Final Update on an Old Woman's Tears

What Should Be Elders' Place in Society?

Lip service is paid to the wisdom acquired by old people but hardly anyone is interested in making use of it.

Workers as young as 40-something are regularly laid off in favor of recent college graduates and those numbers increase dramatically for employees in their 50s and 60s. Most never again work in their fields or for a comparable salary.

Even if wisdom does not arrive automatically with age (stupid young invariably grows into stupid old), the experience gained by millions of others in lifetimes of work is universally ignored. When you have left the workforce in the United States, it is assumed you are of no further use to society.

What a waste. As Oregon State University researcher, Michelle Barnhart, noted in a 2012 study:

“Our society devalues old age in many ways, and this is particularly true in the United States, where individualism, self-reliance, and independence are highly valued...Almost every stereotype we associate with being elderly is something negative, from being ‘crotchety’ and unwilling to change to being forgetful.”

There are some organizations such as Senior Corps and Encore, among a few others, that place elders in worthwhile volunteer positions that make use of their expertise, and elders themselves do a lot of local area volunteering.

In general, however, no value is placed on unpaid jobs and once out of the workplace, American society has no interest in old people.

Oh, wait. That's true unless you count members of Congress who make a career out of trying to sneak cuts to Social Security and Medicare into every possible bill where they think they might get away with it, requiring old people to waste large amounts of time counteracting those efforts.

In the United States, there is no public policy at any level that would value, respect, organize and put to use the experience old people have gained in their decades of work.

But what if there were? What if there were a place in society for elders who are capable and willing to continue participating?

What if young and mid-life workers automatically looked to elders for advice, help, assistance, guidance and suggestions whether for business, education, government, childcare, healthcare, technology and everything else that requires attention in modern life?

What if old people were not, as now, expected to forget everything they've learned in 20, 30, 40 years of working?

What if, instead, we were expected to share our knowledge to help, for example, balance the best of the past with the newest developments of modern life? And to help solve society's problems?

What if this is how society worked? How do you think our world would be different?

Give a whirl today and play around with the idea. Let your imaginations run wild on this question: In the best of circumstances, what would be the place of elders in society? Be as specific as you can.


All your what-ifs sound wonderful and I would love to see this scenario play out. To feel valued, and, perhaps to continue to be financially compensated for what we all have to offer would be awesome. My husband and I are down to relying only on our SS income, which is pretty meager, but I'm still trying to find some paid employment. People love to take advantage of my unpaid time, and I've accomplished a lot with that, but no one's beating down my door to add me to their payroll. I would welcome a move to the Utopia that you describe.

In Ireland, resistance to paying elders is explained in terms of employing young people who are just getting started. Besides that battleground, there is a false assumption that says the people who know what's coming down the pike are the ones with the sharpest vision, not the ones with the oldest eyes.

There are so many facets to your request on using the wisdom of years that I need to kick it around before attempting to answer it.

Off the top of my head these are questions I would want answered before trying to find a solution on how to best use the wisdom we elders have accumulated.

1) Would changing the American culture be possible?
2) To be effective would it have to be a National effort?
3} How organized would it have to be?
4) Would it be a one-on-one program or a group effort?
5) Would we have categories of expertise?
6) Would the Internet be the way to reach the young and the ones needing/seeking help?
7) How could we avoid overlapping information?
8) How could we avoid giving incorrect advice?

In all honesty it sounds daunting to me, but my imagination has atrophied through the years.

Ronni - I know you support the Village movement. The Village I am part of has created an opportunity for our healthier members and volunteers to help those of our members with health problems and needs. We sponsor a great variety of educational programs, many drawing on the expertise of our members. This is only a "drop in the bucket" but does show one way we can contribute to both helping each other and helping our communities - using our years of experience in the work world. Our experience in the work world is what enabled us to create the Village - a challenging task!

The idea of placing value on we elders would require a sea change in attitude and philosophy by the young who replace us. And also by the corporations and small business owners too. Sadly I think that it takes time and experience to change those attitudes..and with time comes aging. It’s a cycle not unlike the worm ouroboros, which eats it’s own tail! Face it..time takes time.

