THE WISDOM OF AGE
The modern western world is one in which older people are, on the whole, not highly valued. The are often seen as relics of a past age, with little of relevance to say about the world of today.
In some ways, this perception of the elderly is accurate. A lot of what is happening in the world relates to new technology, and new technology is something which is easier to master if you grow up with it, rather than coming to it later in life.
However, it seems to me that in many other ways, older people (a category which I think can include many middle-aged people, not just the elderly per se) have a lot to offer. They are often ‘better people’ than their younger counterparts, and their experience has often given them a better sense of the ways of humanity and of the world.
Maybe one reason for the lack of respect towards elders that we see today is the fact that people are not just living longer, but living longer in poor health. Which makes dementia sufferes more common. Maybe old people in general tend to be tarred with the same dementia brush. Nevertheless, most older people, ie. people who are no longer young, I would guess, do not have dementia.
Maybe another reason is the fact that mainstream popular culture is in many ways quite shallow. It is concerned with physical appearance and with sensation, rather than with the quieter virtues of age: wisdom, understanding, self awareness.
This is not to say that younger people can’t show wisdom, patience and so on. Of course they can. However, I think that what it does say is that, in popular culture, when younger people show such qualities, they are more likely to be recognised. When older people show them, such recognition is less likely.
What this means in practice, when combined with the instability and weak connections of modern western local communities, is that young people are less likely to grow up under the guidance of the elders of the community. This is not entirely a bad thing, perhaps. Examples from various non-western societies show that elders can be reactionary, oppressive, and supporters of negative values and ideas (eg using rape as a means of punishment or control). Nevertheless, it seems to me that if it’s done correctly, young people, and communities in general, can benefit hugely from the input of (non-senile) elders.
I was listening to a BBC radio show several years ago which I think may have been discussing some of these issues. I remember in particular a caller ftrom the Isles of Scilly (roughly located between southwest England and northwest France). He claimed that because there weren’t a huge number of young people on Scilly, those that were there tended to spend more time around older people (eg in the pub), and as a result were more worldy wise than their mainland counterparts. I would guess that psychologists would probably have something to say about the importance of younger people socialising with their own age group. Nevertheless, I think that this man’s observation is worth pondering.