Blog: Gaining the respect afforded to us

It has been remarked in other blogs that respect for elders has declined in recent decades – to the point where attitudes now seem to be at best condescending and at worst downright abusive.

There’s no doubt that the prevalence of ‘elder abuse’ is a real social problem. But in my opinion, it’s just the tip of a very big iceberg.


This will sit oddly for those who are familiar with societies in which an ‘elder’ describes someone in authority – where the oldest members are considered to be the wisest and the most qualified to determine how the society should be governed. An elder is someone who is respected, obeyed, even revered.


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Why is it so different in our society (and in other ‘rich’ countries like that of Australia)?


It’s not uniform of course. But all too often older people, once they pass the point of nurturing their family or running a business or being valued in their job, feel that they’re consigned to a rather inconsequential role. Even grandparents sometimes feel that they’re valued more as child-minders than for the wisdom they can bring to bear. It’s easy enough to understand why this is so. Elders are respected in more ‘traditional’ societies. But such societies are often fairly unchanging – even stagnant. They display little of the dynamism and development that has brought the improvement in living standards that few of us in countries such as Australia would like to do without.


Traditional societies, where elders are respected, also tend to have much lower life expectancies and much lower control over reproduction so that in percentage terms there’s a lot more young people. A combination of these two factors has meant that elders in are a much lower proportion of the total population. They ‘stand out’ more. Contrast this with contemporary Australian society where elders – we have taken to calling them just ‘seniors’ – now represent nearly a quarter of the population.

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As a group older people have had to cope with considerable and rapid technological change. And by and large we’ve tried to ‘keep up’ pretty well. But while it’s not hard to find a classroom of seniors learning how to use computers and the means of communication now common it’s still a fact that their grandchildren are learning the same skills in primary school and thinking nothing of it. Indeed the grandchildren are not only learning much more easily but learning how to use computers in a way that’s going to keep them well ahead of their grandparents.


In this context how do older people gain the respect that is accorded to elders in traditional societies? – or putting it in another way, be regarded not just as serving time between retirement and their inevitable demise but people whose views on the timeless questions of politics and economics matter.


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Elders should feel confident in their views about the way a family or community or society is best governed, and how we can make the wisest use of the economic resources we possess. Age and experience is indeed valuable in itself. But we need to go beyond merely saying (and perhaps wagging a finger at the same time): ‘when we were young, we…’. In order that older people gain the respect traditionally accorded ‘elders’ they actually have some responsibility to be across what is going on in public life – and in particular what is being done by their society’s government (or in the case of Australia, its several governments).


This means informing ourselves about matters such as the carbon tax, labour market regulation, policy with respect to mergers of firms, the prudential regulation of financial institutions such as banks, a resources rent tax, superannuation policy, government assistance to industries such as the car industry and the ‘blame game’ between the commonwealth and the states.


These matters may not have immediate relevance to us (though they often do). And often the questions they raise aren’t easy. But the ‘image’ and status of seniors, and the extent to which our counsel is sought and respected, is enhanced by our active knowledge of them.


photo: dannystock