That kind of change isn’t about to come down the pike anytime soon. The young work force, just out of college, can’t imagine that we were ever young and had similar goals and hopes for our lives. If you have much interaction with a 24 or 27 year old you quickly realize how self centered they are.

I suspect I was equally as self centered but I know I never told an elder that she needed to retire so I could have her job...something that was said to me in 1999 when I first considered retirement. I understand that young workers have young children to support. I had no answer to the jerk who told me to move out of his way because he was coming thru at the time-I was flabbergasted at his attitude. Wonder what he thinks now?

What a fun question. Recently I was so full of enthusiasm for this question that I started a "book" or pretend diary, about a future time when elders and their abilities are part of a highly functioning society. In that world the Elders are a necessary part of the system. They offset many of the deficiencies and problems in post 2015 culture with humane application of their knowledge. In my story the Elders have, over many hundreds of years, established their function to such an extent that there is not question about their usefulness or abilities.

From playing around with that my thinking has evolved the following two starting points.

-Elders should not and cannot be paid for work. There is no funding source that can possibly pay us at the level we have achieved. Working for money puts you inside and at the bottom of the current economy.
- Elders should not work within the current institutions. That is only asking for approval and direction from those same younger people whose authority, knowledge motivations, work ethics, etc are causing us so much frustration. Elders can offer supplementary, alternative, and experimental solutions.

A simple example - Say you are interested and concerned about the public school system - you have many years of experience making high level decisions and can see some good solutions for the educational system. Your chance of affecting any change given the current dinosaur are zero. Working within the current school system your volunteer role will be limited to an assistant to an assistant teacher, with no authority, doing things to aid a system you see as a bad one. Or you could try to be on the school board and if you succeed end up in politics and seeing that you have no virtually no ability, even there, to change the direction of matters in anyway that is not comfortably inside of the current way.

In my Future Elder World, the elders would have alternative school systems -here provide whatever you think that should be - using the volunteer efforts of educators, managers, and others in an innovative way. This way would be free from the restrictions of funding and trying to work within.

The possibilities of new directions and innovations for the service of humanity are limitless and real in Future World.

I guess that is why, given the direction in which mankind is being driven, I look for some entirely new force and power to change the future. I pretend that new force is the the limitless pool of ability and knowledge that exists within us agesters.

I too have volunteer responsibilities that are highly valued but offer no monetary renumeration. I've come to the conclusion, five years down the line, that is okay. I'm beholding to no one. I can show up or not show up. I answer to myself, not a boss. I choose my hours as well as the work.

All that said, I work with the same degree of dedication that I did while employed for pay. I've always been a hard worker who does excellent work. Fortunately, I have a small pension that pays for me to pick and choose what, where, and when I want to apply my work ethic.

I think older employees who are emotionally invested in a company, or a hospital or a non profit, could be employed as trainers, and advisers. Instead of having a separate training department, or using supervisors to train on the fly, experienced workers could train and possibly mentor new employees.

In jobs that involve public contact, experienced workers would be able to guide newbies on how to conduct transactions, how to handle unhappy customers, and other issues that can cause PR probs when complaints go viral.

Another way to use a senior employee is as a resident company historian. He or she could archive materials, and also keep records of how crises were handled, or how big events came to be.

One of the problems with modern businesses is that when top management turns over, older employees are often under valued in relation to the new guys brought in by the new management, making it easier to force the older employees out. I don't have a solution for that.

This subject always makes me think of my dad, who was a high-powered insurance executive. He worked for the company for 30+ years, led 2 divisions and was valued for his ability to turn around foundering companies. After he retired (his decision), he was dumbfounded to realize that the company had no further use for him and his vast experience - not even as a consultant. Incredible.

Having worked for corporations for 30 years, from startups to IBM, I finally realized they value younger workers for one simple reason: they're cheaper.

I'd like to see this vision of elders' place in society broadened beyond the workplace, to include the whole fabric of their lives. I think the emphasis on work/career equaling identity/value is one of the traps of our society (based maybe on the old Protestant work ethic) and it often leaves us feeling varying-degrees-of-useless, (or at least under-appreciated) once our work lives are over.

