What We Lose When We Marginalize Our Seniors
If you check out Facebook’s policy against hate speech, you will find a moratorium on any speech that directly attacks people based on:
- National origin
- Religious affiliation
- Sexual orientation
- Sex, gender, or gender identity
- Serious disabilities or diseases
That’s a pretty broad list, but there’s one glaring category of abuse missing—age. In a survey by the The Gerontologist, it was found that in Facebook groups started by 20–29-year-olds: 75% criticized older people, 27% infantilized them, and 35% advocated banning them from public activities.
Our history of ageism
Western nations have always struggled with ageism. For the last 40 years or so, the number of nursing home residents who receive one visitor a month (or less) has hovered around 80%. The last I checked, it had climbed to 85%. As the cases of Alzheimer’s disease increase (by 2025 it’s estimated to be up 40%), the number of unvisited elderly will only increase. It’s emotionally devastating to visit a person who no longer recognizes you or exhibits behavior that is uncharacteristic of a loved one.
But the lack of connection to older citizens is really driven by a culture that celebrates the independence and individuality of youth more than it is any particular disease. The natural progression for aging Americans is retirement community –> assisted living –> nursing home. For most in the west, growing older is a gradual separation from friends and family that eventually results in complete isolation.
As you look around the world, this isn’t a universal problem. Like they do in Latin and Mediterranean cultures, many communities integrate the aging into family life. Countries like China and France actually have laws on the books that require loved ones to visit their aging relatives.
Many sociologists attribute America’s disposable elderly as a natural evolution of the Protestant work ethic. If you’re value is tied to your ability to work, what happens when you can no longer produce and contribute? The obvious irony is that Protestantism is built on a religious philosophy that argues for the sanctity of all life.
Unlike Korean culture, where elderly family members are not only cared for but celebrated, many Americans die alone, surrounded by strangers, sterile walls, and florescent lighting.
The race goes to the swift
Even though we’ve often struggled to know how to handle our aged, we have maintained culture of respect for our elders—despite how incongruous it sounds with the way we treat those who are no longer able to contribute.
A lot of that respect was based on our social framework. The gatekeepers of our economy used to be older men and women (45–50) who had built businesses and ran civic groups. They were people who fought in important world wars, made their way through a horrible Depression amassing deep wisdom from a myriad of life experiences.
In the last 20 years, technological advancements have dramatically altered this framework. It’s no surprise to see a twentysomething running a Fortune 500 company, or making millions from a high-tech startup. On top of that, internet shopping and big box stores are making it harder and harder for mom and pop stores to keep their doors open. Many caught between the Boomer and Gen x generations have found themselves on the shifting sand of an economic system that’s in complete flux, and much different than the climate they had been prepared for.
People in their late forties and fifties are struggling to maintain their relevance in a rapidly changing environment.
This shift has happened in the church as well. Where you used to find older believers leading and discipling younger believers, you can find many churches where there isn’t anyone over the age of 35 in leadership. More and more, the input of older people is seen not as integral as the need to keep fresh and relevant.
The diminishment of social capital
On top of a tectonic shift in the nation’s professional hierarchy, the capital required for social relevance is changing, too.
We’re too close to the advent of the internet to really discern its social implications, but we can see some of the signs. There was a time when society’s older contingent played an important role in archiving and interpreting our collective history. They provided context, perspective, and wisdom. We went to them for advice and guidance.
Today we literally have the world at our fingertips. Our ability to Google whatever we need to know has leveled the informational playing field. We’re no longer reliant on the collective knowledge of the elders in our lives—we have a repository of humanity’s amassed learning, and it’s growing all the time.
This informational shift—along with the rapidly changing technological platforms required to share and consume this information—is quickly edging out society’s older members.
What we’re losing
The glory of young men is their strength, And the honor of old men is their gray hair.—Proverbs 20:29
There has always been an element of discord between generations. As Proverbs says, the glory of the young is in their strength, and that strength has always manifested itself in an idealistic determination to right the wrongs of our forefathers. In the past, that tension was kept in check by the economic and social dominance of the previous generation—in many ways, we showed deference and respect to our seniors because they were the societal gatekeepers.
As we have noted, there are a many elements contributing to a shift in the social structure:
- Rapid technological advancement creates challenging elements affecting work, social interaction, and economic advancement.
