It begins with a general observation of how untidy, messy, lazy, and/or rude, young people are. Eventually, the detractor is likely to conclude with, “They don’t respect their elders.”
That is a telling phrase, isn’t it? Don’t respect their elders. It is actually code for Young people don’t respect me.”
There it is – me. Me! The cry of the ego, or at least, the cry of an immature ego.
There are at least two mis-applied opinions within the cry of they don’t respect their elders.
The first is that there is nothing new under the sun, as the Ecclesiastical author tells us. In a speech to the House of Commons almost 170 years ago, a member intoned: “…the morals of children are tenfold worse than formerly.”1
The history of older generations blaming young people is centuries old. As far back as the 8th century BC (that’s 2,800 years ago,) Hesiod was complaining that “When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint".2
We could turn the phrase around and suggest that the older generation of today continue to blame and criticise young people.
The second misappropriation is perhaps more concerning. The misidentification with older age as being synonymous with elderhood is a common one.3 There is nothing to suggest that simply by attaining an age recognised (and understood) as old can one be considered an elder.
One of the attributes often associated with elderhood is that of wisdom. Yet, as Stephen Jenkinson disdainfully notes,
“The proliferation of old people has not meant the proliferation of elders… The probable reason is this: the presence of elders in a culture turns out not to derive from an aging population. We’d be awash in wisdom here if it did.”4
Jenkinson has possibly thought more about, and written more fully, than any other older (and younger for that matter) person within western culture. Rather than outline what he thinks elderhood is, he has attempted to uncover those aspects of our modern-day culture that have been lost, and thereby, have contributed to the loss of the elderhood function. Jenkinson is worth quoting again,
“We have fewer elders than ever before because we are living longer. That’s the thread I am pulling. That’s the poorly kept secret of the age. Something about the suspension of limit and ending compromises the function of elderhood, even the appearance of elderhood, because there is something about limit that conjures elderhood from age.”5
Bill Plotkin too, laments the loss of elderhood within westernised cultures. For Plotkin, a person does not suddenly become an elder upon attaining an older age; rather and elder appears (mostly towards the latter ages of life) because of a life-long journey of ecological, social, spiritual, and soul-centred enquiry and exploration, passing through a number of developmental stages along the way.
Plotkin outlines these developmental stages in several books, and notes that a true elder “creatively occupies their distinctive ecological niche as a life-enhancing gift to their people and to the greater Earth community.”6
Note here that Plotkin is referring to a much broader understanding of elderhood than is our modern-day narrow and incomplete perception. He speaks of an ecological niche and of gifts to the greater Earth community. The wisdom inherent in such niches and gifts can only be acquired from a lifetime of walking a path well clear of the highway of much of modern westernised life: a highway littered with consumerism, environmental exploitation and destruction, violence, racism, sexism, and anthropocentrism.
Fortunately, the role of elderhood, and the recognition of true elders, is not completely lacking in the world. Many indigenous and nature-based societies retain such awareness.
Peter Knutson and David Suzuki compiled a compendium of wisdom teachings from elders of many indigenous cultures throughout the world. In it they cite a University of Calgary lecturer who traces her heritage within the Iroquois Confederacy:
“Native cultures fully recognise that all (older) people have lessons to offer based on their life experiences. But they also realise that only a few have the specialised knowledge of the cosmos that uniquely equips them to provide wise counsel to the community and the world… They are characterised by a deep, abiding humility, a reverence of life and the natural world…The role of elder has traditionally been to point people toward their rituals and growth processes that might help them become more aware of themselves as well as of the natural world and their place within it.”7
When the insights alluded to above are fully appreciated, it should be apparent that the claim towards elderhood simply because of old age cannot be upheld.
It could also be inferred from these references to elderhood that part of the elder function is to respect the role and part of youth. Respect is a two-way street.
“The youth of today do not respect their elders,” is a hollow claim. It is code for “Respect Me, I’m an Elder.” I contend that such a statement is not one a true elder would make. If anything, the statement more than likely indicates that the utterer is not a true elder.
1. Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, in speech to House of Commons on 28 February 1843.
2. Hesiod was an ancient Greek poet who lived around the same time as Homer, between about 750 BC and 650 BC.
3. Some readers may suggest that I am quibbling over semantics (the difference between an o at the beginning of older and an e at the beginning of elder.) Perhaps so, yet the difference (sometimes subtle) in words can allow us to tease apart meaning and discover deeper, more significant, insights to arise.
4. Stephen Jenkinson, Come Of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 2018.
5. Ibid. See also his book Die Wise, that he gives a subtle nod to in this quotation.
6. Bill Plotkin, The Journey of Soul Initiation, New World Library, Novato, California, 2021. His other books include: Soulcraft, Nature and the Human Soul, and Wild Mind.7. Pam Colorado (Wisconsin Oneida of the Iroquois Confederacy) cited in: Peter Knutson & David Suzuki, Wisdom of the Elders, Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, NSW, Australia, 1992