Politics & Policy

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. 

The advent of the welfare state accelerated this division; by making the elderly wards of the state, it has partly displaced our obligations to them, and enabled a guiltless separation. FDR’s Social Security used Leviathan to free the elderly from want; the obverse was freeing of duty the children who might have cared for them more holistically, and more humanly. The aged now have the money, shared to them by a faceless officialdom, to live in retirement independent of their children, and no longer die in family homes, but in expensive hospitals, away from grandchildren, who learn of the departure not with eyes at the bedside but by a phone call from Florida. (The welfare state generally entails a weakening of ties between all, rich and poor of the same age, employed and unemployed on the same block, etc.)

This change in the conception of home and property was facilitated by the highways, suburbs, automobiles, and disposable income that accelerated American mobility after World War II. We now rarely have a permanent place, a family life in one town that spans grandparents to grandchildren, and in which intergenerational friendships based on more than, say, shared activities, interests, or workplace can be formed.

Television and radio transformed entertainment by making theater and music available to us in a single room, rather than exclusively in a shared, public space that hosted the spectrum of a town’s or city’s generations. Art became less a public experience and more a private consumption choice. Entertainment’s entrance into individual rooms encouraged the proliferation of segmented media and advertising: Narrative became more balkanized, as some television programs and advertisements were written for children, others for young adults, others for the elderly. The assumption — perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy — was that the stories resonant and engrossing to one generation could not be so to another. Segmented media gave us less of a common cultural and cognitive life.

Then the Sixties took cultural authority from the elderly and gave it to the youth. The latter generally have less interest in the former than vice versa, so the new relative status of the two exacerbated their separateness. Likewise, the Sixties’ annihilation of shared cultural scripts and deference to authority made mingling in generationally mixed company anarchic and fraught. Yale College’s social scene has changed in two ostensibly adverse ways since Bill Buckley’s days: Relations between students and professors inside the classroom are friendlier, easier, and more equal — but outside they are much less frequent and much shallower. Elis in the 1940s and ’50s frequently dined with their professors and invited them to cocktail parties, because the nature and terms of their socializing were certain, anchored to the professors’ authority. Today’s students are typically encouraged to call their professors by first names and to debate the grades their papers receive. Socializing lost its ease when people became obliged to a pretense of equality that reflected neither reality nor their sentiments. By liberalizing relationships between the youth and their elders, the Sixties ironically stunted them. 

That inversion of status contributed to and was reciprocally increased by the Eighties’ and Nineties’ cult of health and youth. Now, with youth the highest aesthetic, and health valorized as an ideal, there is something dirty about the elderly. Age is not something to be venerated for the wisdom it confers, but is scorned as a disease or even a failing, its existence denied through the application of plastic surgery and proliferation of medicines, or hidden from view in retirement communities. 

Meanwhile, the past 30 years’ stagnation of wages accompanied by rapidly increasing returns to education, along with the liberalization of sexual mores and the greater availability of birth control, has provided an ability and incentive to delay marriage and childbirth into the late twenties and even thirties. The period that one spends not directly inhabiting a nuclear family — which correlates with church attendance and civic engagement — was thus extended. The new roaming twenty- or thirtysomethings, the “emerging” adults, more and more constitute a society of their own, and they can spend some 15 years living and mingling exclusively among themselves.

And then there are the most obvious drivers of age segregation: 1) The young are increasingly unchurched, and church was for most of American history the main institution that organized communities vertically (joining different kinds of people in a single space). 2) Retirement communities — historical novelties — are now common. 3) The rate of social change has increased continuously and exponentially since the industrial revolution, meaning that even when the generations do mingle they have lives, sentiments, and experiences that are less similar, and less mutually intelligible. 

But one threat to intergenerational community is extremely current: Facebook and the digital world that youths inhabit as much as any physical location. The word used to congratulate these technologies in contemporary discussions is “cosmopolitan.” Digital networking connects us across geographic and political boundaries and makes us citizens of the world, say the believers. But the necessary obverse of this advantage is that digital networking is dislocating. When we are in a world of 1s and 0s produced by the cloud we mentally depart from our physical spaces — we are not here, in the rooms or houses our bodies share with other bodies. The main thing that will compel an adolescent to speak with her elders is that she is stuck with them in the same household; the digital world unsticks us — thanks to Droid, family car rides become one more chance to text and tweet.

Judging by some qualities, such as nationality, Facebook expands the diversity of our acquaintances. But it is, at its base, a tool for social autonomy. It enables easy association with those to whom we incline while not compelling friendships with those whom we find more difficult, such as the elderly. We are likelier to talk to the elderly when confined by physical spaces — at a café, in a church, on the street — and the more that our lives are digitally mediated, the more those physical contacts vanish. 

Facebook appears to have been modeled on C. S. Lewis’s Hell. It is the acme of modernized society, allowing us unrestrained control over our relationships — we literally choose the face that others see, and can start or end a friendship by tapping a finger. These friendships never become inconvenient, because no obligation can impose itself through the digital medium. The irony of Facebook, and of modernity’s expansion of social autonomy generally, is that total, unlimited cosmopolitanism in the end produces more parochialism, homogenization, and even chauvinism than geographical confinement does: I can now commune with people all over the world of all nationalities and tongues and races who are just like me. As human interactions become less contingent on geography, and more on the preferences of digital cosmopolites, communities became more horizontal — incorporating similar kinds of people across broad territories — and less vertical. 

