The Changed Lines of Generational Power

Atul Gawande. Image from the New York Times review of Being Mortal.

I have been reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, who is a surgeon, a staff writer for the New Yorker, and a Harvard Professor. He’s a busy guy! His book explores how medical advances have changed aging and death, not always for the better. He starts by discussing traditional ways of living and dying. He notes that the deference and subservience shown to the elderly in traditional societies has changed:

“The lines of power between the generations have been renegotiated, and not in the way it is sometimes believed. The aged did not lose status and control so much as share it. Modernization did not demote the elderly. it demoted the family. It gave people–the young and the old–a way of life with more liberty and control, including the liberty to be less beholden to other generations. The veneration of elders may be gone, but not because it has been replaced by veneration of youth. It’s been replaced by veneration of the independent self.” p. 22.

I hadn’t thought of modern intergenerational dynamics in quite this way. I knew that for most of human history up until the industrial revolution property constituted the greatest store of wealth and the oldest generation in families held title to property. This left their children and grandchildren beholden to the parents as they worked on the family farm and waited to inherit the property themselves. With the growth of factories and the towns that supported them, the young had new options. This diminished the power that the family head could exercise over his (or in some cases her) offspring. Gawande is suggesting that when this happened it wasn’t so much the parents who lost status and significance but the family itself. Older adults gain in freedom what they lose in power. His assertion makes sense, if only because those with power are always constrained by it. That’s because power isn’t permanent, and there’s always the possibility it will be lost. The powerful thus have to devote their energies to surveillance and sanctions. Losing power over others is liberating both to those who exercise power and those over whom it is exercised.

Gawande suggests that instead of venerating either age or youth, we now venerate the independent self. That’s the self free of constraint, the self freed to embark on journeys of self-discovery or self-fulfillment. Culturally we see that elevation of the independent self in the teenager striving for autonomy or the young adult who leaves familiar haunts so as to have maximum opportunity for self-expression and self-exploration. As Gawande suggests, such valuing of independence and self-discovery can also be found in many middle-aged and older adults also value independence and self-discovery. Certainly that’s one reason why there are significant numbers of people in the second half of life who move to retirement communities in distant states or travel in an RV full-time. They’ve broken (or at least stretched) the ties of family and community to pursue self-focused goals.

In my work as a therapist, I tend to see the disadvantages of societal trends more than I see the advantages. As to the tug-of-war between self and family, I still have clients in families that are too confining, where the patriarch or matriarch exercises excessive control. More often, though older adults and their adult children are too disconnected. The parents struggle with isolation and loneliness, while the children are adrift, lacking the direction and affirmation that they could receive from a structured family setting. And even if both parent and child enjoy independence, that’s not a durable arrangement. As Gawande puts it:

“There remains one problem with this way of living. Our reverence for independence takes no account of the reality of what happens in life: sooner or later, independence will become impossible.” p. 23

I have always been a rather independent person. Over the past several years, though, I’ve moved away from autonomy and towards connectedness. I came back to my home town to help my parents in 2012. I’m still helping my mother, and, in 2018, I bought a house near my son and his family, with plans to move there when my mom no longer needs me. I had plenty of years to appreciate my independence. Recently, I’ve appreciated social and family ties much more. That runs counter to cultural trends, but, for me at least, it seems the better way.


About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family, and, in 2023, I started again with a move to Milwaukee to be near my children. I maintain a part-time therapy practice. I can be reached at
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