It’s an ancient human law and it makes us do extraordinary things. Author Tom Wolfe calls it serial immortality; it’s that unnamed force that sees the soldier risking his life in battle, or the person who stgotes their life to the struggle for their people, a battle that cannot possibly be won in their lifetime.
Historically, we humans have viewed our life as being part of the great tide of humanity; we live our ancestor’s lives and we’ll continue to live through our offspring. Serial immortality is the heart of the great movements in human history, where successive generations have striven onwards – each adding to the successes and failures of those who came before.
Today, the ancient human law of serial immortality has been replaced by ‘spending the kids’ inheritance’ – or SKI – a movement that rejoices in blowing the family fortune over a single lifetime. The motto often goes something like this: “We’ve worked hard. Why should we leave all of the money we’ve earned to our kids? We’re going to live it up and spend the lot.” SKI embraces the consumer ideology of shopping, eating out and taking pleasure trips – without the guilt attached.
A recent study in the UK noted that some two-thirds of UK retirees plan to leave no financial legacy to their children beyond their home. Many are also withdrawing the equity from their home to free up more cash to spend. “I think our generation of pensioners has a different attitude,” says one retiree in an article on SKIing. “While other generations might have saved for the next generation, we don’t see why we shouldn’t have the time of our lives during our retirement.”
The progression from blood-bound families to SKI has taken place over the course of four hundred years of social change. Sociologist David Riesman argues that the age of consumption has coincided with a new social character: the ‘other-directed’ personality; and the demise of the ‘inner-directed’ type, a person who lived according to an inner gyroscope set by family, tradition and custom.
“What is common to all of the other-directed people is that their contemporaries are the source of direction for the individual – either those known to him or those with whom he is indirectly acquainted, through friends and through the mass media,” writes Riesman in The Lonely Crowd. Riesman argues that the other-directed person will shift their own goals according to signals from others. “This mode of keeping in touch with others permits a close behavioural conformity… through an exceptional sensitivity to the actions and wishes of others.”
It is not surprising that in the age of consumption, the goal for vast numbers is to consume, whether that’s on pleasure experiences or consumer goods. When most folk today are what Riesman calls “other-directed” – i.e. they pick up the signals from the world around them – the advertising slogans bleating from television sets, newspapers, magazines and radio cause them to forever shift their goals away from family, tradition and custom to make space for commercial priorities.
This article first appeared in New Philosopher magazine, a quarterly print publication for people who like to think.