Some months ago, I was reading about remote indigenous groups in Northern Canada. One thing that stuck with me in particular was the role that elders played within communities in passing down wisdom to youth. Of course, that this is true is obvious; traditionally, in essentially all societies, elders have been respected for their wisdom. Yet for some reason, my understanding of the reverence for the elderly in this particular community felt profound to me.
Though I can’t remember exactly what I read, I know it outlined a few distinct roles that elders played in this community. Given my general idea of a relatively isolated community in Northern Canada from 400 years ago, here’s what I imagine a few of those functions were:
- Passing down of historical knowledge and stories, whether factual or mythological
- Insight on dealing with specific situations, like specific adverse weather conditions and uncommon diseases and their treatments
- Arbitration of disputes
- Ultimate authority, in the sense that they had the final say in important decision-making
Again, this is speculation on my part and does not refer to any specific community, though I imagine most of these functions applied to the elderly in a large number of communities in human history.
Seeing these roles so concretely outlined made me think, for the first time, about why respect for elders has traditionally been a rule for societies throughout history. Respect for elders was no longer something I saw as axiomatic, but instead something with concrete reasons behind it. While this sounds ridiculous – of course people have always valued elders for their wisdom – elderly wisdom and respect for elders had always been two separate, but related concepts. I hadn’t actually intentionally and consciously thought about why respect for elders has been so universal. Obvious as it is, I finally saw the elderly as filling a specific and crucial role in human society, instead of simply highly-aged people. Many a community may have perished were it not for the tempered and experienced perspective of their elders. Perhaps deference to our elders is not a fundamental axiom of human society, but a logical consequence of the elderly’s unique abilities and understanding. This deference naturally becomes an axiom shared universally within society.
When I think of the elderly, a few words come to mind: retired, frail, weak, declining, out-of-touch. I don’t mean these as insults – it just is what came to my mind. Although I heard about the importance “respecting elders” growing up, I don’t think my conception of “respect” for the elderly approaches anything of what I would expect in a traditional society. To be fair, the elderly these days are certainly older, i.e. more elderly, than in traditional societies, given our increased lifespans. Regardless, even for those a step below my idea of elderly – say, in the 55-70 range, which I will call sub-elderly – I don’t feel a strong feeling of deference or admiration. I don’t feel like these people are fulfilling concrete, specific roles within society that they uniquely possess. To me, they are people who were born in the 19X0’s; people who didn’t grow up with Y; people whose political views tend to be more Z; in other words, well-aged people. Sure, they have more life experience, but what does that have to do with what does that have to do with me? Life is different now.
In many historical communities, your parents, your grandparents, your grandparents’s parents, and all of your known ancestors grew up in the same community, farming the same land, eating the same foods, experiencing the same weather, and using the same tools. Sometimes things would change: communities waged war, natural disasters struck, and famines occurred. In these situations, the experience of elders would have been quite useful for communities seeking to navigate them successfully. To lose your elders meant losing a vast source of historical resources. The world, being relatively static, would look mostly the same between generations, making such historical knowledge invaluable.
This is in stark contrast to today’s world, where I never default to the elderly (or sub-elderly) for advice. (Of course, if an elderly person is an expert on some topic, they will gain my corresponding respect.) This doesn’t apply to everyone, obviously, but it’s pretty clear that none of my peers do this either, at least not for most things. The world today, with its rapid rate of technological progress, undergoes large changes on the scale of a few years, as opposed to the many decades or centuries it took in the past. The world today looks nothing like it did 50 years ago. How much do insights from 1970 apply to today’s world?
It must be said that while the world is fantastically different than it was even 10 years ago, humans are largely the same, and thus human nature, in large part, is the same. We don’t throw away history, even ancient history, just because the world was drastically different to that of today. Just as we can gain insight from human behavior throughout history, perhaps our current elders can impart upon us some wisdom about human nature. Or maybe not, at least on the individual level – the caricature of the Millenial, struggling to find a job, hearing their out-of-touch grandfather stress the all-important firm introductory handshake comes to mind (not that handshakes don’t ever matter these days.)
