Monday, December 14, 2009

The Good Old Days

Back in the good old days...

I hate that phrase.  It is so often used to suggest that times were once good and are now bad and that people are just sinking into some pit of depravity as the clock ticks, and it just isn't true.  The environment isn't falling apart, people aren't getting more violent and the world isn't going to end.

I have lots of specific examples, but one of the biggest ones is marriage.  If you ask people over the age of 30 or so what is happening to the state of marriage you will get the majority believing that marriage is falling by the wayside and that the most recent generations of people getting married are causing all kinds of problems.  The idea that we are falling into some kind of terrible marriage spiral leading to the dissolution of the family is a popular one in culture, particularly as you look towards older people.  Note that not everyone believes this, but I speak here of majorities.

The thing is though, people have been saying that the latest generation is not treating marriage with the proper respect / not getting married the right way / marrying the wrong people / ruining the state of marriage in some other fashion for a thousand years and more.  If you take a look back at the 1960s, the young people were ruining marriage and the institution was in cataclysmic decline.  Then take a look at the 1920s.  Then take a look at any year ever in Western culture (and probably other cultures too) and look at what people were saying about marriage.  They all agree:  The generations after their own have begun to tear down the institution of marriage and things are just going to get worse.  Source:

If everyone for the entirety of recorded history is sure that marriage is going down the drain with the latest generation, (presumably their timescales were in the order of a few generations at most) then either marriage must be a few dozen times further into the negative than it ever was positive, or a bunch of these people don't know what they are talking about.  Divorce rates are up, that is certain.  People aren't staying married for life like they used to, but consider one absolutely key statistic:  Marriage durations aren't on a downward plunge at all.  If you look back at the middle ages, people were getting married with the expectation of a 7 year marriage.  After 7 years together on average the marriage would end because someone would be dead! It really isn't the same when you get married for 7 years and when you get married for 50 years.  For one thing, when you are (random example) 40 years old and have been married for 20 years and expect another 30, it is a lot more worth it to consider the pain and disruption that divorce brings.  Even if your partner is kinda okay it is reasonable to think that 2 years of unpleasantness followed by 28 years of marriage to a more suitable partner is a much better deal.  When you are 18 and expect that one of you will be dead within 5 years it seems a lot more unlikely you would consider divorce as a strong option.

Practical considerations are also huge in this equation.  When you are on a farm desperately scraping a living out of the dirt you simply cannot walk away from your partner and family and expect things to work out fine.  You can't support yourself like people can today, you need a family working together just to be able to get enough food together to survive the winter, let alone the challenge of arranging shelter or tools or anything else by yourself.  On the other hand when you are in a city and both partners have jobs the idea of separating is no longer so entwined with the idea of being dead.  People who separate these days have every reason to think that the negative consequences will be limited to temporary loss of money and happiness and not encompass things like starvation or death from exposure in the winter.  In addition you must account for family situations.  Back when it was normal to have 3-4 generations in a single household your marriage partner does not have to be your one, your all, your everything.  If you want space from them you can get it, and you are effectively managing a family with a large number of adults all at once which means that minor conflicts with your partner simply aren't as powerful or as problematic.  I suspect we could very strongly lower the divorce rate by going back to a society where we all lived in multigenerational households run by the family patriarch/matriarch, but most Canadians (certainly not all) have no desire to do this.  I am among those since I love my parents but I could not stand to be living in their house under their rules for the next 20 years; it would drive me completely bonkers.

So consider what marriage used to be:  A business arrangement between two families where two people would live together in a big household with lots of adults and produce children for about 7 years until one of them died.  Now marriage is an arrangement between two adults who are supposed to spend the next 50 years being each other's best friend, lover and confidant.  This union is theoretically going to be maintained through all the life changes that go along with aging from 20 to 70 as well as the incidental bumps along the way.  Given that our expectations of marriage have gone up by an astounding degree, I think the fact that only half of marriages end up in divorce is probably a sign that the institution is doing quite well for itself.

We have this tendency as a population to assume that our generation did things right and that the subsequent generations are failing, whether that be on moral grounds, marriage, or anything else.  There is this natural assumption that is commonly made that somehow the thinker and the people in his age group got it right.  It is easy to imagine where this comes from of course, since people don't want to feel like they have spent their entire lives doing things wrong.  Everyone hopes that their actions and beliefs throughout their lives were righteous and well informed, and people will desperately defend their long held notions in the face of overwhelming evidence against because the consequences of admitting wrongdoing are so devastating.  Especially as people age they have a tendency to romanticize the past and encase their ways and beliefs in a golden frame, forgetting the bad and exaggerating the good.  This does prevent the awful feeling that you have wasted your life doing things that were wrong or that you aren't good for anything because the new generation got it better, but unfortunately it discourages constructive thought and growth and traps us into looking to return to times and ways that simply do not warrant it.

It is important to understand the past and learn from it, to see the value in the way things used to be.  It is just as important though to maintain an objective outlook on the past.  Glorifying things simply because they are the way we used to do them is a mistake when we do have the tools to accurately evaluate them from a neutral standpoint.  It is vitally important that we remember the old ways of doing things, but we must do so accurately and without prejudice towards or against if we are to truly retain the nuggets of wisdom contained therein.


  1. might be possible to read this as a prelude to an "I'm getting divorced" post...just saying ;)

  2. Penn and Teller did a great episode about "The Good Ol' Days". Well worth watching.

    I've been reading about the history of Jamestowne lately (think Pocahontas, John Smith, 1607 ish). Reading history makes you realize that life was pretty rough though almosty all of human history. First 7 years, 1500 settlers when, 380 survived. Ouch! The best part, nobody seemed that shocked.