18 July 2008

Are Elders Too Powerful In America?

This morning on NPR, they were interviewing an international architect about the CCTV Tower going up in China in a lengthy piece that was trying to get at the social context of the project. What really stuck out as noticable in the piece was the architect's comments on the age of the decision makers in different countries.

In the United States, decision makers were in the 70s. In Europe, they were in their 50s. In China, they were in their 30s. This influenced their perspective on and attitudes towards major architectual projects he said, with younger decision makers tending to be more innovative and risk taking.

If these patterns exist more widely, they indicate a sociology of business decision making by continent that has wide implications beyond major architectual projects. More notably, it raises the question of whether American governmental and business leaders have been too slow in passing the torch to the next generation and, if this is the case, why?

One plausible theory is that management of large enterprises is so autonomous from ownership, that senior managers start acting like owners and thus hold onto control long past the point where it is economically sensible to do so.

This information also seems to put the lie to the notion that other countries are more respectful of their elders than Americans. In addition to have a quite old average age and quite large number of elderly individuals by international standards, the old in the U.S. also benefit from the most vigorous part of the government's social safety net (Medicare, Medicaid elder care, Social Security without means tests, and SSI, among other programs), not to mention strong tax incentives to favor retirement savings and among the world's toughest age discrimination laws, and they are the wealthiest age demographic in the United States.


Michael Malak said...

Anthropologically speaking, elders are supposed to be leaders -- they certainly have no direct purpose in reproduction.

Missing from your list of reasons was the boomers protecting their own future interests (Social Security and Medicare). That the previous generation (who are now the current leaders) are also benefitting is collateral damage from the boomers.

With the rapid pace of technology, now is perhaps the worst time in history, though, to have elders at the wheel.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Thorough the late 19th century, the average person died in their 40s. When Social Security was enacted in the 1930s, the average life expectency was 65. Life expectency in most of the world has extended later than it has in the United States.

Anthropology isn't much of a guide to the role a demographic that hasn't existed for most of human history, and has been present in meaningful numbers in most of the world for less than a century.