Bryan Caplan  

How to Be Mr. Popular When You're Old

Kuran on Simon: A Fitting Epit... A Meditation on Minarchy...

When I'm old, I want to be the octogenarian that the Young Turks come to with their crazy new ideas. I don't want to be the senior professor that the whippersnapper assistant profs avoid. Above all else, I never want to be a lunch tax - I like lunch too much.

Unfortunately, by the time I'm 80 I'll probably be too befuddled to figure out how to do any of this. So I want to figure it out now, tape it on my office wall, and refer to it when the time is ripe.

So let me put it this way: Not mentioning any names, what are the biggest social mistakes elderly faculty make? What are some simple strategies for them to ingratiate themselves to the next generation? If you've got some good advice, I'll thank you when I'm 80. If I remember!

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COMMENTS (28 to date)
ck writes:

First off, I'm confident that by the time you're 80, we will have figured out a way to defeat or at least delay cognitive decline. The singularity is near. But, just for giggles, I'll play along with the absurd idea that we aren't on the cusp of ending the aging process. ;)

What are the biggest social mistakes elderly faculty make?

Due to cognitive decline, their brains are no longer agile enough to absorb and react to new ideas. So they stick to old ideas. They once said something clever in 1957. And now they're reduced to repeating it like a mantra. It's like grinding an axe...into my skull.

What are some simple strategies for them to ingratiate themselves to the next generation?

A good way to ingratiate yourself to other people--of any age, in any context--is to ask questions. People like to know that you think they have value. Among academics, this will mean inquiring about their intellectual projects. Vary your questions to ask both global/fundamental questions and get into detail.

If you can maintain a supple mind in your old age then people will find your wealth of experience to be that much more attractive.

Matt writes:

Become Uncle Brian.

When I switched houses recently, I ended up with a whole gang of my nephew and nieces friends hanging around, all 20 something.

I provide a LLUC, a Limited Liability Uncle Corporation. The kids that hang have generally sputtered in their first attempt at independence, and Uncle have the job of providing that unbiased second chance.

Mandatory Vacation writes:

Accept hearing loss gracefully. Ask people to speak louder. Insist on rooms with less ambient noise. Do not try and guess what they said. At best, it makes you look like grumpy old person who won't admit his limitations. At worst, it makes you look like a selfish old person who doesn't care what other people say.

For bonus points, realize that just because you have trouble hearing doesn't mean everyone does, and modulate the volume of your voice accordingly.

For academia specific advice, Dead Dad has a number of posts on his frustration with elderly faculty, although damned if I can find one now. He tends to focus more on the stagnation that comes when every single faculty member says "we tried that in the 70s and it didn't work", so I guess the take home advice is don't do that.

Jeff writes:

Focus on the parts of your stories that are interesting to other people not the parts that only interest you. Old people tend to tell stories that are 5% interesting yarn 95% useless details (no one cares what the exact date was, technological limitations of the time, or small life details like what you ate for breakfast). My theory is that most old people would be interesting if they told stories correctly.

Also conversations about things dangerous, illegal, and (as gross at will be for an 80 year old) sexual pique peoples interest. Granted this will only work on a male audience that shouldn't be a problem for the econ department.

You only have 3 minutes to talk. Old people will go on and on. Conversations should be back and forth. Treat yourself like you're in a presidential debate and limit your own time to make a point.

John Fast writes:

I'm going to take a wild guess and say you should look at James Buchanan and observe, note, and emulate his behavior. Not the things which are his personal, private traits, such as his tastes in food, but the things which presumably make him seem interesting and approachable.

I also strongly recommend you master the Ransberger Pivot. It works well in almost every social situation, not just in political arguments.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Keep your eye brows well trimmed and pluck all of the hair from your ears. BTW, this is excellent advice for any man over the age of about 38 in any position of authority.

j writes:

Aristotle observed that old people tend to be egoist and greedy. Be selfless, generous and help to advance the young. If you can, because it is doubtful that a slogan on the wall will be enough to change human character.

reason writes:

Not retiring?

Les writes:

By lumping all faculty over 80 into one senile category, you reveal a juvenile lack of intelligence and a disgusting tendency to stereotype people.

The fact is that some faculty over 80 are senile, while others are not. The fact is that some young faculty are highly competent, and some young faculty are less than competent. The fact is that people are individuals, not stereotypes.

To borrow from the elderly Ronald Reagan, I will not make an issue of your youth and inexperience. It seems that you are capable of proving your lack of judgment all by yourself, and that you need no assistance in making a fool of yourself.

Kyle M writes:

Commenter j sums up it up pretty accurately: energize, encourage, and aid those around you. For real life examples of this, check the Robinson professors here at Mason. Their average age is way up there and they're consistently some of the nicest and most supportive faculty in any department.

Jaap Weel writes:

As for the hearing loss comment: too many older people are in denial about hearing loss to the point where they refuse to get hearing aids. You can get very inconspicuous hearing aids these days, and besides, the distinct advantage of conspicuous ones is that people notice them and start attributing your occasional unresponsiveness to hearing loss rather than to cognitive decline or grumpiness.

waldo writes:

"What are some simple strategies for them to ingratiate themselves to the next generation?"


Education has it backwards. Society has it backwards.

