Friday 16 September 2011

If not psychological neoteny: what? The role of old age


One of the most influential of my ideas - if you can even call it an idea - was psychological neoteny -

- which was covered internationally by the mass media and became one of the 'ideas of the year' in the New York Times.


The name put a word to, and some kind of explanation for, the phenomenon that modern humans retain many immature traits into adult life: the behave like teens, they try to look like teens.

At the time I wrote this (when I was a hedonic libertarian agnostic), I was vaguely positive about the phenomenon; on the basis that it might help the economy if people were flexible and 'open' in their behaviour.


But, there is a big problem about old age in modernity.

There is essentially no role or function for the old.

Consequently, the only positive thing that can be said about an old person nowadays is that they look or behave younger than their true age.

At best, therefore, the old are second-rate youngsters.


So what should the old be doing?

The answer is obvious: old age is for spiritual development.

Even CG Jung saw this clearly - although his idea of spiritual development was (merely) self development.

Since modern society is secular and hedonic, it does not value spiritual development - therefore modern society does not value old age.

But that is modern society's problem: it does not affect the reality of the situation.

At any rate, this is the 'function' of old age; spiritual development is what old people do better than the young, for which they are better equipped.


Or should I say we instead of they?

By any rational calculus, once he is aged 50 a man is  old - plain and simple - indeed probably even before that.

So I am old. 

Of course I am old. 

But why does it sound affected or disingenuous to say so?


One of the signs that our materialist, secular society has no role for the old, is that it leads to continual inflation of the age at which one becomes 'old'.

It is now generally regarded as an insult to a female human aged 60 years to call her what she plainly is: an old woman!

The notion is apparently that 'attitude', cosmetics, dyed hair, exercise and fashionable clothing have somehow changed the fundamental nature of human reality...


The age at which one becomes 'old' is now the age at which is can no longer credibly be denied that one is old; but that age keeps creeping-upwards because - in a society where the median age is c45 and rising - and where old age is dis-valued, it suits the mass of the old to be able to collude in denial of their own status.


Protestations that someone (superficially) looks younger, or feels younger, or behaves younger - are vain and irrelevant at best; but more often this is a serious, indeed sinful, evasion of the proper business of human life.

If one is fortunate enough to reach old age, then this is good fortune. But not in order to try and emulate a superficial and second-rate youthfulness; because old age is a chance for spiritual development: a gift denied to almost everyone in human history but which is now common.

We should be grateful to be old.  



The Crow said...

"We should be grateful to be old."
I'd be more grateful if I didn't hurt so much. If I had more teeth and hair, etc.
But you have observed these things well. Indeed, grateful is probably exactly the right word.
But few would see it that way :)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Crow - exactly my point. Physically and in worldly terms it is better to be young.

But remember: there is only one alternative to being old; and that alternative is *not* staying young.

Ron Guhname said...

I look forward to old age so I can finally get the Senior Discount.

Seriously, I seek out old people for wisdom, but too many of them are stuck on a handful of issues which they repeat endlessly. Age has potential, but few people seem to take advantage of it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ron - "Age has potential, but few people seem to take advantage of it."

Quite. Society does not exactly encourage a focus on spiritual development.

Instead, the elderly are encouraged to travel the world, run marathons and do bungee jumping...

Brett Stevens said...

I dislike neoteny because it destroys the concept of a whole life that's worth living from end to end, and replaces it with a hedonic ideal that on a covert level applies best to teenagers because they lack the experience, wisdom and repetition to get bored with it.

A philosophy of old age? How about a return to Plato's idea, which is that all things express in cycles and the pure form can only be ascertained/projected, never "seen"?

What I like about the older people I know is that they have gone through life, fought it out, and now actually know some things. Youth is wasted on the young; they know nothing, and yet Dunning-Krugerly are convinced otherwise.

Thursday said...

Modern people retain some psychologically neotenous characteristics, however as your hero Tolkien has noted in the modern world adults are much less able to appreciate things like fairy tales than pre-modern adults. The animistic view of the world, which, as Piaget showed, is still very much alive in children, is no longer retained into adulthood.

Ted Swanson said...

Yes, we fear death far too much. We are not comfortable with it. We think that the basis for all life is the material. Indeed, we need initiation ceremonies, not parties. The serious initiation ceremony makes clear that we are done with that phase of life and it is on to the next phase.

Shava said...

I found myself here tonight after using the term psychological neoteny in a positive sense, trying to find a link online that used it as such, and pretty much failing.

I am fifty-three, and proud of my gray hair and experience, yet also very much proud of my life-long learning, my ability to assimilate new information into my vast knowledge-base which draws on many media including paper, peers, and virtual sources. I am a voracious sponge.

I consider that my spiritual maturation, perhaps more buddhist, includes a certain perspective of a child's mind -- without necessitating immaturity alongside my retained sense of curiosity, play, cooperation, and so on.

It is possible, you know.

Yet I find most of my age peers are ossified -- age has not treated them well. Because of their expectations of life, mostly based on social conventions, they have done so much contrary to their sense of joy *or* real duty, that they've become sour old machines in their forties.

Do you really still think that neoteny is just limited to the Peter Pan syndrome? Or can it include some of us who engage life more intensely throughout our decades, responsibly, but perhaps to a different drummer (to which I'll gladly confess!).

Some of us have done marvelous things, harming none, with roots and wings, transcendently playful like the leela of South Asia, not some little game.

Shava said...
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