Old generations should make room for the young

Some claims, such as the one I discuss in this article, may sound differently depending on how you phrase them, even though their meaning remains unchanged. The claim that ‘old generations must make room for the young’ sounds immediately righteous, perhaps even noble, or anyway something everyone can agree on. In my opinion, there are two reasons why it is so, and they both have little-to-nothing to do with the actual meaning of the claim—a meaning that might be not so obvious at first. The first reason is that this claim is one of several clichés that are repeated over and over again, so that it becomes true by exhaustion. (As they say, repeat a lie long enough and it will become true.) The second reason is that little or no attention is paid to the not-so-obvious meaning I was talking about; the meaning is ‘we don’t care about elderly lives as much as we care about young lives’, which somehow doesn’t sound quite as good as the original phrasing. You might thing I’m blowing it out of proportions, but I don’t think so. If we cared equally for both elderly and young lives, why on Earth would old people have to make room (read: die of age-related diseases) for the young?

In my view, the reasons for this discrimination lie in our evolution.

Kids are (generally) cute and helpless. This is what triggers our instinct to protect them, even though it is not the reason we do it. A species relying on reproduction to ensure its existence wouldn’t last long if it didn’t care for its children. (Species that give birth to an enormous number of offspring at a time constitute an exception; rather than parental care, their evolutionary edge comes from probability.) Even if we had already developed comprehensive rejuvenation therapies, we would still be mortals; if we stopped reproducing altogether and forever, we would still risk extinction, although on a very long timescale. (In other words, we could still die one by one of other causes than ageing.) It’s the reason children are important (to us and other species): They’re potential means of reproduction. Additionally, they need special attention, because they’re not able to take care of themselves and are thus more at risk of dying before they can reproduce. That’s why most species on the planet make such a big deal out of protecting their offspring—species that don’t are less likely to stick around long enough to tell the tale.

Individuals who are no longer cubs (or, in our case, children) but still are fertile are still important for reproduction purposes, but require less attention from others and from society, because they can look after themselves. Individuals who can no longer reproduce, or who wouldn’t be able to take care of their offspring even if they could have any (mainly elderly adults), have zero importance in this sense, because they use up resources of society without contributing to the survival of society itself. They’ve (assumably) already contributed to the perpetuation of the species, and now that they no longer can, they’re just a burden. Thus, from the cynical point of view of the survival of the species, it makes zero sense to dedicate any resources to the care of the elderly. As a matter of fact, besides humans, there aren’t many examples of species whose younger members look after the elderly of the family.

The lack of importance of the elderly as a means of reproduction is hard-coded in our evolution, just like the extreme importance of children for the same purpose. That’s why some think old people should just step down and make room for the young, but we certainly can’t call ourselves a civilised society if we listen to the brainless voice of an atavistic biological instinct without thinking about its implications first. We don’t care for the elderly because of what they can or cannot contribute in terms of reproduction of the species; we care for them because they’re our parents, grandparents, children, relatives, and friends, and they don’t have to make room for anyone. (If I am allowed to nitpick, rejuvenated elderly people would be able to procreate again, so the atavistic instinct can chillax.)

Hang on, though. Assume the elderly did have to make room for young people. Just what young people are we talking about, exactly? Certainly people who aren’t here yet, because people who already are here have already got room for themselves. We’re definitely nowhere near the point where someone would have to die and free up space, resources, or a workplace before someone else can be born, so the elderly don’t really need to make room for people who are in the making, either. It seems we’re left only with people who aren’t even in the making yet. Is it for them that the elderly should make room? That would mean the right to life of people who are already alive is less important than that of people who don’t exist yet. This kind of reasoning is the same as that of pro-lifers, who think women’s right to choose is less important than the right to life of a non-sentient, brainless ball of cells—or even worse, some imaginary baby who could be awesome, beautiful, and what-you-have if you just gave up on wearing a condom and a bunch of other favourable conditions were met.

The truth is, there are no young people to make room for. Existence is not like a ride in an amusement park, where people are waiting in line for you to be done with, so that they can go in. There are no people waiting to be born, only a bunch of chemicals scattered around the world that could eventually end up being part of a person for a certain amount of time. (Most of your tissues don’t stay the same forever, and will replace themselves at a certain pace, varying from days to years.)

Probably, one’s death would change things around enough to make a difference as to whether person A or B or none at all is eventually born. (For example, if my grandparents were rejuvenated, they might decide to have more children whom wouldn’t exist otherwise; or, they could split, and my 120-year-old grandmother, who nonetheless looks and feels 25, might meet a 30-year-old man and have a baby with him. Had my grandmother died of ageing, the 30-year-old man would probably have had a different baby, or none at all.) However, having sex with your partner tomorrow morning rather than tonight, moving to a different city, and a number of other relatively insignificant factors can and do determine who is or isn’t born; thus, it is clear that worrying about people who aren’t even in the making yet is a waste of time, and certainly it isn’t sensible to prioritise the non-existent right to life of imaginary people over that of very much real and alive, breathing people.

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