Markets Love Your Independence in Old Age


I just cracked into Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. It's already fantastic. I have a beef though.

Gawande tells an interesting story about the development of old-age lifestyles. He starts by describing his great-grandfather's experience of old age. He lived to be very, very old. Throughout his latter years he was surrounded by generations of family, among whom he was held in the highest honor. He continued to conduct business and lead a stubbornly normal life just about up until he died.

This is implicitly contrasted with the version of old age that would be familiar to most US American and European readers, wherein the old try to live independently as long as possible, until medical reasons force them into the care of some institution or another.

Gawande identifies this as a shift correlating to the development of societies. One argument to this effect points out that the wisdom of the old is much less valuable in modernized labor than it is in non-industrial society. Neither I nor any of my siblings are in the same trade as my parents, or our grandparents, and even if we were those trades are probably dramatically different than they were thirty years ago. There's not a lot of useful information my grandpa can offer me about software engineering.

Perhaps more interestingly, he cites that people who have the resources to afford themselves independence in their old age have tended to do so, independently of other factors. This would appear to mean that people have some inherent drive towards greater independence. That something in our psychology makes us prefer being old and alone to being old and surrounded by family.

Of course, to stop here would be to fail to break the surface of an analysis of how economics relate to culture. It is not merely the case that economics might permit the wealthy to express their will to independence. Rather, capitalism marketizes our independence, as that independence is expressed in our own real estate, our own furniture, our own cars—our very own replica of all of the necessities of life that would otherwise be shared with others. I think it's prudent to be skeptical of claims that human nature drives us towards something, when at the same time the logic of capital is demonstrably driving us towards that same thing.

I doubt that this effect that markets have on families and independence is demonstrated anywhere more clearly than in Turkey. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has since its rise in 2002 made heavy use of construction and infrastructure development as economic stimulus, effectively as a core economic policy. As a result, roads have widened, and projects to build dams and bridges and mosques and a gigantic airport have sprung up all over the country.

And, critically, huge apartment complexes. The claim is that Turkey is way behind in housing, that it has nowhere near enough housing for all the young Turks coming into the world. Of course, the birth rate in Turkey has been going down just like everywhere else in the world, and this has never been a problem before. The splitting up of extended family structures, which have been the atom of Turkish society since forever, is a necessary part of using massive construction projects as economic stimulus. Independent people require more independent units in which to live, requiring more money to pay for them. So people have to make more money, so that they can pay it to the developers (who are making buckets of money), and this is what we call economic stimulation, and the end result is that everyone lives alone, and dies alone. Maybe somewhere deep down that really is what we want, but I'm hesitant to reach for that conclusion.