The poll I saw indicated that for those aged 18 – 34 years, over 60% of them will vote “yes” in the coming referendum. The percentage of those in the 55+ age group who will vote “yes” was significantly less - below 25%.1
This poll is like many I have looked at in recent years: for example, in many countries, polls asking people about climate change and the state of the world’s environment show a similar gulf between the perceptions and understandings of young people and those of older generations.2
These polls are indicative of older generations making decisions that younger generations will bear the consequences of, even though younger generations wish for different outcomes.
It has long been this way. I recall when I was a member of the young generation that I was often at odds with older generations. Many popular songs during this time bemoaned exactly this point.
But, has it always been this way?
Not many, and very few from within older generations, ask such a question. One who has been courageous enough to ask this question, privately and publicly, is the Canadian social critic, writer, and educator, Stephen Jenkinson.
Jenkinson’s book, Come of Age,3 seeks to delve into the genesis, and ongoing perpetuation, of why it is that in westernised cultures ‘the proliferation of old people has not meant the proliferation of elders.’ He asks this highly important question in the midst of a Time of Trouble. The gulf between young people and older generations is a glaring sign of troubled times.
Furthermore, as this gulf exists, we might ask: whose job is it to mend the rift? Young people? Older generations? Someone else? No-one?
If the burden of responsibility lies anywhere, the answer is probably – Everyone!
Given that older generations have lived much longer than young people, and supposedly have a great deal more experience to draw upon, then it is reasonable to suggest that older generations must take a large share of this responsibility. However, that assertion comes with a large measure of caution.
What experience, we can ask? Crucially, to have simply experienced something does not imply that something has been learned. Moreover, the attainment of wisdom does not necessarily come with advanced chronological age, and an accumulation of experiences.
It is as if older generations (in westernised cultures,) upon reaching “retirement” age have run-off and are playing hooky, neglecting their responsibility not only to younger generations, but also to the soul of the world. This truant behaviour cannot simply be blamed upon any particular individual. It is the cumulative effect of centuries of the individualising and mechanising venture of westernised culture.
Older generations arrive at “retirement” with a culturally ingrained expectation that now is the time for either playtime or (sadly for many) the time of being put out to pasture.4 Truancy for many arises naturally, and uncritically, from such expectations.
If wisdom, and the attendant elderhood function of older generations, is largely lacking in westernised cultures, it is little wonder that young people are not coming to older people for guidance, assistance, or even hints, about how to navigate the troubled times we are in.
Yet, the possibility of true elderhood endures. In westernised cultures the elderhood function has become lost, displaced, or (as some might argue) stolen. Stolen, not only from those who might have become elders, but from young people too.
In the final chapter of his book Stephen Jenkinson focusses our attention upon this. For Jenkinson, elderhood cannot simply be ascribed to someone, nor can it be obtained through a short-term workshop or learning platform.
Jenkinson describes it as a conjuring act. And, as we know, magicians spend years and years mastering their craft. Here is how Jenkinson invokes the elderhood function.
‘The ones who conjure elders are not the ones who are seeking out their own elderhood. The ones who conjure elders are the ones who seek out an elder’s heartbroken willingness to testify for the sake of a better day, who corroborate that sorrow, who are willing to be wrong about older people and their truancy. My plan, such as it is, is that young people begin to awaken to the understanding that it is their search for elders – sometimes grievance-driven, sometimes tried – that conjures elderhood in a troubled time.’5
To answer the earlier question about responsibility then, we can say: young people in their searching have a responsibility, and older people in their willingness to be found have a responsibility.
If young people are to conjure up the elderhood function, then those who would be elders must be courageous enough to come out of retirement, stop revisiting their childhood playtime and begin an honest, respectful, and open dialogue with younger people.
Older generations must stop playing truant.
Then, the poles might not be so far apart.
1. I am purposely not quoting exact percentages. Polling is a statistical method that, based on a sample, provides us with an estimate of the views of the total population. This inevitably means that there are margins of error (formulated as standard deviations) and these in turn can be assigned a confidence level (or degree of confidence.) Hence, I can say say “more than” or “below” with confidence that the true percentage is in that range.
2. For example, an US poll asking whether climate change needed to be addressed now or in the next few years showed an almost 20% gap between the responses of those aged 18 – 29 years and those aged 65+.
3. Stephen Jenkinson, Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 2018.
4. I am indebted to Bill Plotkin for the terms Pasture and Playtime. In his book, Nature and the Human Soul (New World Library, Novato, California, 2008) he laments the time of “retirement” as bringing on, for most older people, one or other of these two possibilities. He contrasts these options with the more eco-centric stage of The Master in the Grove of Elders.5. Jenkinson, Op cit., p381