It’s easy to overlook the contributions of older people given the way our economy is structured. If we can identify these contributions, we’ll be less likely to respond to the next crisis by telling them to get out of the way.

Shocks to the system don’t wait patiently in line giving us time to respond to each in turn.

The Covid-19 pandemic occurs as we confront rapid technological change brought by digital technologies. The pandemic presents an opportunity to rethink how we value what we do for each other. We need fresh ideas about what we view as work and how we reward it.

The Covid-19 message to older people has so far been – stay home so the rest of us can get busy fixing the economy.

If it weren’t for the old and sick, Queenstown and Rotorua could promptly reopen for business. Occasionally tourists would bring Covid-19. Some Kiwis will get the virus but most will have comparatively mild symptoms and be available to take tourists jet boating and geyser spotting. We can hope outbreaks of coronavirus get progressively milder as some of us acquire immunity.

The way our economy is structured, it’s too easy to overlook the contributions of older people. If we can identify these contributions we’ll be less likely to respond to the next crisis by telling them to get out of the way.

Older people as canaries in the coal mine

There is a familiar narrative in which human workers are failing to compete with the machines of the digital economy. This failure is increasingly evident when we measure what humans do in terms of efficiency.

We understand that the slower gaits and glitchy memories of older people make them less efficient than the young. But the pattern of progress of digital technologies suggests a future in which the young increasingly fail tests of efficiency when pitted against machines.

Even the nimblest 20-year-olds won’t match the outputs of the techs of the digital age. This is partly because of the exponential improvement of digital technologies. Chess computers in the 1990s went from losing easily to top human players, through a brief period of competing on equal terms, to being far superior.

These observations about technological progress suggest the young should look at older people as canaries in the coal mine warning of a future of mass unemployment. If we can solve the problem of how to find value in the contributions of less efficient older people today, there’s hope for kids as they confront the super-efficient machines of the future.

It should be no surprise older people can be valued workers in a new kind of economy. Nature is not known for its charity toward individuals who perform no biologically valuable role. Many organisms promptly expire when they are no longer able to reproduce. But human grandparents serve an evolutionary purpose in helping to raise children. This suggests the possibility of important economic contributions so long as we drop some assumptions about what they might be.

A new social economy could make the contributions of older people visible

My recent work advances a response to the threat of employment grounded in a social economy that rewards our distinctively human contributions to each other.

I offer this plea in the context of record levels of loneliness in technologically advanced nations. The social neurologist John Cacioppo has documented the ruinous effects of increasing social isolation on our health. He memorably compared loneliness to smoking.

Cacioppo’s preferred term for humans is obligatorily gregarious – much as a polar bear needs to be in an Arctic environment to thrive, we need to be with each other. So-called social technologies give us a biased sample of social experience. Junk socialising on Facebook fails to adequately nourish much in the way junk food does.

But there’s another side to our obligatory gregariousness. Flourishing multi-ethnic societies need us to be in touch with people who differ from us. A social economy that promotes interactions between people who differ from each other could counteract the forces of social fragmentation that characterise the opening decades of the 21st century. We need contact between people of different cultures. But we also need sustained contact between the generations.

An idea from France

It’s a big ask to create a social economy that rewards the contributions of older people. We can’t just wish one into existence. But we should be open to steps in the right direction.

We may not be flying to France anytime soon. But I hope bans on travel won’t stop us from learning from French ideas.

Here’s one thought that came to me as I was reading a piece in the New Yorker magazine on a French way to find work for posties in this email age. A programme operating since 2017, Veiller Sur Mes Parents (Watch Over My Parents) pays postal workers look in on older people whose biggest need is for company. The journalist Zoey Poll describes her experiences following Aurore Raguet, a 50-year-old postie from the small town of Revin, as she looks in on Jeannine Titeux, an 80-year-old subscriber to VSMP.

A postal worker in her fifties is an unlikely candidate for retraining for the tech industry. But Aurore’s age is likely to be an advantage when chatting with Jeannine. When she arrives at the home of a new VSMP client, she opens with discussions of the weather and last night’s TV. This works for Jeannine, who probably doesn’t want to spend her retirement attempting conversations with Apple’s chatbot Siri.

There isn’t an age at which humans cease to be lonely. This means there is no strict age limit on therapeutic socialising. Why couldn’t Jeannine take on some of this social work herself? I’m guessing there are a few 1960s soap operas Aurore has no memory of but Jeannine could discuss as she introduces herself to a lonely 90-year-old VSMP subscriber.

Focusing on currently unmet social needs of obligatorily gregarious human beings points to opportunities for work that either can’t be done at all by machines or, if it can, only badly. One of the reasons zoo visitors flock to chimpanzee exhibits is to witness their easy and often joyful gregariousness. We don’t have to become chimps to work some of these aspects into a really enjoyable version of the digital age.

Nicholas Agar is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Australia and Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

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