The Old Are the World’s Hope

Erasmo Calzadilla

Evacuation of children in Greece in 1940. Photo: David Seymour

HAVANA TIMES — Who are more important, the young or the old? Every culture and age responds to this question differently. The answer depends on how dynamic life is, the role that different age groups play and people’s general expectations about the future.

When Jose Marti wrote that children where the world’s hope, the scientific revolution was still at its infancy. Thanks to it, Spanish colonialism was on the retreat and the life of a growing part of humanity was improving every day.

Later, the panorama became less idyllic. Industrial civilization succumbed to a kind of fatal attraction that obliged it to change skins at a vertiginous pace. Such breakneck metabolism requires a constant supply of fresh brains and arms, young people who produce and generate consumption, pretty faces that provide an attractive image to those who came into this world dripping mud and blood.

Today, we are constantly exposed to the risk of being labeled sluggish, functionally illiterate or out-of-date.

During civilization’s uphill climb, the future was always surprising and unpredictable. So much so that dealing with new problems with old methods became a guarantee of failure. In an epistemological environment as nihilistic as this one, the social role that the elderly had played for millennia (that of conveying knowledge and culture) all but disappeared.

Saint Tomas. 1610-1612, Rubens

If modernity ever displayed an interest in old people’s tales, it was simply out of historical curiosity, a love of the retro or the picturesque, or to pride itself on how much progress had been achieved since. It almost never looked on these as a source of useful knowledge or living wisdom.

The old, however, say that everything that goes up must come down, and it seems to be true. Progress is already becoming regression and evolution turning into de-evolution. If we want to have an idea of what the future will be like, we should let middle-aged people tell us about their childhood.

Mending clothes by hand, building houses without industrial concrete, hunting, sowing and fishing using rustic instruments, curing diseases with natural remedies, tanning animal skins, pulling out teeth at home and many other practices we will have to re-learn with the help of our grandparents.

Beyond such practices, a renovating cultural movement is sure to take place under the guidance of the old, one that will dethrone the spoiled, bratty, squandering, irresponsible and lascivious listener of reggaeton music that prevails today and, if the crisis does not end in collapse, elevate hard-working, sensible people.


Since the 1970s, Cuba’s population experienced a degrowth and aging process. Government experts and all those who embrace progress as an ideology are extremely worried about this “dangerous” trend.

“If it’s becoming more and more difficult to find young people willing to work hard these days, how hard will it be when ‘human capital’ decreases even more? Who will take care of so many old people?” These are the types of questions they ask.

This is truly a cause for concern, but, when looked from a different angle, it could well be a reason to be reassured and content.

Russian Spartans, fresco, St. Vladimir Cathedral, Kiev,1885-1896 by Victor Vasnetsov.

Reassured because, if the population continues to dwindle gradually, there are more chances the system will be able to adapt and the crash is less probable. The energy crisis will hit all countries, but the most heavily populated and rapidly growing nations have the worst prospects. Something similar holds for stars: when they exhaust their fuel, they “explode” with a force that is proportional to their magnitude.

It is a cause for contentment because, if we have less muscle and vitality but more wisdom per square kilometer, Cuba could well become a land of wise people and philosophers. Can you imagine people speaking about Good and Evil, where before they only spoke of baseball?

I would like to conclude this post with a quote from Jeremy Grantham, a prestigious researcher who heads one of the largest financial assets organizations in the world:

“This century will likely see the end of the Industrial Revolution and the age of “limitless resources.” Higher prices and (hopefully) voluntary improved behavior will together usher in the post-Industrial Revolution phase of limited resources and frugality. (…) We will all re-adopt Yankee virtues (or Yorkshire virtues, I might add) of “waste not, want not,” and get accustomed to using our brains instead of our hydrocarbon brawn.”

4 thoughts on “The Old Are the World’s Hope

  • Thanks for your thoughtful post, Erasmo. It gives us several possibilites–even probabilities–of our future. It seems like Cuba has been a post-consumerist society since, umm, 1959–or at least since 1992! Here in the North we now have a two-tiered post consumrist society. The 1% (and their 5% to 7% retainers) continue their conspicuous consumption, while the remaining 90% to 93% is learning to drastically reduce their consumption (or, like the Cubans, to only consume cheap plastic Chinese crap, or “Rapido-like” fast food from “Micky D’s,” the “Burger King,” the “Colonel,: or “Pizza the Hut.” (Gone are the haydays of mass middle-class and working-class consumption of the 1940’s through the 1970’s.) Still, I see signs of hope in engineering a sustainable, recyclable future. For example, visiting the university where my youngest daughter begins her studies in September, I noted that many buildings are heated and lighted by renewable resources, and waste-productes are all recycled. Each building is a “living machine.” This technollogy is beyond the resources of most folks, but the challenge will be to gradually increase these applications to everyone.
    As for your second thesis, that old folks are the hope of the future, I would have to say that it is dangerous–and always disappointing–to romanticize any one sector of society, be it the “Proletariat” of the early Industrial Revolution, the Peasants to whom the “narodniki” hoped to return and embrace, or us old folks! Some are saints, some are villains, some are fools; most are somewhere between these extremes. I have friends who have mellowed like a fine old wine; others, however, instead of mellowing, have become bitter, like vinagar; some have become paranoid; some have returned to their childhood. I’m grateful that, even though my body is in decline, and my memory has ever-growing sink-holes, nevertheless, I can still appreciate a sunset, working in the earth of my gardin, watching the birds flitting in-and-out of the many bird-feeders on my front porch (and the occasional black bear which also takes advantage of them!) and treking through the dark bosque behind my home.

