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Lorraine Devon Wilke Headshot

Pass the Mantle? Thanks, But I'm Still Wearing Mine

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I spent the past weekend with a group of incredibly talented and funny people, many of whom are approaching mutually shared decade birthdays and girding to embrace life with a new set of numbers. It's not particularly relevant which decade is being broached; every decade birthday is a milestone, a new chapter, a seismic shift not only in the way one is viewed by others, but in how one now views themself. There is some shock to the idea of being in a club that once belonged to your parents.

Decade birthdays are a bitch.

And despite the fact that everyone gets a full 10 years to immerse themselves in their particular demographic, social evolution has not kept pace. It may be a cliché, the whole "40 is the new 30; 50 is the new 40; 60 is the new... 30 or 40 or 50" (depending on one's relationship with cosmetic surgery and/or the cut of their jeans), but in fact there's truth to the notion. People in today's world seem younger, look younger, and are remaining vital longer than did previous generations. They're not planning to "wind down" once they're past the decade that begins with 5. They're less interested in tapping into their pension (if they're lucky enough to have one) than continuing to contribute to one. And they'll be damned if they're ready to pass the mantle on to some younger version of themself while they're still wrapped in the damn thing.

And yet... society seems confused about what to do with these younger-than-ever older generations. As I spent time talking to people gathered for the various events, I was regaled with stories that illustrated our culture's tendency to quietly but persistently marginalize and devalue its most experienced, talented and, yes, older citizens:

1. A snot-nosed TV executive with negligible experience dismisses the continuing contribution of a show creator because the network "wants younger voices."
2. A deeply talented singer/songwriter can't get the support of even their small record label because "older people don't buy CDs or download music the way the younger ones do."
3. A graphic artist with 25 years into a job is "downsized" due to budget cuts then suddenly replaced by a much younger (and inexperienced) 30-something.
4. An interior designer with a great eye and fine touch spends two years looking for a job while the best ones go to younger designers.
5. A writer working with much younger colleagues keeps their age secret due to stated perceptions that "older people don't know what's hip in the world."
6. A small business owner is treated disdainfully by younger vendors who see him as behind the curve despite his growing success.

And so on.

It used to be that older generations were expected to graciously step aside to "let the younger ones have a chance now," but that was back in the day when life expectancy was 10 years shorter, cultural norms guided anyone past their mid-40s to dress like mom and dad, and health and fitness standards were considered the realm of the young. All that's changed and, in today's world, many older Americans are not only engaged and innovatively contributing via their jobs and professions, they're still exploring, still excited about new ideas and evolving opportunities.

Why hasn't society kept up? Why is it still relying on the dated perception that only "young voices" matter, only young talent need apply? How utterly... antiquated.

Frankly, our culture, particularly given the virtual workplace of the Internet, has room for every generation to not only participate, but be valued and sought after for their particular "brand," their level of experience and worldview. Rather than kick our older generations out the door like so much planned obsolescence, we should maximize their available voices to lead, guide, educate, and inspire. We can still look to our young for their freshness, their innovation and culturally Zeitgeisty perspective, but there's not one good reason we can't, simultaneously, tap into the well of experience, talent and wisdom offered by our elders.

Yet we too often don't. Some actually see older people as having a sort of "stink," as one young "arrogant" I know crassly put it. They fear old like a contagion; fear the association will mean losing their edge, their hipness; their au courant factor. But like any weary paradigm, any work model that needs updating and refreshing, the standard operating procedure regarding our actively contributing elders needs an overhaul. Contemporary culture needs to step up to the new norm and recognize that many of our best and brightest are not just the youngsters coming up, but the journeymen still so vitally and vibrantly holding the top.

As we wound down our weekend of revelry, music, and business talk, the concluding conversations singled out each participant to ask what was next on their agenda, what was left on their bucket list. Some talked of successfully launching their start-ups while getting back to writing music. Others detailed new endeavors that captured their imaginations and would somehow get accomplished between work and family. Still others groused over creative and business frustrations while simultaneously waxing on about "a new book" or the latest photography project. One plans to continue booking African safaris. Another is setting up a charity foundation with hopes of getting a job on the Hillary in '16 campaign...

... And all still teem with hopes and dreams, remarkably similar to their younger counterparts. Yes, there are frustrations related to aging, but not a one - regardless of decade - is detached or declining. In fact, all are fit and relatively healthy; none have ruined their faces or bodies with ill-advised cosmetic surgery, and every single one knows who's at the top of the charts... or should be!

Our new "aging" population.

So, Culture, I'd suggest you evolve a little faster to keep up. The younger ones have much to learn from them (and, yes, vice versa), and they've got a lot left to offer. Maybe, rather than pushing them to pass the mantle, you could come up with enough for everyone still out there looking for a little warmth. 'Cause I know that, while the ebullient crowd I spent time with is happy to share with the youngsters standing nearby, they aren't ready to pass theirs on yet. Too much to do... and we all know it can get cold out there.

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