13 June 2019

Why do people perceive aging differently?

Aging: Why do people perceive aging differently?

Aging is a process that starts from the day we are born. And although age plays an important role in our society it is also an arbitrary concept that in and of itself has no value.

Compare the role of aging with the mental development of children. Despite children being extremely intelligent, until we pack their brain with adult prejudices, it is also true that young children have difficulties understanding certain life concepts for example work and taxes. But there is no causal relationship why a child of six should not be able to understand certain things which we assume only adults can understand; for example maths or even physics. At the other extreme it is a fallacy to suggest that old people cannot learn new things. The only reason why elderly people cannot learn new things is because maybe they have some ailment, including emotional stress due to a disease that inhibits their mental learning process. But there are many lucky ones who just don’t care; in other words many elderly people have a big time attitude!

The problem, however, is not always the elderly person, but rather our use of the terms “learning” and “knowing”: for example, learning a new language. The erroneous use of the term “to learn” (a language or whatever), suggests that we have to reach a level of skill or competence that will be close to the language skills of a native speaker or expert. The language game native speakers of a language “play” go beyond the syntax and semantics of their language. So basically people can learn a second language to a proficient level for their needs irrespective of their age. But the idea of being able to speak a second language like a native is false in all contexts on the grounds that, at the very least, one can achieve such levels with many years of living in the relevant country probably from a young age. And even then one will be learning a single local language at a native level; this is not to say we don’t understand the language in other contexts.

Indeed age is not a barrier to learning something as long as people are not mentally impaired due to some disease from learning. After all learning is a subjective factor and determined by many motivating factors such as need, curiosity, future plans and so on.

One serious influence on our learning capacity is loss of memory due to normal physical development. Maybe, it is about time that medical science took loss of memory in people more seriously than simply blame old age. Of course, learning something does not necessarily mean that I have to be as knowledgeable as the experts or native users of the discipline. Context is king here: One does not need to reach the same level of knowledge as Einstein to understand the principles of relativity, but one will need to know more than Einstein if one hopes to get a Nobel prize in physics specialising in relativity. There can be, I would argue, no useful learning without a valid context.

So how people perceive aging depends on our social or personal biases about aging. We assume that older people cannot do certain things or learn certain things but these biases are based on a criterion, i.e. age, that has no intrinsic value at all. Having a developed brain, for example, has an intrinsic value since we can do certain things with a mature brain, e.g. understand the concept of work, which might not be available for a child who is still developing and growing up.

Moving on, some commentators see aging as a burden to society, since they argue elderly people are a cost burden and do not contribute anything to society. Apart from being an extremist form of political ideology, this thinking is inaccurate at best or simply false. Many able people are excluded from the labour market, i.e. not employed, simply because of their age; once again we find that valueless concept. Theoretically some countries have legislation against this form of age discrimination. But many enlightened retailers have discovered a causal link between employing elderly people on the customer side of the shop and increased profit; the elderly are more willing to help customers.

Clearly the idea that elderly people do not contribute to society or the economy is basically false.  Firstly, contributing to the economy need not be measured in terms of money but maybe some other criteria. Many elderly people tend to double up as baby sitters to their family, cooks for the extended family and running errands for all and sundry.

Of course, the most important loss to society from excluding the elderly is their knowledge, experience and skills that are not being made available and monetised by the rest of society. In the past the elderly were charged with sharing the knowledge and culture of the tribe. Of course, the internet today is helping people find opportunities to share their experience with the world. Maybe there is an innate need to seek the advice and stories of those who are older than us.

The trend in modern societies today is for people to live longer but the birth rate is slowing down. And although robots might fill some labour needs the reality is that the labour gap will have to be filled by immigrant labour. So why do companies prefer to employ young people rather than elderly people who are able to fill necessary gaps? And what are the consequences of elderly people living longer?

As I said above, one prevailing idea is that the elderly are a cost to the health care system. Even to the point of privatised heath care organisations see care to the elderly as a profit enterprise. Even if we exclude the moral and ethical arguments for treating the elder decently and respectfully there are still many health issues linked with the elderly that will benefit society.

The longer we live the more new diseases come to the fore with age. This means that we need to investigate these diseases now so that future generations will be able to benefit from new therapies for what might be considered in the future as normal diseases in elderly people. Thus investing in the healthcare of elderly people today will benefit them and future elderly people. It is also true today that there is more emphasis within efficient healthcare systems to prepare people for quality of life and maybe even independent life at old age. Physically independent people are also people contributing to society and the economy; quality of life also means being able to enjoy life.

So why do companies prefer employing younger people than older people? By definition, older people tend to have well established routines and maybe even entrenched work ethics. On the other hand young people do not come with an established work ethic thus they maybe be more malleable. And older people cost more to the company to make redundant or sack. However, young people are paid less and more often asked to do things which might be unacceptable for older employees with an established ethics.

There are also some unique characteristics of the elderly that young people will still have to develop or discover. Older people are already familiar with the songs of the Beatles. It seems to be a modern ritual that young people today have to be “initiated” to the Beatles by another compilation of their songs. The elderly amongst us would have heard all these songs and many other classics. Another thing about the elderly is that many have seen it, done it and said it all before. Sometimes, but not always, we are not impressed with the bombastic ideologies of some Young Turks.

The key philosophical issues for us are ethical issues related to our treatment of the elderly: excluding the elderly as opposed to finding new respected roles for them. In a politically and social context, are there competing interests between the elderly and the young? How many times have we heard someone say “older people should give the young a chance?”

And finally, there seems to be a conceptual issue with the idea of the Elixir of Life also known as the fountain of eternal youth. Youth is not always an advantage and we tend to make our major mistakes in life when we are young; from love matters, to careers and thence to political ideology. Wouldn’t it be better if we achieved eternal life when we know what we want, how we want it and why we want it?

Best Lawrence

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