  • Erasmo,

    Old people are not the future. Babies are the future. Cuba is producing far too many old people and far too few babies. The total Cuban population is declining. That means Cuba’s future is in serious danger.

    Cuba’s rapidly aging demographics are not something to look forward to with opitimism. By 2030, two thirds of the population will be over 60 years old. The rate of Altzheimer’s disease will be double what it is today. Young people are leaving Cuba at ever greater numbers. Fewer & fewer Cuban babies are being born. The Cuban nation is facing a very real demographic collapse. There won’t be enough healthcare workers, bus drivers, bartenders, farmers, or even police to keep the economy and government of Cuba functioning.

    The Cuban government must act very soon to halt and reverse this trend. They need to implement profound political, social and economic reforms to convince young Cubans to stay on the island and have families. Otherwise, the Cuban nation will vanish. There will be a few old-timers such as yourself left, speaking a quaint form of Spanish, much to the amusement of the American retirees settling into their nice condos along the coast, built by US developers. But “Cuba” will exist in name only. I happen to think that will be a tragedy and a terrible loss to the world. What do you think?

    That will be the ultimate fate of the Revolution and the Castro’s only lasting contribution to Cuba: extinction.

  • I am always amused when Cuban writers, in an attempt to ‘put lipstick on a pig’, engage in justifying the behind-the-times life in Cuba by projecting that the rest of the world will soon be living as Cubans live. That is too say, living in buildings that fall down on its inhabitants or driving 50 year-old cars held together by chewing gum and baling wire. Erasmo seems to imply that there is a silver lining to Cuba’s declining population and increase in the country’s average age. He suggests that despite the falling productivity and increasing health care costs, the increase in ambient wisdom is somehow justification. He also suggests that a return to the Stone Age is inevitable so life in Cuba by comparison is not so bad and maybe even a preparation for the end-of-times. Well, as he looks outside his window and sees a Cuba that gets worse every day and somehow has to make sense of it, I can understand his views. I, however, am more optimistic and see Cuba as simply a mistake brought on by the Castro regime and hardly a harbinger of things to come.

  • Thanks for a very well written piece. The English language usage was superb for this forum and the thinking clear .
    That being said, as a futurist , I have issues with a number of points made.
    First, aging is, or should be, considered a curable disease . Scientists have already prolonged the normal life span of worms and mice and have a fairly good grasp on the technologies involved in actual age-reversing . Humans will be able to choose to not grow old and to be ANY physical age they wish to be within a few generations
    So aging will no longer be an unwanted effect of living .
    Yes, I know. You’re thinking too sci-fi and , yes it’s conceivable and even possible but way in the distant future but….. the fact is that the Chinese WILL have a computer that can function at higher rates than a human brain in just seven years . After that, the computers and AI ( artificial intelligence(s) ) will become super-human: beyond human capabilities, and solve most of our problems with that smarter- than- a thousand-Einsteins AI.
    The future in which these super-human machines will replace all human labor, will be one of great abundance and a golden age of humanity.
    That future is much, much, much closer than most of us can accept and wrapping one’s head around the concept of exponential technological growth runs contrary to humanity’s instinctive linear thinking making these predictions seem wildly imaginative to those who have not or cannot grasp the exponentiality (to coin a word) of the technological advances now well underway .
    The best way to describe this is that we think in a 1+1+1+1+1 fashion but the technologies are advancing at a 1X2X4X8X16 rate.
    The advances we will see in the next 15-20 years will equal those of the last 100 .
    IOW, the rate of development is increasing dramatically and will continue to develop at ever faster rates for the next 30 years or so and until the “technological singularity” is reached ; the point at which no one is able or willing to predict what becomes of an artificial intelligence that has hundreds of billions of Earth civilizations worth of knowledge contained in it .
    All this to say that there is a rosy alternative to that grim future that such a huge percentage of people worry about .
    If you plan on being alive for the next thirty years, you might want to look into this probability for a golden future and feel better about your future and your children’s future .
    Two books that will tell you much of what I think you’ll need to see this future quite clearly are ” The Singularity Is Near ” by Ray Kurzweil ( genius head of engineering at Google) and “Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think”
    by Peter Diamandis and Robert Kotler .
    I have found in reading a great many reviews of these books that most or all of the negative ones revealed that the reviewer had not read the entire book and was speaking from ignorance of key facts. The fact that I was able to find these errors in the reviews points out just how misunderstood the concepts are.
    Read them for yourself and YOU tell me where the books are wrong and why.


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