The More Days You Live, The More Things You Know
We should respect our elders (as imperfect as they are, young people are generally worse)
This past Thursday I spoke at The Cambridge Union, the debating society at Cambridge University. The proposition was “This House Would Respect Our Elders.”
Below is a transcript of my speech.
The motion before us contends that we should respect our elders. I align myself with this proposition. Not as a call for uncritical reverence, but rather to acknowledge the limitations of youth and a recognition of the intricacies of the human endeavor that spans generations.
I’m a psychologist, not a sociologist or an economist or a political scientist. I generally tend to focus on empirical research about individuals. In order to form a grounded opinion on the motion, it is essential to understand what a large body of research indicates about the psychological and behavioral differences between young adults and older adults.
Many people believe, for example, that advanced age is accompanied by maturity and wisdom.
This is reflected in official policies that set age thresholds for driving, military service, voting, drinking alcohol, and holding elected office. For example, the minimum age requirement for head of state is 35 in the United States, 40 in South Korea, and 45 in Singapore.
Incidentally, the United Kingdom's minimum age for all elected positions is only 18, an interesting fact that may shed light on why this debate is particularly pertinent in this setting.
Moreover, a brief glance at those in positions of power reveals a skew towards older individuals:
The average age of a successful startup founder is 42 years old. The media-driven belief that successful founders are typically very young is untrue.
The average British MP is 51 years old
The average CEO of a Fortune 100 company is 57 years old
The average age at the time of hire among S&P 500 company CEOs is 58 years old
The average age of G20 world leaders is 62 years old
The average U.S. senator is 64 years old
The average member of the House of Lords is 71 years old
And the current president of the United States is one-hundred and ninety-six years old.
These figures demonstrate that older individuals do wield significant power.
Does this power translate into respectability?
We confer respect to others not just for their power or status, but also for their moral character.
A study published in the Journal of Business Ethics revealed that younger professionals were significantly more inclined than their older counterparts to endorse ethically questionable behaviors, such as using company office supplies for personal use or using company funds for personal holidays.
Indeed, young people are generally more likely to take risks that many of us would consider to be morally dubious. Even after controlling for socioeconomic status, younger adults are more likely than older adults to shoplift, commit assault, and drive while drunk, among other crimes.
It’s worth noting here that younger adults tend to score more highly on what are known as the Dark Triad personality traits.
In the realm of personality psychology, the Dark Triad encompasses 3 distinct yet interrelated traits:
Psychopathy, which is characterized by callousness and a profound disregard for others
Narcissism, which is marked by an inflated sense of self-importance and entitlement
And Machiavellianism which involves strategic exploitation and duplicity for personal gain
Study after study shows that these traits peak in the late teens and early twenties, and gradually decline with age.
While the potency of youth might initially sustain these antagonistic and hostile traits, they tend to diminish as individuals grow older.
In stark contrast, studies have found that older age coincides with the Light Triad personality traits, which encompass 3 factors:
First, Faith in Humanity, which reflects the belief that others are generally good and worthy of trust.
Second, Kantianism, which denotes the propensity to behave with integrity and honesty.
And lastly, Humanism, which involves a genuine appreciation for the successes of others.
Older people tend to score higher on these Light Triad traits. Younger adults tend to have lower scores.
This distinction was illustrated in a 2021 study which found that older adults were more likely to share positive gossip about other people, while younger adults were more prone to spread negative, reputation-damaging gossip.
Supporting this pattern of behavior, developmental criminologists have documented an “age-crime curve.” This curve shows a peak in criminal behavior during adolescence and early adulthood, which then declines with age.
Notably, younger age remains a significant predictor of crime, even when socioeconomic factors are accounted for. For example, in the United States, a 20 year old man is 10 times more likely to commit a violent crime than a 60 year old man.
Beyond overt legal transgressions, younger adults are more deceptive in their everyday lives than older adults. A 2015 study of more than 1 thousand individuals aged 6 to 77 found that young children and elderly adults are the least likely to tell lies, while young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 were the most likely to engage in deception, and also displayed the greatest proficiency at formulating believable lies.
Finally, research in behavioral economics underscores age-related differences in cooperative behavior. Older adults tend to behave in a less self-interested and more altruistic manner than younger adults.
