Move Over Old Man

Throughout history, most cultures treated their elders with great deference and respect. Many societies looked to them for the wisdom acquired by many years of life experience and historical memory. The Jewish bible, for example, cites many examples of the leaders and their people seeking guidance and leadership from the elders on many topics. The historical records of other ancient societies reveal similar reverence for their elders, such as China, Egypt, and India, and anthropologists and historians have noted similar social structures in many lesser known cultures. 

Unfortunately, those days are dead and buried in Western society. Youth and “new ideas” devoid of historical memory and life experience are the focus of our attention, energy, and resources. So much so that social policies are geared towards warehousing the elderly to die out of sight and mind. Insurance companies encourage palliative care over treatment for older patients, citing “quality of life.” Meanwhile politicians debate cutting or even eliminating public safety net programs for the elderly such as Social Security and Medicare while promoting laws to allow doctors to euthanize or provide medically assisted suicide options to patients who request these options. In other words, social policy-makers view older people as a burden on society rather than a source of knowledge and wisdom.

I think about this a lot these days as I am surrounded by it in almost every aspect of my life. Having started my career at my current job as an intern in my 20s, each day I feel older and more irrelevant as I approach age 60 in a few weeks. When I reject “new” ideas that are unsound or have failed in the past, I am told that the past is history and I need to move on. In one instance, an employee with two-years experience was called an “expert” in contrast to my 30-years. 

I likewise feel increasingly pushed aside in my religious community, as young parents and their children increasingly become the prime focus of communal attention and energy. While I certainly have no objection to handing over the keys to the next generation, the lack of acknowledgment and respect is both foolhardy and hurtful. Even if unintentional, it is tonedeaf at best.

For example, I used to blow shofar in my synagogue in the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah and had offered to do so on the holiday itself should there be a need. That ended when a new young member wanted to take over that role. Then one year he was unable to do so, and was replaced by another newer and younger member of the synagogue. I wasn’t asked, nor were any of the other “old timers” in my synagogue.

A more recent example of this mindset was a panel discussion hosted by my synagogue on “successful strategies for raising successful adults” for religious parents. Of the five “expert” panelists and moderator, only one may have possibly raised a child to adulthood. The others ranged from parents of young children and teens at most. 

Putting my own ego and sensitivities aside, what these self-proclaimed “experts” fail to recognize is that they don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t realize that others may have more experience and expertise and can offer guidance and wisdom based on their own life experiences and youthful failures. Everyone has an arsenal of failures and mistakes, myself included. I readily admit I’ve done some pretty stupid things after ignoring the advice of parents, teachers, and mentors, and I learned from them. Not only did I learn to avoid repeating those mistakes, but also to carefully consider the advice of those who walked before me. I hope the experts learn to do the same.  

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