Children refuse to “friend” parents or grandparents on Facebook (the writer is guilty), not for fear of revealing something incriminating but because youths’ online communities have invented internal jokes, norms, and ironies that are awkwardly unintelligible at a distance of a decade or more. On the new digital globe, the generations are separate nations. A twentysomething trying to explain to his mother why, at the frivolous end, a video of an “Auto-Tune cat” is funny, or why, at the political end, his generation is resolved that it is taboo and a stigma to oppose same-sex marriage, will have as much luck as the Hawaiian natives had with Captain Cook. There have always been slangs and mores local to the youth, but online communities have aggravated the differences and made the enclosed bands more chronologically narrow. 

In short, we (1) are geographically distributed by generation, and (2) increasingly inhabit non-geographical spaces that are even more culturally alien to non-inhabitants than our separate locations; the two accelerate our separation. 

Why is this a problem? It probably does not increase crime or hurt GDP. But alienation from the elderly makes us ahistorical, senseless of what has gone into making our lives possible; it blocks the transmission of tradition; it creates a provincial chauvinism by letting each generation go unconfronted by the standards of the past, making all self-certain of their own, chronologically local mores; we lose humility, a sense of our human weakness and the impermanence of our bodies, when we are exclusively with the physically fit, the healthy, the attractive, the upwardly mobile, and never the declining; and most important is nothing extrinsic, but that we are missing out on other persons who deserve our love and friendship and knowledge, especially in the time when retirement and death of peers make one most vulnerable to loneliness. To speak in these abstractions is to risk an accusation of sentimentality in this our technocratic age. But though these harms are not statistically measurable, they resonate with nearly everyone who considers them.

Here are a few preliminary prescriptions to counter the problems of age segregation (obviously, we neither can nor should completely eliminate it — as political thought since Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen has recognized — but we can at least comprehend the problem when considering policy and cultural changes, and strive not aggravate it):

More people should die in their homes. Reviving a culture that was (1) not so mortified of death and (2) eager to welcome and remain present with the old and dying in their homes could address, better than “death panels,” the multiplying costs of treatments that extend lives by relatively short spans. The dying would benefit from spending more of their final days in a home with the children and grandchildren who will immortalize them; the survivors would benefit from an experiential knowledge of the way of all flesh. The canonical authorities are clear on this point: For Socrates (at least as presented in Plato’s Phaedo), philosophy is preparation for death and preparing for death a way of loving wisdom. For Sophocles, wisdom is knowledge of approaching annihilation. For Nietzsche, a fearful mental avoidance of the reality of death creates malaise in life. We the living would benefit from making ourselves less separate from the dying.

Grandparents should be more involved in raising their grandchildren. The young would not feel compelled to delay marriage and childbirth until they made partner at law firms if they could expect grandparents to help rear children. Living with or near their kids would be joyful for the elderly and morally and historically valuable to the grandchildren — and a public good (if generations lived closer and could care for each other, there would be less of a void for the welfare state to fill).

Institutions should stop balkanizing. Churches especially should be skeptical of the efficacy of youth services. (Most young people probably find it hokey when men of the cloth set hymns and prayers to the rhythms and instrumentation of contemporary pop.) Even if they did increase youth attendance, that would not be worth the alienation. More broadly, communities should look to history and see how dance, sports, and town festivals once incorporated different generations more than our entertainments do today.

We should experiment with policy changes to moderate the problem. To counter age segregation, and because of economic-demographic realities, we should improve employment opportunities and incentives for seniors. We now implicitly punish working past 62; restructuring Social Security benefits and tax policy by, say, allowing seniors to work without paying a FICA tax would incentivize employers to offer to retain older employees. We could end or reform age-restricted housing — there are abundant stories of families who would like to live with grandparents, but are unable. Meanwhile, since urban centers promote social life (and have the good hospitals and public transportation the elderly need), we should revise the home-mortgage-insurance deduction and other policies that punish urban renters and bribe us into lower-density life. Finally, we should try to organize volunteering that pairs the elderly with students in community service. The aged could benefit from the contact such service would involve, while the abilities they have accumulated would be a blessing to the needy.

All of these suggestions are inchoate, but the absence of readily available solutions stems in part from our failure announce and debate the problem. The first step is starting the conversation.

Generational separation is just one manifestation of six deeper currents: 1) The problems of classical liberalism, and of the American appetite for ever-expanding autonomy. 2) The transience of place and location in our increasingly mobile society, in which people no longer really have homes, but real-estate investments. 3) A weakening of institutions, churches especially, that once sustained vertical communities. 4) The perverse consequences of the welfare state, which gets between people by assuming their obligations to one another. 5) A revulsion toward the dying and sick, and the valorization of youth and health. 6) The dislocating and alienating effects of digital technologies.

Age segregation merits our immediate concern; but it should also remind us of those underlying problems, which will threaten human communities with the separation, alienation, and self-enclosure that C. S. Lewis feared as modernity progresses. 

Matthew Shaffer is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.


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