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Karl A. Pillemer, Ph.D. Headshot

Why Should We Listen to Old People? A Very Good Question

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I have received many comments in response to the publication of my book about the advice older people have for younger generations. Praise is always welcome, but I equally appreciate people who have challenged my way of thinking. One of these is Peter, from Massachusetts.

In response to a PBS Newshour segment (see video below), Peter wrote that the book "makes the assumption that the young have more to learn from the old than the other way around." He went on, "How does Mr. Pillemer know that the elderly 'are the truest experts on living well through hard times?' "

I agree that this is an interesting and valid question that got me to thinking. I'll offer my answer here -- and I'd like to hear what readers have to say.

America is ambivalent about the wisdom of older people, if popular culture is any guide. On the one hand, we are provided with buffoonish images of the old, such as Grandpa Simpson (famous quote: "I always get the blame around here! Who threw a cane at the TV? Who fell into the china hutch? Who got their dentures stuck in the toilet?"), or Frank Costanza, George's churlish father on Seinfeld (famous quote: "Hoochie Mama!").

Stacked on the other side of the scale are the "sages": characters ranging from Yoda, to Dumbledore, to Morgan Freeman who in role after role plays the wise elder for those around him. Despite some negative images, younger Americans seem at least open to the idea of older people as potential repositories of wisdom.

Still young people are right to ask: Why should I spend time listening to old people's advice about how to live my life? Let me offer three reasons why the wisdom of older Americans can be a uniquely important source of guidance for the not-yet-old.

1. Listening to the advice of older people has promoted well-being and even survival for millennia.

Over the 1.5 million years of human existence, it is only for about the past 200 years that most people have gone to anyone other than local elders for solutions to life's problems. Anthropologists tell us that in prehistoric times, the accumulated wisdom of older people was a key to human survival. Not only did the old (and especially grandmothers) improve the survival chances of their grandchildren by caring for them and finding them food; they also were the source of tried and tested experience, the true "elders" to whom group members would go in time of crisis.

Later on in agricultural societies, the family elder was often the only one who knew how his clan's property should be farmed or how to handle drought or pest infestation. Without that elder's knowledge, starvation could ensue. So consulting older people is really a "natural" thing for humans to do.

2. America's elders are a unique and extraordinary generation.

People in their seventies and beyond have lived through experiences many of us in the United States today can only imagine. Their lives have often included what the psychologist Juan Pascual-Leone has termed "ultimate limit situations." As he eloquently puts it, these are situations that "cannot be undone and are nonetheless faced with consciousness and resolve." Situations like illness, aging, failure, oppression, loss, crushing poverty, and risking death in war.

It is precisely these situations that lead to wisdom. America's elders have this kind of wisdom more than the rest of us because on average they have been through many more ultimate limit situations. This unique perspective is a valuable lens through which younger people can view their own lives.

And their advice seems especially relevant now. In our economic downturn, why wouldn't we consult people who held their families together in the much-worse Great Depression? As our country is engaged in war abroad, couldn't we learn how to cope from our World War II and Korean War veterans and their spouses?

3. The elders offer an alternative to conventional wisdom.

There's a paradox here: this point is simultaneously why we should seek out elder wisdom and also why younger people may not pay attention. From our surveys of 1,200 elders about their lessons for living, we found that their perspectives often shake up conventional wisdom.

Conventional wisdom is what the members of a society learn while they are growing up. Conventional wisdom offers up images of the good life and reinforces the values of the culture. It ultimately becomes the basis of our identity and self-esteem. And it's very hard to see beyond conventional wisdom, even if it makes us live smaller and less happy lives.

I found that the elders often rejected what has become conventional wisdom in America and point to an alternative. This alternative wisdom defies a single categorization; sometimes it's what we think of as "liberal" (the elders endorse religious tolerance, for example, and they reject materialistic worldviews) and sometimes "conservative" (such as proposing that marriage should be seen as a lifelong commitment).

But it is in the challenge to the conventional worldview that the true value of their wisdom lies. The elders make us examine our assumptions and make more conscious decisions about our own scripts for happiness.

In the end, I come down on the side that the accumulated wisdom of older people -- our "experts" on living -- can serve as a helpful guide for younger people. They bring experiential knowledge of just about every problem a human being can go through. People from their teens to middle age will find that the roadmap for life elders provide can help them take a new look at their own situations and to choose new ways of living that will make them happier.

We just have to be willing to ask and listen.