From what I understand, this is much less the case with societies which, traditionally, have valued elders. They appear to place emphasis on the value of the entire life journey and the experience and wisdom accumulated throughout. I like that. And if I cast my mind back to what I valued about elders when I was younger, as well as what fascinates me about them now, this is what I'm drawn to: the stories of how they coped with adversity, what they learned on the journey, how they struggled, maybe failed, maybe succeeded. What they worked at officially is part of that, but not by any means the most important part.

I don't care all that much that my grandfather was an accountant in England (although I'm sure he was useful). It's far more interesting that when he emigrated to Canada with his little family, he attempted to become a farmer and failed miserably, on his little plot of barren land. And that he and my grandmother came close to starving during the Great Depression, yet carried on with a faith and optimism that was truly astonishing (as I learned from reading their old letters). That's a far richer story, that I can learn from. And the same is true of most of the stories that elders have to tell, including our own stories, now that we are the elders.

I suspect the reason that "Lip service is paid to the wisdom acquired by old people but hardly anyone is interested in making use of it" is because our society places a disproportionate emphasis on "doing" and hardly any emphasis on "being". The young don't really see what the old have to offer because, for the most part, they think they're pretty damn good at "doing" stuff already. And they can probably do it faster than we can, so what do they need us for?

I'm not sure whether today's question is "what's the best place for elders" from the elders' point of view, or whether it's from society's point of view. But either way, I think both are better off if they're seeing elders in the complexity of their entire lives, rather than just as resources to be placed where they're most useful.

I think all of that is doable. But for sure it would be a huge cultural shift.

Around 55 or so adults should transition to child rearing. Young people are generally awful at raising children. They are more interested in travel, jobs, and parties. They don't have time nor appropriate patience. Let them be physical baby factories and let the wiser, older people raise the little ones.

My tongue-in-cheek comment is that employers are looking for 25 year-olds with 30 years of experience.

Experience on the job is invaluable. For example, if you had to undergo coronary-artery bypass surgery, would you rather have a 30-year-old doc or a doc with 30 years of surgical experience? What about cataract surgery?

Another example: Chesley Sullenberger of Miracle-on-the-Hudson fame. I once asked a friend how old he thought Sully was. He responded "About 40."

When I told him that--at the time of the incident--Sully had about 40 years of experience as a pilot, my friend was stunned.

Maybe future-world is closer than we think. Attitudes are changing, and often for the better.

In any stage of life the person should use one third of the time studying, one third of the time working and one third of the time enjoying life.
The studying part is basic for the person be attuned with the last developments that can make her useful for society. Go to school again and be a member of a good study group helps. Studying helps to continuing to work as a voluntary when the time comes, because she or he can be a important help for improving the world. The time for joy can be used in a productive manner. For many of us, as our time in getting short, we can dedicate this joy time to help the people around us.
Old people should try to serve other the best they can all around their lives.

We old people have a very important role to play in today's society. And the media knows how to use us to their advantage. We make the perfect foils for jokes, parodies, and examples of how not to live our lives.
"See that bent over old man Jonny", he didn't eat his vegetables when he was your age."
And, "Look at how wrinkled that old lady is. That's why you need to use our SPF 1000 sunscreen"
My favorite is when a news report does a story on some 90 year old codger who goes to the senior center and dances with the old ladies. They show him doing some contorted two-step and marvel at how "spry" he is. Let's face it folks, we are a joke and always will be until we get the power back.

I am pretty sure that we already have the power, but don't realize what an economic force we truly are.

We are like that shy kid in the back corner of the classroom, smart, capable, big hearted and talented.

But we don't raise our hands often enough.

What are we waiting for?

I believe those seniors who wish to work, should be hired as mentors in all areas of their expertise.

I retired with an honourable discharge, and enjoy my volunteer jobs, but I might be be persuaded to work part time as a night time radio host, the Canadian Delilah.

Some seniors don't realize their own potential. Some have no interest in working in retirement.

I believe there should always be room for everyone on the dance floor of life.

