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Elder Mind, Young at Heart

A Guide for Meeting Generations Where They Are

Today I feel like talking about the downsides of ‘youth culture’. For years, I have thought about the differences in the cultures I spend time in – Tanzania, Europe, the United States – and how people have very different attitudes towards older people. Perhaps now that I am 51, and considered a junior elder myself in many cultures, I am embracing more and more the wisdom I have gained and finding ways to share it, proudly.

In the United States, I feel like a salmon swimming upstream, as the climate of opinion here, probably since the dawn of the country, is about the new ideas of the youth, staying young, acting young (even rebelliously so), and doing everything in one’s power to not grow old. 

But what about the wisdom that comes from living? I’ve had so many conversations recently with folks in my age set about the “awful” millennials: how they think they know everything, do not talk to older people, and in fact do not talk at all, preferring to live on the screens with their ‘friends’. In my typical hopeful, optimistic perspective, I think of a way forward is to find ways to talk to each other – youngsters and wise elders. To use a term I have used before – it is about embracing the both/and. As a junior elder, I know it is about sharing the wisdom of ‘the old people’ in a way that resonates with different age sets. 

You know, the first website I ever saw (I believe it was around 1992 or 3) was created by a man in his mid-60s. He was my mentor in graduate school, Howard S. Becker, a very wise man who has a child-like curiosity, about everything. He got so excited with the World Wide Web, he created a website at the University of Washington in the early 90s for himself, and the classes he taught, and encouraged us to give it a try. I remember thinking to myself: what in the world would I put on a webpage? Especially knowing so many strangers may see it! I did create one (back in the day we had to use html codes), first for the class I was teaching, in which I typed in the class syllabus and reading list, and then a page for my cat. It was interesting, and just thinking about where we have come since then boggles the mind. 

My point is, that I learned about a new technology from an elder, not from a child. It was more powerful that way, as Howie (as we called him) had the benefit of life experience to teach us about shiny new things. One can be an elder in the mind, and be young at heart at the same time. This is what I call “being both/and”. 

It is a two-way street though, both us elders and youngsters have to act our age set when we meet and interact with each other. With respect for who we are and where we are in our lives. I’ve become very aware of this myself lately. The teenagers and 20-somethings who have to look up from their screens and talk to me – usually it is their job as they are checking me out from a shop or a restaurant – will treat me with respect as a ‘Madame’ if I don’t allow my consciousness to ‘come down to their level’ of often childlike demeanor. I think you know what I am talking about here…that moment when we don’t want to come across as an old fogey in this youth culture and try to act like we don’t know better. At these split seconds, we have to act our age set, not as an arrogant know-it-all adult, but as a wise elder with experience, who can teach something of value to the younger generation, while keeping an open mind and heart in learning something through the eyes of a child, at the same time.

The time is ripe now, no more letting the youngsters run amok with youth culture without any pillars of experience to guide them. We must talk and share with each other. In-person and off the screens. Give it a try this weekend. And let me know how it goes. 

Steps:

  1. Set the stage for interaction across age sets, e.g. plan a meal together with no devices allowed, go for a walk in a park or on the beach and initiate a conversation, or simply start chatting with the person checking you out from the shop or restaurant.
  2. Find words that truly reflect your thoughts and feelings. Be open to truly listening to each other and sharing pearls of wisdom. 
  3. Be aware that in the giving of respect, you receive it back.

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