Canadian philosophy professor and YouTube hit Jordan Peterson recently attracted some attention when he published a book called “12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” and a number of other folks on the internet got in on the act with their own “rules for life.” You can read Peterson’s rules here, if you’re so inclined. I don’t know whether they’re good rules or bad rules.
What the whole thing got me thinking about is the subject of intergenerational advice. Is it possible? And if it’s not possible, should people try to give it anyway?
Lifecycle effects and generational effects dilute the power of advice
I use the phrase “lifecycle effects” to describe how someone’s perspective shifts over time purely through the process of aging, and “generational effects” to describe how the world changes through the passage of time. Importantly, the two effects can weaken each other or reinforce each other.
To take an example from my other project, there’s nothing experienced travel hackers love more than explaining how easy travel hacking used to be, and how what’s left today is a mere shadow of the hobby’s former glory. Here you see the two effects reinforcing each other: there really are fewer opportunities easily available in many parts of the country, but it’s also true that travel hacking is easier at age 25 than it is at 30, and easier at 30 than it is at 35. No one complaining about how much worse the travel hacking landscape is today than it was in 2010 remembers to add, “also I had a lot more free time because I wasn’t married, didn’t have kids, and had fewer responsibilities at work.”
At a population level this can give rise to ambiguous situations. For example, social scientists have observed that people’s voting habits become more conservative as they age. However, if each successive generation is further left than the generation before it, it’s possible for the overall electorate to become further left. What matters are the rates of change: are individuals of a generation drawn right as they age more or less quickly than subsequent generations are drawn left?
These interacting effects are what make it unclear to me whether intergenerational advice is possible. To take a final example, think about what kind of advice a late-career, 60-year-old professional could give a graduating 18-year-old high school senior today. The professional was age 18 in 1976. In that year, a nonresident undergraduate at the University of California would pay $2,130 in tuition and fees ($9,116 in 2017 dollars; it’s $40,644 today). In the intervening years, the professional has experienced the lifecycle effect of rising income as her career advances. But in the background the generational effect of accelerating tuition has proceeded apace. So what advice can our professional give our high school graduate today? Should she advise the graduate to skip college, since its cost has quadrupled in real terms in the intervening 42 years, racing ahead of inflation? Or should she advise the graduate to attend college, based on the fact that all her well-off professional colleagues have college degrees? Now flip it around. What advice should a late-career union machinist in a Toyota factory give the same student? He’s also seen his wage rise through the years, and seen the cost of college rise even faster. If college wasn’t worth it in 1976, how could it be worth it at quadruple the price?
And most importantly of all, how can the person receiving the advice untangle the two effects? If they aren’t able to do so, how are they supposed to evaluate it?
The advice you can use is different from the advice you need
If intergenerational advice is possible, I think it’s only possible by separating out the advice that the person giving it thinks is necessary from the advice the person receiving it can actually use:
- the advice a reimbursed business traveler needs is to put their travel and meals on a Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card. The advice a reimbursed business travel can use may be to just sign up for a BankAmericard Travel Rewards credit card and redeem the points they earn against their travel purchases.
- the advice a new hire needs is to invest their 401(k) contributions in a diversified portfolio of low-cost mutual funds. The advice a new hire can use may be to invest in a target date retirement fund.
- the advice teenager need is to stay out of trouble. The advice teenagers can use is to not get caught.
- the advice a high school graduate needs is to wait until they’re treated by the FAFSA as independent before applying for financial aid. The advice a high school graduate can use is to apply to as many schools as possible that guarantee to cover their full financial need.
The problem with a book written to impart wisdom on younger (or older!) generations is that the best you can do is give people the advice they need, not the advice they can use. To give a person useful advice, you need to know something meaningful about the person you’re advising. To sell a million copies of a self-help book, the only advice you can give is advice guaranteed to be of no use to anyone.