A recent panel (see right) in the Longevity course brought out a range of perspectives from both panelists and students. A number of highlights emerged from the discussion:
Dean Saller brought historical perspective to the panel, explaining how the structure of the family has changed over the centuries. Going back as far as the Roman Empire, he spoke about the fact that lives were much shorter than they are today, and that families rarely consisted of more than two generations at any time. Children were prized as a source of labor and so supporting orphans, rather than the elderly, was a major social concern. Moving forward through history, education became a larger part of the discussion about children and intergenerational transfer of assets through inheritance was important. Intergenerational conflict was always present in some form.
Emphasizing just how much things have shifted in just recent years, Professor Damon asserted that in his work on adolescents, he finds that young people today feel less of a “generation gap” and are more strongly connected to their parents that ever before. Technology may be driving this in part. Professor Carstensen polled the students on this point by asking how many students had spoken to their parents in the last week – virtually 100% of the class raised their hands. Even more impressive was the response about how many students speak to their parents EVERY day – still the majority of the class. This was surprising to a faculty panel raised in a time when long distance calls were a major expense.
Dr. Doug Shadel from the AARP, a collaborator with the Center on Longevity, asserted his belief that reports of generational conflict are mostly media generated and that the caricature of the “greedy geezer” is a myth. What he has learned from his time at AARP is that older people almost all have kids and grandkids that are hugely important to them and that they are unlikely to support policies that could harm their own family.