Windbags and Modernity
By Bryan Caplan
During my many recent hours at the neonatal ward, I’ve finished Gary Becker’s A Treatise on the Family. The last chapter is the best, particularly his analysis of the decline of respect for the elderly:
Older persons are held in esteem in traditional societies because they have accumulated knowledge that is especially valuable to younger persons in stationary environments. Knowledge is passed to younger generations through the family mainly via the culture inherited by children, nephews, and other younger relatives… Younger members tend to follow the same occupations and till the same land as their parents and other relatives because they acquire the specific knowledge of their elder relatives… The importance of family “schools” in traditional societies explains why peasant farms remain in the same family for many generations, and why families specialize in producing soldiers (samurai), clergymen (Brahmins), merchants (bazari), farmers (peasants), servants, and other workers… [references omitted]
So why have the kids these days lost respect for their elders? Because most of the advice of their elders has ceased to be useful!
In modern societies markets facilitate trade and production, and dynamic economic environments rapidly change technologies, incomes, and opportunities. The knowledge accumulated by older members is much less useful to younger members than in traditional societies because the young face a different economic milieu… The “certification” provided by families in traditional societies is provided today by schools and examinations. Moreover, contracts and the possibility of repeat business reduce the need for prior certification…
The single best sentence in the book:
Since kinship is less important in modern societies, elder members and ancestors receive less respect and attention; they are less likely to be defended against criticism by others and more likely to be criticized in public or in the privacy of a psychiatrist’s office.
All this reminds me of a cartoon on Robin Hanson’s office door. (I’m describing it from memory, so this isn’t word-for-word). In panel one, we see a kid playing videogames while his grandfather explains that, “During all my years, I’ve learned many valuable life lessons. Would you like me to share them with you?” In panel two, the kid (never looking up from his game) responds, “No.” In panel three, grandpa mutters, “I didn’t think so.” If Becker’s right, people in traditional societies wouldn’t get the joke. Do you think they would?