Ages Apart
From the June 6, 2011, issue of NR.


St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Manhattan is now known for the young-adult Mass, celebrated by Fr. Jonathan Morris, it hosts for a lively twentysomething Catholic community every Sunday at 7 p.m

The advantages and attractions are apparent. Church attendance has collapsed among youths and urban dwellers, so giving urban-dwelling youth special attention makes sense; congregants are interested in coreligionist marriageables, and the church has a clear interest in their meeting. It is unsurprising that young-adult services are an accelerating trend, in Protestant and Catholic churches alike.

Critics worry that a church trying to be hip is self-defeating — in being too accommodating of its parishioners’ wants, it softens its majesty. But the more important loss is much less abstract: old people. They are, by the nature of the service, missing, in a way that is peculiarly noticeable and sad because church might otherwise, did it not balkanize its generations, be the only place unrelated youths and geriatrics communed.

America today is startlingly segregated by age relative to historical norms, a change that is as lamentable as it is unremarked upon. Alarms have not been sounded — partly because we have chosen this separation, partly because it is unnoticeable in its progress, partly because its harms are not concrete or statistically measurable. They fall on our patience, our humility, our relationship to history, our gratitude, our preparation for death, in short our wisdom — things that are hard to put before Congress or in a think-tank finding. 

What is the origin of age segregation? Most broadly, it is a component of modernization as the expansion of individual autonomy. Modernization in that sense includes the agricultural revolution, which inverted man’s relationship to his environment, and the Enlightenment, which inverted the individual’s relationship to the political order — man went from creature to a creator of each. (The troubling prospectus for modernization’s future is that computer science and biotechnology may invert even our relationship to human nature, making the next generation’s biology and consciousness a product of human design rather than an inheritance.) And with our new autonomy we have chosen to part with the elderly for obvious reasons: They can be costly, grumpy, or stodgy, they are not useful for advancing our careers, and we are not attracted to them. Let them live in their own communities, then.

How can this bad (separateness) come of this good (freedom)? The best allegory for this, the dilemma of modernization, is C. S. Lewis’s imagining of Hell, The Great Divorce (the title implying that it is a response to Blake’s Marriage). Lewis envisioned that the damned suffer not a fire, or any physical torment or confinement, but absolute dominion and inalienable rights: the liberty to roam an infinite and borderless land, and to freely and instantaneously build castles wherever they like. 

Lewis’s damned enjoy this freedom by abandoning locations and acquaintances the moment they become inconvenient. The awkwardness of an exchange with a neighbor we think has slighted us can, in Lewis’s Hell, be evaded by simply moving away. So after a few years’ stay in Hell, each of the damned is thousands of miles away from any other, pacing solitarily in his castle. 

The political moral is that unchosen obligations, restraints, and dependencies are the things that push people together, despite our irritableness and our inconvenience to each other. Our limitations and inadequacies counter our selfish bent, and become a foundation for community. (Lewis’s cosmic allegory, then, doubles as theodicy, showing how it can be good for us that we do not always get what we want, and are sick and feeble.)

We’ve been making Lewis’s Hell for ourselves for a long time, expanding autonomies in ways that cause social separateness in general, and generational separateness in particular. A brief historical sketch: 

As Americans encountered a continent of unclaimed land and began to move westward, we conceived of property less as a family trust to be preserved for our children because it was imbued with the spirits of our grandparents (as it was traditionally conceived — even in Christendom, which always preserved some element of ancestor worship), and more as a commodity to be taken, possessed, alienated, and leveraged for personal uses. In ancient Rome, a family was more possessed by its home than vice versa. In modern America, individuals own houses temporarily, their eyes fixed not on the intrinsic value of the land or the spiritual continuity it could provide, but on constantly fluctuating real-estate values and interests rates as they relate to a financial portfolio. The hearth around which three generations of one family could gather is now archaic.