Getting Old Means Getting Meaner...Right?

Does Getting Older Make You Meaner?

According to some social scientists, the older we get, the more our personal ethics matter. It probably has something to do with the desire most of us have to wrap things up here on Earth on a good note. I mean, who wants to face Judgment Day as a lousy tipper or as someone who intentionally left the shopping cart where it would dent the Mercedes parked one spot over?

Yet the perception is that the older people get, the crankier and more self-absorbed they become. So which is true?

Perhaps a little of both.

Steve Wilkens, author of "Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics: An Introduction to Theories of Right and Wrong" and a professor of philosophy and ethics at Azusa Pacific University, believes that most people become more generous as they get older -- at least they did pre-recession. Pre-recession retirees had more disposable income, he said, which might have fueled their largess when it came to spreading their wealth.

"They were no longer paying for club soccer or college and could become better tippers or give more generously to their favorite charities," Wilkens said. The other factor Wilkens observes is that raising children makes people more open to helping others. "Parenting is an experience that helps you realize life isn't only about you."

But ethics isn't just about money and who you give it away to. It's how you conduct yourself when no one is watching, right? Are you someone who pretends they didn't notice the six-item limit on the always-shorter express line or do you take your 10 items to the main register wait patiently in line? Would you point out the cashier's error when it's in your favor? Do you let the other driver take the last parking spot?

Elijah Weber, who runs a blog called Everyday Ethics, says one of the motivating factors behind holding higher ethical standards as people age is the desire for a favorable legacy. The need to be remembered positively may be why we offer to slide down from the aisle seat in the movies and why we turn in the watch we found in the office restroom. We are being nice, we tell ourselves, or at least that's how we want others to see us.

Every day we face small decisions that challenge our personal ethics. An example: If you found a $5 bill on the ground, would you keep it or give it to the first homeless guy you see? For $5 you may be buying the cheapest "feel-good" experience of your day, yet for some, the money would go straight into their wallets.

Weber recalls traveling to Costa Rica when he was an undergraduate, and having one of his peers comment on how frequently he gave money to homeless people there. "Her comment was 'How are you so generous?' My response was something like 'I just want people to know someone cares about them,'" he recalled.

But nowadays, Weber -- at the ripe old age of 31 -- isn't giving his money away to the homeless. Did he stop wanting people to know he cared about them as he got older? No, he said, "but my priorities and values have changed." Now he cares much more about being remembered as a good husband, good father and a good philosophy teacher. "Further, I want my close friends and family to remember me that way, and I'm less concerned about what a bunch of strangers think," he noted.

Weber is actually following in the footsteps of his father who, as he aged, is now "selective about where he directs his ethical energy," Weber said. "To his children and his wife, he's supportive, caring and helpful. But if you want him to donate money to African food relief, or to protect endangered species, the answer's probably going to be 'no.'"

Why the shift? Was it a factor of aging? "It's not that he can't afford it," Weber said, "because he could." It's just that those causes aren't as important to him.

Joshua Halberstam, author of "Everyday Ethics" (unaffiliated with Weber's site), says it isn't a matter of people becoming kinder or self-absorbed as they age. He suggested this: "People stay exactly the same. The nice ones stay nice and the jerks stay jerks."

"In some cases, some of our anger may dissipate," Halberstam said. "We don't have as much to prove as we get older. We gossip less because we have greater understanding of people's foibles. Things like road rage may give way to letting people actually cut into your traffic lane.

"But it also may turn out that we just don't learn a whole lot as we get older," he said.

Readers, your thoughts?

Before You Go

10. You'll Feel Old

10 Misconceptions About Aging

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