a period of time.

  • Many old persons are incapable of being useful. They can't work, carry loads or perform as they did when they were young. Some are very sick. Some develop Alzheimer's or other types of dementia. It's a fact of life.
    Are they worth less? I think not.
    Unfortunately, modern societies consider these citizens as a burden. This view has been heard by many of the older generation and they now feel that they are unwanted. Some will even consider euthanasia if they become sick and dependant of others. What is the usefulness of the dependant elderly? They provide the opportunity for individuals, communities or societies to develop compassion. Today's societies are more a group of individuals than a community. They have forgotten how to share there abilities to help others or to give back to those who have helped them develop the skills to do so. The elderly are mainly non self sufficient and are dependant. Let's remind ourselves of the importance of giving without expecting to receive in turn. Or dependant members of our societies allow us to show compassion. The best use of all. I suggest to J. Diamond to look at societies that practice compassion. He might be surprised to see that all members, even the sickly dependant elderly, are useful to it's harmonious development.

  • The tv remote isnt complicated and isnt hard to understand, it is the elderlies lack of interest in the device (not that I can blame them) that makes it hard form them to learn and use the "new" device.

  • England, Australia, Canada & America don't value old people because THEY have sold their people into slavery at birth with their birth certificate & social security number to off set debt by their labor over the course of their life! For the full story of your unknown slavery to the matrix do a search for "Meet Your Strawman Illusion" talk about going further down the rabbit hole! Time to wake up and become a "Freeman On The Land" 

  • I got nothing from this talk except interesting points in history. All of his examples of how old people are better than young people are circumstantial and for the most part, just plain untrue. Setting ego aside?? Being objective?? Are we talking about the same old people here? In this sense, I'm not saying that all young people are better at these things, I'm saying that it's entirely circumstantial. It depends on how the individual raised themselves, moreso than their age. Also, how does a subset of people experiencing the great depression help us avoid another one? What happens when all of the people who've experienced the great depression die? Are we going to instantly fall into another? Of course not! We capture these periods as actual history. Not recycled stories where the features change every time they are told.

  • One of the most importat problems, is the number of elderly. in traditional societies living 70 years meant much more, because out of 100 people only one would live that long, so his abilities and experiences were quayet unique. but today the same thing might be right with some one who has lived 120 years or so.
    other reason for elders (in my opinion) unfair treatment is, today medical facilities make it posible for people to be alive withought living. elderly are loved in traditional societies because they are valuable to them not because every one feels sory for them, but 7 of 10 ealderly I know have been hospitalized every other day, and have lived a (I asume ) painfull life not as a person but as a pasant! under heavy medications not to become healthy, but to live painfully while using the medication. I sure do not wish such future for my self.

  • Sadly not all persons (young or old) have sought to cultivate or improve themselves, so IMHO a seniority-based system is not entirely advisable. I can think of quite a few petty complaining recluse elderly, as well as some seriously foolish youth, but at least the young have an excuse… On the other hand, there are some amazing elder persons who actively participate & contribute in their communities best they can & that is definite grounds for full-on respect! This is also true of some young community-oriented persons. So, if we wish to remain relevant to society, then perhaps we should take an active role of contribution as opposed to entitlement simply due to going gray. We can choose to stay active & informed to stay relevant; or at least that's my take on it.

  • I think this leads to the question, where will you be when you are old? And, how have you influenced the youth of today to be able to take care of you? 40-50 yrs from now you will be left behind in technological education. Your bones will not respond the way they do now. You will probably be sick. You have to ask, will the youth of tomorrow feel you have outlived YOUR usefulness?

  • Older people are the resources of the society and we will all be old one day. Respecting older people is respecting the future us.

  • I enjoy the use of traditional. When you realize there are about 25-50 modern countries, and around 200 not modern, or traditional. He would be more accurate to say in the normal countries on the planet. Andy of Hobo Traveler com

  • I agree with the full-time babysitter thing. Unless the parent take away the child, the grandparents would take care of it. I lived with my grandparents before my grade school years because my mom work away, only visiting once a week. They also looked after my cousins too because their parents come home from work late.

  • 7:17
    I agree that down prioritizing the elderly with respect to healthcare seems cruel. But as he himself said its a case of limited resources and he just justfied this (and much worse) for some traditional sociaties by the same argument.

  • I call my elders for everything. I know I can possibly google it but I’d still rather hear it from my aunt or grandma. That could just be me though.

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