Our elderly are from Mars, our youth from Venus: The age gap and what it means for Thailand

The elderly need to understand that the times have changed. Respect shouldn’t be a free lunch. Grey hair doesn’t automatically entitle you to reverence. You must earn it.

By | Thu 16 Sep 2021

Last week while being grilled by the opposition during a censure debate, one government MP had had enough, got up, and yelled across the aisle “This is Thailand. You still have to respect the seniority/elderly!” There it was, in a national live broadcast, the hierarchical feudalistic norm reared its ugly head. I was rather irritated and embarrassed by his remark. Age, objectively speaking, has nothing to do with the ability to furnish a coherent argument. But that MP wanted the world to remain the same.

Do you know why there are many prostitutes in this country? Poor elderly parents. A portion of the sex workers’ income goes to supporting their elderly parents. It’s the same story. Poverty drives the daughters to find a job in Bangkok. They tell their families that they’re “waitressing” and the parents, knowingly or unknowingly, accept their explanation. Again, it’s part of the Thai value – indeed Asian value – to respect parents and the elderly. While noble, respect for the elderly has an oppressive side if it goes too far.

There are two kinds of oppression. Macro-oppression, which is a systemic oppression by a group of people or a country through legal, economic, military, or cultural means. Think of British imperialism and its aftermath which is still felt today. Then there is micro-oppression, such as when Britney Spears’s father controlled every aspect of her life in a conservatorship “out of love.” The respect for the elderly, I believe, falls in the former, whether the Thai elderly realise it or not.

Simply put, there is a generational gap conflict in Thailand today. It had been bubbling under the surface, but now has emerged into the open. It’s a gap of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and mistrust. Sometimes the gap is so large it is akin to the distance between Mars and Venus. To have a stable, united, and prosperous society, I genuinely believe we need to openly and honestly discuss this.

Let me explain. Imagine you’re a rice farmer in the 1950s in Isaan. You plow your field, sow your seeds, and harvest your rice annually. You observe the condition of soil and the yearly weather. After 50 years, you know everything there’s to know about rice farming. One day you hire a teen. Of course, you know more about rice farming than him, and gain his obedience in that closed environment. Sources of information at the time are only television, radio, and daily newspapers.

Today in a hyper-globalised world where access to information is as easy as peeling a banana, teens are no longer isolated in that old closed environment. They go to universities, search for information online, and chat with friends in private Line groups five hours a day, exchanging gossip and information. The informational environment has changed radically since the 1950s, especially in the last 15 years. What that means is that today’s young adults are absorbing much more information from around the world than the previous generations. Their

accumulated “knowledge stock” is much more than their parents when they were teens. I’m not saying watching CNN for 10 hours a day will make you smarter. Indeed, some media will lower your IQ. The rule of thumb is that more information is better than no information, especially when that information can be acted upon.

Today’s time, relatively speaking, is faster than in the 1950s. What could a rice farmer accomplish in one hour in the 1950s? Plowing a small portion of his farm with his buffalo. Today, however, you can buy and sell goods on your smartphone, track your favourite stock, text your girlfriend, order a smoothie, and buy a concert ticket – all in under one hour. The problem is that while there is an information technological revolution, the social hierarchy norm remains untouched, which produces social friction.

With more information comes higher expectations and aspirations. The young want change. (E.g., Singaporean young voters are voting less for the ruling People’s Action Party, prompting the late Lee Kuan Yew to step down.) The old, by definition, want status-quo and stability. Remember that in a closed environment, agricultural-based, one-way lane, hierarchy made sense. It was easy to recruit peasants to war in medieval times. Everyone went through the same steps and experiences in an orderly fashion. By logic, it means the person who is one year older has ‘one additional life experience unit’ more than you. You start out as “punoi” and eventually graduate into “puyai”, after accumulating money, power, and respect. But, in an open environment – multiple lanes are the norm, metaphorically. You have highways, freeways, bridges, and tunnels crisscrossing. No longer does the traditional social hierarchy make sense.

Social hierarchy, at its worst, is a deadweight loss, in economics parlance. It produces inefficiency in the system. Say there are credit card hacking incidents. Hundreds of consumers’ credit cards are being spent without authorisation. The senior bankers are furiously trying to solve this. Then comes along a group of young adults in their 20s offering their cybersecurity service. They have successfully aided the FBI in the past. One of them lives in his mother’s basement. But because the senior bankers – born and bred in a traditional Thai closed system – are conservatives, they brush them aside, telling them to take a hike.

Or imagine during the Second World War, inside the Manhattan Project meeting where US scientists are racing to develop atomic bombs before the Germans. The elderly politicians in the meeting are skeptical; they want the operation shut.

“You’re making a big mistake. We’re only months away from making the bombs. Terminating now means all of that time would be wasted” blurts a young scientist in his 30s. Were the politicians steeped in social hierarchy, where ego and status came first, they would’ve told the young scientist to zip his mouth, or worse fired him. And the outcome of the war would’ve been very different. I might be writing in Japanese now.

Obama was President at 49. His then Vice President Joe Biden was 67. They were 18 years apart. Did Joe Biden say “Hey Obama, I’m older than you. Unless you make me President, I’ll quit and make your life difficult.”? Of course not. They worked as a team and enjoyed mutual respect, unlike in the Thai political system where mature men like to throw tantrums when displeased. They are used to having things their way, catering to their needs.

There are about 70 million Thais, 13 million of which are over 65. And that segment is only going to increase. Some Thai elderly whom I’ve met embrace change, finding it stimulating. They tend to be educated and/or have worked in an international corporate setting. Other elderly prefer non-confrontation, keeping thoughts to themselves. Still others are resentful of the up-and-coming new generation that will upstage them, leading to their loss of status. Many elderly will use “seniority card” to mask their incompetence, as was the case with our MP in the censure debate.

The elderly don’t realise that culture is dynamic, subject to change, constantly evolving. Keep the good things; revise the things that are no longer relevant. If American culture were static, slavery, segregation, and witch hunting would’ve persisted. It’s an open secret that a former Prime Minister of Thailand in exile wants to return home on a white horse, in shiny armor, to save the day in his later years a la Malaysian Premier Mahathir. Whether it’ll happen is a moot point.

I believe it’s the responsibility of the elderly to make way for the young and talented to rise. It doesn’t mean them losing dignity. They should see it as passing the baton to the next generation who, with their help, will go farther. What makes America great is their incorporating people from all ethnicities and age groups, with each generation handing over power to the next smoothly. A nation that utilises the talents of all its young will flourish. Conversely, a strong hierarchical society like Thailand or the Philippines will never produce a Mark Zuckerberg.

The elderly need to understand that the times have changed. Respect shouldn’t be a free lunch. Grey hair doesn’t automatically entitle you to reverence. You must earn it.

Let me end on a personal note. When I’m in my ripe old age, I’ll practice what I preach – stepping aside for the next generation to take over the reign. It’s the only honorable thing to do.