Should we respect old people?
As the old and bold proudly march on Remembrance Day, consider whether old people
deserve our respect for what they have given, or merely because they are old.
A friend of mine told me recently about her father’s 90th birthday party. Her father is in good health if getting frail. He probably isn’t one of the old people we expect to see at age 90. He is tech-savvy, using his phone and tablet to keep up with family and world events. He is adept at shopping, arranging his travel, and banking online.
During his birthday party, his children and grandchildren took time to talk to him and tell him their stories. My friend saw in her family the respect of the younger generation for old people. More telling, she saw her father showing respect for the younger generation.
It works both ways. My friend’s father clearly appeared to have been a life long mentor to his family. This was not an old man in the eyes of the family. He was seen as a wise and active member of the family whose contribution was really appreciated by the young. In return, they listened to his stories and advice and told him stories of their achievements and failures. And, they taught him how to use his tech.
Who are ‘old people’ anyway?
I am a whisker away from 65 as I write this and I don’t feel old. My metabolic age is a healthy 49, and I still run half marathons. However, I suffered from the ignominy of not being asked for proof of age when I recently purchased a Senior Railcard (think about it).
Through my role in a charity involved in education and mentoring, I have contact with many young people. Sometimes they take on the leadership of one of the groups that we belong to. I find it an honour when they approach me for help and advice. However, there are old people who they avoid. Usually, these are people who are critical, judgemental and narrow-minded. I and others are interested in the young and respect them for their views and commitment. We think, and hope, this is why we are chosen as their friends and mentors.
Old people earn respect.
Respect is earned, and there are many ways that older people deserve the respect of the younger generations.
Older people have spent a lifetime making mistakes, learning, teaching and steering our families, businesses and communities. (And for the purposes of this article I’ll happily classify myself as ‘old’ even if I don’t feel it.) We know the pain and shame of mistakes, and we know how to avoid making the mistakes again. In short, we are blessed with wisdom and experience. In the main, we know what to do and what not to do.
We have spent a lifetime nurturing our children and grandchildren, sacrificing much to give them a good life. As providers for our children, we often worked long and arduous hours. Food, warmth and clothing cost money and time, which we have earned.
I am writing this article on the eve of Remembrance Day 2019. This is a poignant reminder of the role of old people as defenders of our homes and families. And it’s nor just in times of war that we find ourselves protecting those who we love. We protect them from words and prejudices as well as bullets and bombs.
Old people have had the privilege over the years of holding leadership positions large and small in all walks of life. Whether in business, the services, the professions or our communities, leadership is a privilege. It is also a responsibility which should earn respect in its own right at any age when it is successful.
The wisdom of experience and mistakes
As individuals and a demographic, we have made mistakes. It always happens. The baby boomers are accused by Millennials of being responsible for climate change and its consequences. Earlier generations were charged by their juniors of taking the world into unbelievably harrowing global conflicts – twice.
Before that, a generation of scientists and industrialists of the industrial revolution changed our society and landscape beyond recognition. Their focus was on scientific advancement and entrepreneurial profits. That’s not bad, except when it is done without thought for the longer-term consequences. As such many, though not all, brought misery, poverty and even death to thousands.
History will probably repeat itself; it usually does. Generations X and Y will almost certainly make use of technology to reverse climate change and should be applauded. On the other hand, they are already leading their children and grandchildren into potential dystopia as they start to play with AI, robotics and genetic engineering.
Are the mistakes of the old people of the world a reason not to respect them? Yes, in some cases. However, consider a young politician such as Chlöe Swarbrick, a New Zealand Green Party MP. She recently winged an ‘OK, Boomer’ retort across the chamber. She might like to consider what it will feel like when she is at the top of the tree. Her generation will, inevitably, make appalling mistakes in the years to come. Will she reflect back to this moment when being chastised by her grandchildren’s generation? On reflection, with the benefit of wisdom, age and hindsight behind her, might she wonder if she played that one the right way?
Generations at war – and at peace
Inter-generational tension is as old as the hills. It is a never-ending cycle. My parents couldn’t understand why I left the Services at 25 and went to University. They despaired that I had a succession of jobs before setting up my own business with two computers. All this was the antithesis of our family tradition.
They despised my friends and I for our long hair and torn jeans and pop concerts. Our music was incomprehensible and intolerable to them. That doesn’t mean that we didn’t respect them, not least because they had defended our lives and freedom from the tyranny of fascism. Then, they brought us up in the post-war period, which makes our recent bout of austerity look positively wealthy.
So, should we respect older people? With some exceptions, almost certainly. Should older people respect the younger generations? With some exceptions, almost certainly. What should be the basis of that respect? Values of communication, community, wisdom, inquisitiveness, honesty and achievement. Arguably, the world today is more wealthy, peaceful, healthier and better connected than at any time in its history. The men and women who adhered to these values bear much of the responsibility for this progress through the ages.
This post has been adapted from Jeremy Deedes’ original answer to a question on asked by a Quora member.
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