Its incumbent upon the young to beg recognition and validation from the old.

Mason writes:

Make lots of contributions to economics/society while you can, then let them come to you.

Do you currently accept lunch offers from students?

Will Wilkinson writes:

Bryan, I have the same dream of being a hip codger. I think the most important thing is simply keeping current, especially in the sciences auxiliary to your field. If you're 80, and you're still ahead of the curve about new stuff, people will think you are awesome. On the flipside, if you've fallen behind, you're a tax. As others have mentioned, really listening and truly believing you have something to learn from people 60 years your junior will make you very attractive. And the psychology of reciprocity is powerful. If you're a first mover in offering and delivering truly valuable help, you get paid in even more valuable loyalty and friendship.

Snark writes:

This would truly be an exercise in senility. It's highly unlikely GMU (or any other university) would grant you tenure until the age of 80. Even if they did, only those students interested in economic history or comic relief would register for your courses. The average age at which a full professor currently retires ranges from about 64 to 68. It's possible you could make it to 70 (assuming you remain a full-time, full mental faculty member), after which I recommend you retire with dignity and maintain a "rocking-chair economics" blog offering any sage advice you're sure to have acquired by then.

Are there really professors out there who aspire to become the Strom Thurmond of teaching?

Blackadder writes:

"I used to be With IT. But then they changed what IT was. Now what I'm with isn't IT, and what's IT seems scary and weird. It'll happen to YOU!" - Grandpa Simpson.

Horatio writes:

What are some simple strategies for them to ingratiate themselves to the next generation?

A well known physcist always came into our undergrad room to challenge us to chess. Many physicists and mathematicians enjoy chess, so he was able to gain popularity by engaging us in that activity. It's a good thing physicsts enjoy non-physical hobbies, because this guy couldn't move too well. When he wasn't playing chess or sleeping in his office, he could be found wandering aimlessly around campus, often stopping and looking around in confusion.

ajb writes:

Snark doesn't know the academic rules. There is no mandatory retirement in academia today. So Bryan already has tenure till he's 80, or 90 for that matter. Many distinguished economists in their 70s and 80s -- including several Nobel laureates -- are active and teaching. Conversely, there are any number of professors -- some much younger -- who probably should have retired quite some time ago.

Bryan Caplan writes:
Snark writes:

Are there really professors out there who aspire to become the Strom Thurmond of teaching?

Yes, me! And most of the good profs I know.
Bob writes:

This may sound trivial but I'd advise to take extra care of your personal hygiene (bathe! and trim those nose hairs...) and stay reasonably up to date on clothing (without looking silly).

Snark writes:

I have to admit ajb is right. I wasn't aware that once tenure is granted, it's granted for life (mandatory retirement ended in 1994?). And there certainly are a number of professors who are still going strong past 70. I dug a little deeper and came across this article about a 90-year old UT professor. I certainly couldn't bring myself to vote for forcing someone with his charm and zeal for teaching into retirement.

Go, Prof. Caplan! If, at 80, you still love what you're doing and do it well, then God bless (couldn't resist). I'll be fly-fishing.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Buchanan? Heck, go for Gordon Tullock and acutely insult everybody you meet that you take seriously. Of course, many will be insulted and won't want to have anything to do with you. But, assuming that you are at least not completely infinitesimally below Gordon in intelligence, you may get some of them to realize that they should be honored by your insults and want to talk with you about this and that and the other thing, even as those discussions continue to be larded by ever cleverer insults than before, :-).

Barkley Rosser writes:

Well, of course if you get a Nobel, young people will want to talk to you. But that may be more a matter of instrumental careerism, not what you really want presumably.

Obviously, of course, it helps to be sufficiently alert and on top of things to continue to have interesting and intelligent things to say, whether wittily or not.

Will Jordan writes:

Not authoring a marginal cause to agitate with. Instead of sentimental, smarmy projections concerning that eight or ninth decade, think about what short term memory loss at any age for any reason would do to one's credibility. You'll not only be taping notes to your walls, you'll be ordering photographs with information on the back, tatooing (if you are of a certain generation) really important information on your body (see: Memento, Christopher Nolan, dir.), and always wondering if you are the pursuer or the pursued. Here the facts gainsay you. This could be a problem at any age. Why, you could never answer the phone.

FPS writes:

I avoid sitting near or talking to people over 80 because they have a very high frequency of poor hygiene. They have bad breath. Their clothes frequently smell like mildew. And it seems that they've grown too tired to bathe reguluarly.

Their homes or apartments are even worse...they tend to reek of week-old garbage and flatulence...

ArmenianALiveandwell writes:

'Young Turks'? Maybe you want to start a new genocide as well?

Barkley Rosser writes:


Hey, what do you expect from a bunch of old farts?

Rachel writes:

I'm 82 and counting. I stumbled across your website and I think I like it. If all you people are in your 80's, I love it! I have problems and you're the people I want to discuss them with. I look like I'm about to expire, but there's a certain look about my eyes that says I'm not about to give in to the stuff that's going on today. I've lived too long and seen a lot of things and I'd love to discuss them with you. I read every chance I get. Jane Austen is a particular favorite of mine and lately it's Henry James. I demand writing with substance. I'd like to hear from you. Rachel

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