America is ambivalent about the wisdom of older people. Popular culture provides both buffoonish images of the elderly – as well as sages who offer unparalleled wisdom. So if younger people question what important life lessons they can glean from the experience of older Americans – let me assure them that our elders are a uniquely important source of guidance….they are experts on living well through hard times.
Let me offer 3 perspectives as to why younger Americans should turn to the elderly as potential repositories of wisdom.
1. Listening to the advice of older people has promoted well-being and even survival for millennia.
To put things in perspective, you need to realize that over 1.5 million years of human existence, it is only in the past 150 years that people have gone to anyone other than local elders for solutions to life’s problems. Anthropologists tell us that historically, the accumulated wisdom of older people was a key to human survival. Not only did the older improve the survival chances of their grandchildren by caring for them and finding them food; they also were the source of life experience to whom group members would go in time of crisis. Later on, in agricultural societies, the family elder was often the only one who knew how his family’s property should be farmed or how to handle drought or pest infestation. Without that elder’s knowledge basic survival of the family was in peril. So consulting older people was really a “natural” thing for humans to do.
2. America’s elders are a unique and extraordinary generation
People in their seventies and beyond have lived through experiences many of us today can only imagine. Their lives have often included what psychologist Juan Pascual-Leone has termed “ultimate limit situations.” As he eloquently puts it, these are situations that “cannot be undone and are nonetheless faced with consciousness and resolve.” Situations like illness, aging, failure, oppression, loss, crushing poverty, and war. It is precisely these situations that lead to wisdom. America’s elders have more of this kind of wisdom more than the rest of us because on average they have been through many more ultimate ‘limit situations.’ They have survived them, absorbed them, and gained invaluable experience. This unique perspective is a valuable lens through which younger people can view their own lives.
3. Elders offer an alternative to conventional wisdom
There’s a paradox here: This point is simultaneously why we should seek out elder wisdom and also why younger people may not pay attention. From our surveys of elders about their lessons for living, we found that their perspectives often shake up conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom is what everybody knows—what the members of a society learn while they are growing up. Conventional wisdom reinforces the values of the culture. It ultimately becomes the basis of our identity and self-esteem.
I found that the elders often rejected what has become conventional wisdom and point to an alternative. This alternative wisdom defies a single categorization—sometimes it’s what we think of as “liberal” (endorsing religious tolerance and rejecting materialistic worldviews) and sometimes it is what we think of as “conservative” (marriage should be a lifelong commitment). But it is exactly this challenge to the conventional world-view that the true value of their wisdom lies. The elders lead us to examine our assumptions and make more conscious decisions about our own scripts for happiness.
In the end, I come down on the side that the accumulated wisdom of older people—our “experts” on living—can serve as a helpful guide for us. They bring experiential knowledge of just about every problem a human being can go through. People from their teens to middle age will find that the roadmap for life that elders provide can help them take a new look at their own situations and choose new ways of living that will make them happier.
We just have to be willing to ask and listen.
Karl is the Director of the CompassCare Institute. He is a professor of Human Development at Cornell University and internationally renowned gerontologist and published author.