Old People and Fear

Henry Ford in 1919

I have spoken to my mother recently and I recognized she is getting old. The hint she gave me was the fact that she constantly seemed to be afraid for my wellbeing. Since this is a thing mothers seem to be preoccupied with, that alone isn’t entirely new, yet it felt more urgent. I mentioned I was going to travel to the UK in the coming weeks and she was talking about an attack with nerve agents that happened in a UK city recently. I was mentioning a short daytrip to the outskirts of Berlin and she was talking about forest fires apparently engulfing the surroundings of Berlin (nothing I have heard about before). And I was talking about a workshop in Saint Petersburg and that started an entire tirade on Russian politics and the way dissidents are treated. From what I remember she hasn’t always been like this.

When I talk about her reactions with friends of mine, we all seem to be able to blame her age for the increase in fear. Maybe it is true and old people become more fearful over time and it seems as if old people might become more conservative. The second issue might not stem from the fact that they become more conservative, but rather they become stagnant, while society as a whole tries to be more progressive. But the fact that old people seem in general somewhat less open to progress seems to be as old as the idea of progress itself. When the first young people started to smelt metal, there were certainly old people around telling everyone that they have always used stone tools and they were always working just fine.

But what happens, when people live longer and longer? We are already experiencing this, but so far, with age comes ageing and with that come limited abilities to partake in every miniscule detail of social life. What happens in a future, where ageing might be limited to those who are not able to afford the perfect medical care? What happens if the people who have accumulated the biggest share of wealth just wont die anymore? Their demise and the redistribution of wealth (a limited redistribution of course….) has always been an element that drove progress. Maybe in the future, grumpy old folks, who are easily scared might be even more powerful than they are today. Maybe this is what already drives the era of Trump in the US. More and more wealth is controlled by old people who seem to believe that progress is evil. And these people happily pour their money into ultra conservative groups.

Maybe this is not about age, but rather about the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a few people. But still, if people tend to keep accumulating wealth for another fifty years, while being fully in control of their own agenda, this might create some issues. We fondly remember many of the US business magnates of the early 20th century by looking at the trusts that bear their names. Yet, many of these guys, while still alive, were ruthless towards their employees and workers and their practices were often contrary to the greater good of society, let alone progress. And they would not have changed one iota, if medical progress would have made it possible to them to remain in control of their wealth for another hundred years. These people would still try to support their own agenda, while at the same time accumulating more and more wealth. If Henry Ford would still be around, he might be able to pour a lot of money into groups that support moral codes and ideas that stem directly from the 19th century. Progress might skip entire generations, without them ever being able to further their own agenda. And once these people die at the age of 150, they are then replaced by their children, who are in their early hundreds and who are themselves already extremely stubborn towards every new idea.

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