We Must Outcompete Our Elders
That previous post was a real bummer—sorry. In that post, I argued that most of our desires are competitive, and that, therefore, our desires cannot all be satisfied. Most of our strivings are collectively futile, and we’re going nowhere as a species, except toward increasingly convoluted status games.
Can we do anything about this? Is there a way out of our collective death spiral of endless status jockeying? To my astonishment, no scholar has confronted this question head-on (at least that I’m aware of). It’s time we all started pondering it.
What we’re looking for is a loophole—some way we can satisfy everybody’s competitive desires at the same time, by making everybody better off than somebody else, but in a way that the “somebody else” is okay with. Is that possible?
Maybe. One way we can do this is by giving each generation more of what it wants than the previous generation. When status and living standards rise from generation to generation, there’s nobody at the bottom. Everybody’s better off than somebody, and that somebody is always the previous generation. But here’s the loophole: the previous generation is okay with this, because they want future generations, which include their children and grandchildren, to be better off than themselves—they’re nepotistic. Stable, long-run economic growth somehow squares the circle and lets everybody win a zero-sum game. To solve the tragedy of the human condition—to satisfy everyone’s icky desires and reduce our competitive bullshit—we must continually outcompete our elders. It’s the solution to all our problems.
Let’s call this theory, “Intergenerational Competition Theory”, or, for those of you who like acronyms, “ICT”.
ICT resolves a lot of puzzling findings in the literature on life satisfaction and economic development. It explains why historically wealthier countries have higher life satisfaction than poorer countries, even though rapid increases in national wealth do not make citizens more satisfied with their lives. That is, if everyone gets rich all of a sudden at the same time, then nobody is satisfied, because everybody still has the same wealth and status as their rivals. But if the economy grows gradually over multiple generations, with each generation getting richer and higher status than the previous generation, then people get satisfied, and society becomes more peaceful and stable. Declining respect for elders, it seems, goes hand in hand with declining violence, corruption, and societal decay.
ICT might also explain why working-class white people, around a decade ago, suffered a huge increase in “deaths of despair” and later embraced a “burn it all down” Trumpian populism. It’s not that they were poor or disadvantaged per se. Nonwhite people were (and still are) significantly poorer and more disadvantaged, yet they weren’t dying of despair. Why the difference? Nonwhite people thought they were better off than their parents’ generation, likely because prior generations were more overtly discriminatory. Working class white people, on the other hand, thought they were worse off than their parents’ generation, likely due to rising urbanization, educational credentialism, and declining low-skilled manufacturing work. Some working-class white people even thought they were worse off than African Americans, due to the zero-sum nature of social status: as one group rises, another must fall. The result was a white populist backlash that nearly destroyed American democracy (and still might).
There is an important lesson here. In order to collectively satisfy our icky, competitive desires, we must ensure that everybody outcompetes their parents and grandparents in the game of life. Old people must never be cool. This ongoing upstaging of the elderly is crucial to the long-term wellbeing of our species, and it must continue for all demographic groups—or else we’re fucked. The moment any segment of society stops outcompeting their elders is the moment society starts to unravel. We must keep trouncing our elders, generation after generation, or else the fundamental tragedy of the human condition will catch up to us, and we will literally die of sadness.
 If ICT is right, then the contemporary correlation between national wealth and national life satisfaction will be moderated by the duration and consistency of prior economic growth, and mediated by perceptions of intergenerational improvement, optimism for the future, and/or (dis)respect for elders.
 There’s a complication. Shortly after I wrote this post, I discovered that black men recently overtook white men in “deaths of despair” (i.e. drug overdose deaths), casting doubt on my specific thesis here. Then again, maybe black men recently stopped believing themselves to be better off than their elders (maybe because of police shootings?), which might account for the recent increase in deaths of despair among that group (to my knowledge, no one has looked into this hypothesis). If it turned out that these deaths have nothing to do with the failure to outcompete one’s elders (or one’s children and grandchildren’s failure to outcompete oneself), then my theory would take a hit, but it wouldn’t be falsified. The theory might still be true—it might just not explain deaths of despair. It might be that those deaths are due to other causes.
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