A 2012 study analyzed 287 interactions on the popular British Game show “Golden Balls,” in which two strangers play a large stakes one-shot prisoner’s dilemma-style game to win money.
Only 42 percent of contestants younger than age 30 chose to cooperate, compared with 65 percent of contestants older than 50 years of age. This reflects greater selfishness and suspicion on the part of younger people.
A key dimension distinguishing older adults from their younger counterparts is their heightened trust in others. For example, a recent survey by the Pew Research Center in the U.S. revealed that 71 percent of adults below age 30 agree that “Most people would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance” compared with only 39 percent of adults over age 65. Moreover, adults younger than age 30 were twice as likely to agree that “Most people can’t be trusted” compared with adults older than 65.
This pattern is echoed in the U.K., where only 22 percent of young adults aged 18 to 24 are trusting of people they meet for the first time, compared with 45 percent of adults over age 65.
The studies considered thus far consistently demonstrate that older adults are generally more ethical, more cooperative, and more trusting than younger adults.
In my own research, completed as part of my doctoral thesis, I analyzed multiple large datasets from the U.K., the U.S., and globally. The findings were unequivocal: older adults consistently rated moral violations more harshly than younger adults.
For instance, younger adults deemed actions like tax evasion or theft as more permissible compared with older adults. This age difference remained even after controlling for income and education.
More strikingly, younger adults rated physical violence to be more permissible than older adults, including political violence, child abuse, and spousal abuse.
While initially surprising, these findings are consistent with prior work indicating that older adults are less inclined towards violence and unethical behavior.
It is reasonable to approach any individual study with a degree of skepticism. However, in the aggregate, all the research points in the same direction: Younger adults display a greater propensity for deceit, manipulation, and selfishness compared with older people.
Should we respect our elders?
I want to briefly discuss here the question of wisdom.
The very fact that we can even ponder this question suggests that we live in a society of relative comfort—a luxury secured through the efforts and decisions of previous generations.
In many cultures where survival is a daily struggle, respect for elders is not just a value but a necessity. It is only in societies that have achieved a certain level of safety and material prosperity—thanks in part to the wisdom and sacrifices of older generations—that people begin to question and reproach those who laid the foundations of their historically unparalleled comfort.
My strong suspicion is that the majority of young people who feel aggrieved by the actions of past generations are not self-aware enough to ask themselves a simple question: If you were born in the exact same year as your parents or grandparents, immersed in precisely the same milieu, with the same social and political forces, the same economic incentives, and the same cultural memes, would you have acted any differently?
You and your towering intellect, who can barely operate a motor vehicle and can’t even navigate an unfamiliar city or get a date without using a piece of technology invented by a Boomer in 2007. You are fooling yourself if you think you can overlook the accumulated knowledge of those who came before you, including the careful study of their errors and missteps.
Not all old people are wise, but almost all wise people are old.
I’m 33 years old. A decade or so older than many of the people in this room. I grew up in poverty, and then in the squalor of the foster care system in Los Angeles. I started working for minimum wage when I was 15 and joined the U.S. Air Force when I was 17. By the time I was 23, I’d traveled to more than a dozen countries, deployed twice, and been arrested once. I’d lived a lot of life by that point. I learned a lot. And yet I knew only a fraction of what I do today.
My point is not that you should respect me.
But rather, we should all start from the position of respect people for the people who have lived more life than us. You are all likely wiser and more worthy of respect now than you were at the age of 13. And with time, this trend will continue.
As the political commentator Bill Maher once said, “The more days you live, the more things you know.”
True wisdom is not just about making good choices; it also encompasses the ability to retain sound judgment across a diverse array of situations, especially unfamiliar and challenging ones.
The founder of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, once said that, “The lessons that elders have learned at great pain and expense can add to the knowledge of the young and help them to cope with problems and dangers they had not faced before.”
Unless you've personally lived through a wide range of circumstances and made a wide range of corresponding mistakes, you're unlikely to have acquired the knowledge necessary to navigate a variety of unique situations without blundering.
Only by respecting elders enough to listen to how they made their decisions, including concentrating on where they might have gone wrong, can we hope to do any better than them.
And I’ll leave it at that, thank you.
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