A Widening Gap
I’m confident that on a societal level, elderly “wisdom” is becoming increasingly obsolete. At the very least, it is being treated as such. Not only is knowledge of navigating the world of the past increasingly inapplicable to today’s world, but the elderly, due to their age, are far less capable (though generally, also less willing) of adapting to today’s world. Perhaps an understanding of the past could sometimes be useful in adapting to the technologies and requirements of the modern age, but in a world where the youth spend hours each day with rapidly-evolving memes and TikTok, there are clearly severe limitations.
What further drives this loss of respect is a rapidly changing social, political, religious, and moral landscape. Of course, I can primarily speak only from and for my narrow view of contemporary American society, but it’s clear that all these components of human society have undergone rapid and thorough change. In the relatively primitive societies of ages past, it was far more likely that you shared the same religion, social class, and ethics of your elders. They did, after all, teach you everything about what to believe in, from the difference between right and wrong, to who has the final authority in your community, to gender roles. While political affiliations and religions changed from time to time, I imagine most people held generally similar beliefs to their parents, grandparents, and beyond.
These days, the elderly and youth vote in distinct blocs, and the youth demonize the elderly for their political and social values (and vice versa). While such differences between age groups surely existed in the past, a general reverence and respect for the elderly cannot exist when the youth view the elderly as threatening the very foundations of a moral society. I don’t want to exaggerate this gap – perhaps such a characterization is only appropriate for a narrow, more passionate, progressive slice of the youth – but I believe such beliefs are quite common these days. Who would willingly defer to those who constitute their political and moral enemies? Older generations are also generally more religious than their successors. It’s hard to have the same core values as your grandparents when your fundamental beliefs about life, the world, and humanity differ so thoroughly.
Along with technological and social changes are scientific and informational changes. While only your grandparents might have known how to treat a certain disease or injury in a primitive community, these days medicinal folk wisdom and old wives tales are increasingly being replaced by modern medicine. While before, your only source of truth was what your elders told you, these days we can (for better or worse) consult the Internet (or books, among other things) for essentially anything, including things our parents and grandparents have never even heard of. It’s hard for me to listen to anyone’s layman recommendations when I have the advice of hundreds of experts a few finger-taps away.
I also wonder if this decreasing elderly respect is partially due to simply seeing them less. Personally, I haven’t spoken to any of my grandparents in years (not for a specific reason, but more physical, social, and language barriers.) I imagine that’s unusual, but I can’t think of many people I know who regularly interact with their grandparents or similar “elders” on a regular basis, aside from the occasional visit or phone call (is this an American thing?) How can you defer to those who play such a minimal role in the decision-making of your life? I can only imagine the wonder a little kid experiences having their grandfather take them on their first hunting trip, teaching them the spiritual importance of the hunt in relation to their ancestors, and eating the literal product of their grandfather’s experience for dinner. I suppose some people do still experience that as children. For the rest, having your grandparents take you to Wal-Mart must not carry the same weight.
I don’t want to overly romanticize the role of elders in history. However, I can’t feel like we’ve lost something. I feel a strange tinge of sadness at the absence of deep admiration and respect for my elders. With the advent of technology, the playing field has in many ways been leveled, or even tilted in the direction of the youth, given their greater technological competence. There will be no articles describing the role of the elderly in contemporary society. As I grow old, barring unlikely (in my opinion) technological miracles with anti-aging, I will become just as geezery as those who came before me.
With the absence of authority figures with great experience in today’s world, it is clear that no-one is terribly well-equipped to deal with today’s rapidly evolving societal landscape. We’re all just wingin’ it. I don’t have any solutions for this. I don’t believe in solutions for this. We’re all going into uncharted territory, and the elderly, with their continually diminishing visual acuity, are struggling to read the symbols on our pathetic attempt at a map.