I agree with Katie that our value to society as elders is far broader than just our work experience. And, given that the nature of "work" in almost every field is changing as rapidly as the technology associated with it, many of our work successes might very well be irrelevant -- except what we have learned about dealing with people. (Group dynamics continue to be what they are, and the challenge of managing people never changes much). As elders -- if we are financially secure (and that's why Social Security and Medicare are so essential) -- we finally have the time to pursue the "bliss" we never had time for in the work-a-day world. And we have the time to share our adventures following that bliss, with others. Public libraries have space available if someone wants to offer a class or a workshop. Schools will usually welcome someone to offer an after-school writing or music program. In doing that kind of volunteer work, elders share not just a talent that they have and love to use, but also their wisdom and life experiences as part of the sharing process. Giving a young person a chance to work and learn beside an elder is the best way for an elder to affect the next generation. It's the role that tribal elders always had, and it ensured them a highly respected place in their circles.

I have two responses and I'll post them separately.

The first is my opinion that elders bring a portion of this upon ourselves. How? By offering unsolicited advice more often than we should. Even when the unsolicited advice is correct, it is very seldom welcome. Think back to your own youth. Did it feel like your parents were looking over your shoulder waiting to see you mess up? Nobody likes that feeling, and sometime seniors are too quick to "offer" their expertise, when they should wait to be asked.

My second response is basically that I agree with the points made by dkzody and Cheryl. Even though the extra money from a part-time job would be welcome, I have chosen to volunteer my time.

As a volunteer, I do what I want, when I want. The freedom is worth it. I work hard, I'm conscientious, and they get a LOT of good service from me. I am treated well, and I treat others well.

I don't envision alternative school systems, but maybe places where people could seek out services from elders with expertise in specific areas.

I hate to sound somewhat cynical, but having been laid off in December from the nonprofit that I helped to function for 40 years has left me a bit of a "doubting Thomasina" about gainful employment in older age. "Wisdom" is open to definition and, on the whole, doesn't have a lot of market value. I consider myself fortunate to have remained employed until six days before turning 78.

Part of the problem (for which I own full responsibility) is that I have neither the resources nor the desire to go back to school. Technological changes have rendered some of my skills outdated.

On the positive side, I volunteer for a cat rescue agency. On the whole I like cats better than I like most people, so it has worked out pretty well. I just wish I could find a way to supplement our reduced income! One thing I've discovered for sure: retirement costs more than many people think it will.

A retired teacher told me she tried for two long years to find a job, but she didn't want another teaching job,

She had done enough teaching.

So she applied to everything and anything.

Result? The only jobs she was offered? Phone sales.

One telemarketing company offered her a job supervising the telemarketers.

She looked around the small office and noticed one telemarketer.

Turns out to be an ex-student of hers. A tough, rude bully.

She thanked the boss and left.

That was her last interview.

Elders and seniors need to carve out a place for themselves. Respect,after all, has to be earned-it cannot be demanded. No doubt seniors have made worthwhile contributions in their first innings-but we live in a society which worships youth and the rising sun-not yesterday and the setting sun. These are hard realities.But there may be a modicum of truth in this hard reality.We cannot rest on our laurels-we have also to give back to our fast-changing society in new and constantly relevant ways.

Perhaps if we as seniors could look at what many folks in the creative arts are doing in their senior years -- music, paintings, writing, photography, design, etc. This is a large field where being older is appreciated and rewarded. Can we step out into our own creative field and get past the idea that we are not appreciated? There is more to life that volunteering. --- barbara

What Barbara said!

Many seniors earn money in retirement by starting their own small business, using skills they already have, and building on it.

Instead of competing with young people, create your own path.

No boss, no dress code.

So many great comments here on this topic. It's important to remember that there is more than one way that elders are perceived by Americans. Many African Americans and American Indians are taught to revere their elders and seek their wisdom. I think it's mostly European Americans who devalue elders and look for newness, gossip, fashion, and other ephemeral things, rather than hard-earned wisdom.

I have always, since a very young age, desired to sit at the feet of my elders. Since I can remember that was a special treasure to me, something that would give a me a one-up on the rest of the world. I wanted to approach life and decisions with as mush wisdom from other's experience as I could. I think it's a shame that this generation(my generation) does not inquire of and listen to their elders. We care about what celebrities, who can have less of a connection to reality than we do, say and do rather than those who have lived life and have their own scars that point back to stories and lessons learned. I don't know what the answer is, but I think whatever the change is must start as a grassroots effort to take hold.

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