What Happened To The Elders?

The concept of elder seemed quite straightforward to me — until I started turning my coaching toward positive aging and longevity. That’s when I bumped into people who see it differently than I do. Some see the term “elder” as positive while others see it as a negative or pejorative term.

How could the term elder of previous times, the sage of communities, the leader of the people, have been dropped from grace? Is it because society, at least western society, doesn’t really have elders, as in “the olden days”? Something, or several somethings, has changed. Is it how we look at older people or is it how we look at the language of aging?

From the positive aging perspective, I see elders as teachers, sages, healers, and wise people. Positive aging doesn’t have room for the concept of seeing elders as doddering or incapable.

Merriam-Webster defines an elder as one who is older, a senior, one having authority by virtue of age and experience. Wikipedia describes an elder as someone with a degree of seniority or authority. Ok, that fits in with my definition. So, what’s missing in our society where we don’t acknowledge elders for their contributions?

Other Cultures

The American Indian elder is a person who has and transmits cultural and philosophical knowledge. And the Australian Aboriginal elder is one who has gained recognition as a custodian of knowledge and lore, often a leader in administrative matters. I think there’s a hint in this that may help my question of what’s missing today.

Historically, it seems to me, there was a strong component of family or multi-generational community in having elders. Community and/or family may be a required element for elders to have value, to be recognized.

Maybe the change of family units away from multi-generational is part of what has changed. We have moved from interacting in multi-generational communities to interacting with those of our own generation, and often without being face-to-face.

Then there’s the advent of technology that can provide answers for anything we need. Or, so we think. Who needs an elder when you have Google?

So, elders have fallen into “disuse” and lost their purpose in life. When we don’t feel needed or useful we can become doddering and incapable. We all desire feeling relevant. Elders desire relevance, too.

Oh, but the wisdom we are losing on this path of making elders feel irrelevant.

Do you hang with people in other generations from yours, especially older people? Bravo for you if you do!

Wisdom is shared, not taught. Sharing is best done in person, like around the campfire, through stories, and through example.

Google can teach us things about facts and history. Elders share things that can’t as easily be described as facts or history. Elders can share their experiences of history too, though. The nuances of experience and emotion add to the value of learning facts and history.

Being Inclusive Helps

In a program I took from the Modern Elder Academy, I learned of the seven attributes of being inclusive. I see these attributes as also defining elders: self-aware; fair; courageous; adaptable; curious; collaborative; humble.

Wisdom tends to increase with age. Four traits that contribute to the increase of wisdom are curious, adaptable, present, and open. Curiosity lends itself to exploring and evaluating new information and ideas. Adaptability leads to continually questioning one’s assumptions and beliefs, and being willing and able to pivot or change. By staying present, you can have a willingness to remain skeptical of your self-views. And those who are open are motivated to personal growth and have the capacity for self-examination and introspection of the world around them.

These feel like hallmarks of elders. And it takes time for those attributes to develop and mature into wisdom. It takes time to become an elder.

When we aren’t exposed to and connected to older people, we can’t recognize the elders among us. What a shame! What a loss.

Wisdom at Work

Chip Conley, a co-founder of the Modern Elder Academy, is also an author. He wrote a book called Wisdom @ Work. He takes the concept of modern elder from being the wisdom keepers of the past to the wisdom seekers of the future. With that expansion of the term “elder”, it seems that elders offer a higher form of leadership, the secret ingredient for the visionary businesses and lives of tomorrow.

He goes on to explain in the pre-Gutenberg world, elders were the keepers of their culture and agents of its survival and communication through myths, stories, and songs passed from one generation to the next. In a slowly changing economy, the practical experience and institutional knowledge of the old remained continuously relevant to the young.

With the acceleration of innovation, the elder became less relevant because culture changed so fast that the younger generations not only could keep up, but they were forging the future. They didn’t see the need for understanding what happened in the past. Elders have been left behind in some ways.

Chip then turned to the discussion of “relationship wisdom” in elders, how their role may be to accelerate the process of self-awareness in younger generations. If power is thrust on younger people too quickly, before they are fully “baked” or matured, they don’t have the self-awareness that elders do to use their newfound power wisely.

He points out that rather than older generations being less valuable due to the lack of specialized knowledge with an ever-increasing speed of obsolescence, maybe older generations are more valuable because they can help balance that narrow specialty thinking with the ability to see the bigger picture.

Do you remember when you lied about your age to seem older because being an elder gave you influence, dignity, and power? And it let you buy booze and get into events younger people weren’t allowed into. Now you lie about your age for fear of ageism and being put out to pasture and being seen as irrelevant.


Look at these two similar words: elderly and elder. Elderly refers to the years lived on the planet and to people who are dependent on others. Elder, on the other hand, refers to what one has done with those years, and to people who are depended on. Maybe this is part of the demotion of elder in our society — we are confusing the two terms, maybe melding them and losing the value of “elder”.

There are people who age without synthesizing wisdom from their experience. There are also people who reflect on what they’ve learned and incorporate that wisdom into their legacy, to what they offer younger generations; those are our elders.

Putting It All Together

Though I feel that we owe it to ourselves to live in multi-generational communities where all ages, income levels, cultures, and religions interact, that may not be a reality for others. What’s important is recognizing the wisdom of elders as vital to your thriving and growing.

It’s time to get clear on the value of elders in your life, understand the words that you use to talk about and describe them, and to start respecting and honoring elders.

Now that we’ve wandered through the concepts around elder, do you see it as a positive or pejorative word? I’m more convinced than ever that it’s a positive word and needs to be put back in a place of honor. Drop your prejudice about age; don’t be an ageist.

Furthermore, elders, it’s time you started owning the word “elder” because it gives you power. The term elder is powerful. The position of elder is powerful. Step up and own that power and recognition. Lead the way.

2 thoughts on “What Happened To The Elders?”

  1. Kit,
    Something else to look at, especially in the American Culture is the negative influence of TV and print advertising. “Get with the Pepsi Generation!” “It’s young and it’s hip!” These are two examples we mentioned when I was a member of the Gray Panthers in Denver. And where were the elders in those commercials and ads? Selling Polydent, “age rejuvenating” creams and lotions, and hair coloring (for both men and women.) That time, the 60’s and 70’s especially, did more to relegate the “elder” to the “elderly.”

    That’s my two cents worth. Good article!

    • Gary, I just found this in the trash! I didn’t know to look there. Sorry for my silence — until now.

      You are so right about the framing of elders in our commercials — especially in years past. And too many people buy into that framing. I hear people use ageist language for themselves and others. “I’m too old for that”. “Oh, she’s one of those elderly women with long, gray hair”. “At my age….”

      That last one is like fingernails on a blackboard for me. I’d like to think our age won’t prevent us from doing anything. There may be things that do hold us back, but age in and of itself shouldn’t be among the reasons we don’t do things. Oh, don’t get me started! 😀

      Thanks for being part of the conversation. I think your comments are as pertinent today as when you left them oh-so-long-ago.


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