- The universal availability of the world’s information has created an archive of knowledge independent of human consciousness.
- A new economy built upon technological advancement offers economic opportunities that favor the young.
These changes have thrown off the generational equilibrium. The James-Dean-like rebellion of the fifties was marked by its in-your-face defiance and morphed into teenagers abandoning the family structure in the sixties and embracing an entirely different culture where they didn’t feel beholden to familial economic and social structures.
Eventually the hippy generation became the establishment themselves. They led us into Reagan’s prosperous eighties and seemingly undermined everything the sixties were about—paving the way for an entirely new revolution. Thanks to the technological seeds planted by the Boomer generation, today’s youth doesn’t need to defy their elders or break away from their economic tyranny to create their own communities, they can create their own economy and social structure and move their forefathers to the fringes.
As the proverb says, “the honor of old men is in their gray hair.” Gray hair has always been a symbol of wisdom since it was believed that wisdom was acquired through a person’s life.
But what is wisdom?
The clichéd definition of wisdom is “applied knowledge.” To stretch the cliché even thinner, “Knowledge tells you that a tomato’s a fruit, and wisdom tells you that you shouldn’t put it in a fruit salad.” But is that true? Well . . . yes, and no.
There is definitely an aspect of applied knowledge in wisdom . . . but it’s much more involved than knowing what to do (or not do) with knowledge. Wisdom is a hard-won prudence born out of experience—and often hardship. It’s not only an individual quality, but translates into a generational/cultural element as well.
A man may have developed a personal philosophy and wisdom culled from his harrowing experiences in WWII, but there is also a collective wisdom experienced by an entire generation that walked through the Second World War together. That generation learned something valuable about sacrifice and loss that contributed to a generational consciousness. The very same thing could be said about the generations who walked through the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Depression, etc.
A gay friend of mine was part of the generation who walked through the heartbreaking discovery and spread of AIDS. He not only suffered the loss of so many close friends, but experienced the abuse and ostracization of the church (and the rest of society). We have talked multiple times about the marginalization he now feels in his fifties at the hands of a gay community that sees his voice as irrelevant. In many ways, the scars, understanding, and wisdom that cost him (and so many of his peers) so much, and which is an important part of that community’s story, remains shut up in his bones. And it’s the community that suffers for its lack of wisdom.
It’s important to understand that this doesn’t mean that wise people are faultless or blameless. The wisdom that grew out of the Revolution came from a slave-owning culture. The sexism of the 1950’s sprang from a post-WWII culture—despite the fact that WWII saw an incredible number of women in the workforce. The mistaken assumption that wisdom cannot exist or evolve within a flawed or broken culture (or within flawed and broken people) makes it easy to dismiss our elders as inconsequential.
A balanced society needs wisdom
I was having a discussion about gun control with a second-amendment advocate in his twenties, eventually he told me, “I can tell from your profile picture that you’re a member the generation who helped create this problem to begin with.” I didn’t think my Twitter profile made me look that old (by that I mean that I didn’t think I looked old enough to be a member of the generation that drafted this amendment). But the interesting element of his comment was really, “you (old people) created the problem we’re trying to solve. Why don’t you shut up and get out of the way.”
This doesn’t mean that the opinion of every older person needs to be accommodated. Obviously, older people are not right or wise simply because they’ve avoided death. But when you factor in all the elements involved in solving social ills, experience and the potential for wisdom needs to be factored in. The fact that they might disagree with you (or might even be wrong on an issue) doesn’t negate any wisdom their part.
Youth often struggle with the idea that they understand things better than they do. The access to instant information (and the interpretation of that information) can tempt us with the idea that we’re further along in our comprehension than we really are. There is a perspective and understanding of that information that can only be understood in light of experience, maturity, and familiarity.
Youth and age provide a valuable yin and yang to the social structure. The young are revolutionaries, ready to go to war to fix broken infrastructures and social frameworks—and sometimes a revolution is exactly what’s needed. The aged carry their experiences (and the experiences of their forefathers) providing valuable nuance and perspective. They were revolutionaries at one time, too. They have unique perspective on the other side of those experiences.
We desperately need both.
Don’t be so quick to dismiss your elders. Go listen to the stories of the men and women who have walked this road before. And for God’s sake, go visit your grandparents.