The Rising Costs Of Late Life And The Falling Value Of Wisdom

It’s easy to see the retirement crisis as an economic issue of which money is the measure of well-being.

“So now, at 76, [Roberta] earns $915 a month through Social Security and through Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, a program for low-income seniors. Her rent, which she has had to cover solo since her roommate died in August, is $1,040 a month. She’s been taking on credit-card debt to cover the gap, and to pay for utilities, food, and other essentials. She often goes to a church food bank for supplies.

More and more older people are finding themselves in a similar situation as Baby Boomers reach retirement age without enough savings and as housing costs and medical expenses rise…”

“This Is What Life Without Retirement Savings Looks Like” | The Atlantic | Alana Semuels | 02/22/2018

I read it as a cultural issue about the declining value of knowledge.

From the development of writing to the end of the Industrial Age, the value of knowledge accumulated over years of experience, contemplation, and practice rose exponentially because of its high costs in terms of access, time, and effort.

Whether it was how to build a house or read Aristotle’s Politics, we used to call that kind of knowledge “wisdom.” We called older members of societies “wise” because their knowledge had high transmission costs from their generation to the next. High as well were the costs of learning “meta rules”—knowledge about how to apply their knowledge in ways that benefited society.

Overall, bodies of knowledge and wisdom were stable, with major disruptions only at the edges of our understanding. Evolution is an example. Still, the social value of elders who leveraged it grew with age because they found ways to adapt within their own knowledge frameworks, such as Church fathers who claimed that God set evolution in motion.

That was then. Now, change occurs more rapidly over ever shorter periods of time. The pace of change itself is blossoming into a field of study only a few can master.

Most grandparents have no idea how to get tv shows and music for free, stay anonymous online, deal with dozens of new and novel pronouns, use emojis, swat a neighbor, trade weather futures, encrypt email, explain the difference between Oasis and Blur, or whatever the hell CERN actually does.

There’s no such thing as wisdom anymore because there’s no longer enough time for information to develop into wisdom like fine wine, or a diamond. Societal changes and tech advancements ultimately destroy the knowledge our species once knew as wisdom—replacing it with acumen, expertise, skill, “hot takes,” and trend spotting.

Consequently, sadly, elders steadily lose their value to society as social and technological change accelerates and knowledge isn’t the firm rock it had been for thousands of years. This phenomena is one of many examples of generational slippage.

So, the dirtiest of little secrets about how more and more of our seniors live now, after their years of work are done, is that what the old know is obsolete. Therefore, the old are obsolete. (When was the last time you saw an 80 year-old management consultant? How many 70 year-old FORTRAN programmers are there?)

Instead of exalted elders, matriarchs and patriarchs who could actually help figure out the consequences of our historical moment, our elders are playing shuffleboard and eating brisket on a Carnival Cruise. Or they’re Walmart greeters.

But we only notice any of them during off-year elections or C-SPAN call-in shows.

And all their wisdom? We were derelict decedents for never properly adjusting the privacy settings on their Consumer Cellular phones. All their data got swept up and commodified by algorithms, networks, databases, and whatever people think AI is.

One day they will return in digital form, and exact their revenge.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.