The Western world is a youth-oriented culture, where people (women especially) often seem to lose public influence as their faces show more mileage. We tend to think of young people as leaders in original thinking and write off older people as stuck in their ways. If anything, we may believe the older generations stand in the way of progress.
Human beings and their ancestors have been been around for millions of years, and for most of that history we were stuck in the most primitive state imaginable. Ever wonder why human civilization only stated to progress fairly recently on that giant timescale?
Turns out that as late as 130,000 years ago, no one survived beyond the age of 30. Most of human history has consisted of children having children, then dying very rapidly from any number of causes (disease, injury, infection, childbirth, etc.). For all that time, researchers confirmed in 2011, there were no grandparents because everyone died before they were old enough to see their grandchildren.
Then only about 30,000 years ago, human lifespans begin to lengthen for as yet unclear reasons, and suddenly many people started to live into their 30s. This was a huge and dramatic change for mankind, and had all kinds of major consequences.
For one thing, 30-somethings can potentially be credited for defeating the Neanderthals and establishing the dominance of homo sapiens on earth. At the time when human lifespans began to grow longer, the Neanderthals were still around and competing with humans for survival. The Neanderthals were much bigger and stronger than humans, and possibly even smarter (they had bigger brains). So why did we win out over these favourites in the race for life?
One theory is that our new “third generation” did them in. Research has shown that the Neanderthal population continued to have short lifespans and die out by age 30, even as our people were starting to survive to older ages in much greater numbers. Grandparents were able to pass down a wealth of cultural knowledge, like traditional hunting techniques. So we outwitted those Neanderthal brutes - their bigger brains proved no match for the accumulated experience and knowledge of our elders.
What’s more, with time our society became dependent on the existence of older generations: “Longevity became a prerequisite for the unique and complex behaviours that signal modernity.”
We might not realize it every day, but our civilization could not continue on at a high level without older generations to pass on information and experience. Grey heads are actually the foundation stones of our civilization.
From that perspective, perhaps there is a “silver lining” to the progressive aging of our society.