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Chapter 1 - The Aging Human

  5 min read

Developing a personal strategy for a good life must start with an assessment of the future. And that is substantially a function of the actions of the main actor: us humans. It is best to come to terms first with some of our “properties”. Here are a few hard to refute characteristics of how we really are.

 

For one - strikingly alike. Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder got it right in their mega hit Ebony and Ivory: “We all know that people are the same wherever you go”. Uber power thinker Niccolo Machiavelli broadly shared this take hundreds of years earlier: “Anyone who studies present and ancient affairs will easily see how in all cities and all peoples there still exist, and have always existed, the same desires and passions”. I suspect you agree with this assessment as much I do.

 

To continue with Paul and Stevie, “There is good and bad. In everyone”. Fortunately, the good streak in humans generally far outweighs the bad. The exceptions prove the rule. Most people are mostly pleasant and well-meaning towards others. If you don’t buy into this view, you could read a bestseller making the case for “Humankind”[1]. I have not. I need no convincing given how many wonderful, warm and generous individuals I have met over the decades … all over the world.

 

Unquestionably, we humans share needs and desires. Dr. David Rock, a cognitive science consultant, distills them down to five key ones with his SCARF Model[2]. We all have a need for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. Individually, our desires will vary in degree in each dimension, but we have a need for each of them.

 

Since money helps us to achieve status, to acquire more certainty and autonomy, its importance for us humans cannot surprise. As Voltaire observed, “when it comes to money, we all have the same religion”. Forecasting the future always requires an analysis of economics and finance.

 

Further areas to confirm this “alikeness” and shared needs are plentiful. Convincingly the case is made by big business. Global iconic brands like Apple, Coca Cola, and Nike have long understood the “commonality” and shared desires of people. They are harvesting giant revenues and fat profits from pretty much everywhere in the world.

 

The tech companies, in particular, also provide prime proof of what a capable lot we are. We might not be the best-looking creatures (personally I would give that award to birds). Ok you are THE exception. But ingenious we are. Particularly when working in good teams - nobody in the animal kingdom comes close. If you ever have a bad day, say, because your boss at work is a pain, the leadership of your “nation” is failing you, or your sports team lost, celebrate the accomplishments of your “humanity” team – the smart phone, microsurgery, the engineering marvels.

 

So much for the positives. Clearly, we are not flawless. As a matter of fact, the list of our shortcomings is long, and for some individuals (like me), even longer. Many of our deficiencies are the product of evolution. Yuval Harari lays out the case for the layperson convincingly in his book “Sapiens”.

 

Evolution has honed our skills to deal with threats generally long gone. But it has not “engineered” us for the plentiful opportunities and gadgets in the here and now – we are still thinking tribal. Seeing differences among members of our own species where there are none. Add to that a long list of biases that let us act foolishly, predictably foolishly, over and over again. Indeed, we are hard-wired to delude ourselves. The list of biases alone adds to a hundred plus as Kahneman and Tversky[3] showed. If skeptical, track your own behavior or let google give you feedback on what absurd habits and compulsion you fall prey to … routinely.

 

Sadly, but understandably, we are focused on the short-term. Our history certainly made that the natural choice. After all, death lurked from all around for our forebears – whether a snake bite, flesh wounds, an inflamed appendix, or smallpox. Not to mention the high death rates at birth … for both infants and mothers. It’s only relatively recent that we can expect to live a long life. Since we have no experience with this awesome prospect, we are not set up to get it right.

 

So we are all the same? Stop! No. Of course, we are not all more or less the same. Lots of things matter. Fortunately many differences, i.e. gender, ethnicity, “race” have been shown to be vastly exaggerated. Maybe with the exception of religion. Strong beliefs matter.

But above all, AGE matters. A 7 years old and a 77 years old do not have the same passions and desires. Their consumption habits and thought patterns will widely differ. AGE is relevant. As this blog argues: AGE is the SINGLE biggest factor driving our needs and actions. From consumption to savings habits, neither are generally rationally motivated, but predictably age-specifically irrationally driven.

 

Aging does lots of funny things to us. For one, the older we get the more risk-averse we become. Provenly so[4]. That’s not rational. After all, why take a lot of risk when you are young, say by driving fast in your car or joining the army to fight a war, when you have a looong life ahead to lose? At an older age, the “opportunity” cost is much lower! The consequences of this human trait alone – risk aversion growing with age – has massive implications for (y)our future as we will explore in later posts.

 

So what are we left with from this short tour? Humans are strikingly alike “wherever you go”, generally bent on being kind and capable of astonishing feats. To paraphrase futurist Jorgen Randers - while we are not fundamentally stupid, we are fundamentally short-term. We can’t help but be focused on the near and near-term. We share ingrained biases and irrational behavior acquired through millennia of evolution. In short – we have lots of unhealthy habits we cannot drop quickly. Even with the best of intentions. Crucially, our AGE is a key driver of our actions and thoughts.

 

Aging well and gracefully then is the true challenge of life. How to make the best of our capacities at each age and deal smartly with the challenges arising in and around us.

 

We shall see that lessons applicable to the individual also apply to the tribe and nation. From this realization pretty much everything follows … and the future becomes clearer.

 

I hope you join me on this path of discovery. You are welcome to disagree with me at any time on any issue. These chapters and the coming blog have only one goal: not to change the world but to change ourselves to adapt to a changing - and rapidly aging - one. To age gracefully in the process. To become at each stage of life the best we can be.

 

 

References

 

[1] Bregman R. (2020). Humankind: A hopeful history, Little Brown and Company

[2] Rock D. (2008). 'SCARF: A Brain-Based Model for Collaborating With and Influencing Others,' Neuroleadership Journal, 1, 1-9. See also here https://www.mindtools.com/akswgc0/david-rocks-scarf-model

[3] Kahneman D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[4] Fitzenberger B., Mena G., Nimczik J., Sunde U. (2022), ‘Personality Traits Across the Life Cycle: Disentangling Age, Period and Cohort Effects’, The Economic Journal, vol. 132(646), pp. 2141-2172, https://doi.org/10.1093/ej/ueab093

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