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Honour the Elders?

I’ve just had a shock! This is my first blog as a Social Reporter and what’s been suggested as the topic? Elders! Okay – so I was 60 in May, I’m retired – well, sort of, have a grey beard and don’t tuck T-shirts in any more. But am I really an Elder?

Serene looking lady from Indian subcontinent wearing sari sitting  cross legged on floorI’m part of the generation that said, ‘Never trust anybody over 30’, like to ride a bike with a shout of ‘Look, no hands!’ – but only if somebody IS looking or what’s the point – and still wonder what I’d like to do when I grow up. My Mother is 90 this year and still talks about the elderly people she helps so how can I, 30 years younger, be an Elder?

Isabel Carlisle, writing in ‘Elders & Youngers in Transition’ says:

Being older is just one aspect of Eldership, and just how old is entirely up to how you feel. I think that essentially it is about having the life experience and energy to contribute to your community in the role of a valued and wise counsellor, but this question is open for individuals to answer in their own way.”

Isabel goes on to discuss the value of people with life experience as mentors to the young, how Transition might facilitate safe and healthy connections across generations and suggests qualities important to making the relationship work. All good stuff and no doubt there are some great Elders out there already acting in this role.

man looking at life size model of manPersonally, I think we could be missing opportunities for a bit of bi-directional learning. Although I’ve certainly learnt a great deal from people older than myself I’ve also learnt a lot from people who are younger – sometimes a lot younger. A few years ago I went to the Climate Camps at Kingsnorth in Kent and then to my old stomping ground, Blackheath in London. It was a humbling experience. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of young people with commitment, organising skills, understanding, creativity and the sheer determination to pull off these fantastic, enjoyable and high profile events. I was mentored by people all around me and 95% of them were younger.

There is another problem with seeing mentoring as the preserve of the more experienced, which often translates as older. Many of the experiences we have can be negative. Older people have been through a whole series of defeats that can make them cautious, more aware of what can’t be done. Sure, we can learn from the past but the people who really create change are often those who just don’t have the sense, experience or advice to know that what they are doing just can’t be done!

Do I have experience and skills that others can learn from? Of course I do but I also have prejudices and blind spots and engrained ways of doing things that could hold people back or send them off in the wrong direction. Are there Elders without these faults? Yes, we usually call them Saints!

young people in front of railings with huge poster saying "under new ownership"Phrases like ‘Honouring the Elders’ - step 10 of the Twelve Steps of how to start a Transition Initiative – imply a relationship with too much unquestioning acceptance and too little critical thinking. The oral histories collected by Rob Hopkins in Totnes give a valuable insight into the town when it had features of resilience that are now lost. They give us access to real local history with real potential for learning. But should we accept them in the way that ‘honouring the Elders’ implies? We all see things not as they are but as we are. Our memories are perceived through the filter of our individual experience and the stories we tell reflect these distortions…and the older we are the more potential there is for a bit of creative memory, wishful thinking and just plain rubbish.

So where does this leave us? Yes, we should honour the Elders…and the Youngers…and the Middle Agers! We all have something to contribute and we all deserve the opportunity to teach as well as learn. We need to think more critically about what others say and also question our own assumptions. It’s a tall order and I don’t know how to set about achieving this. Perhaps there’s an Elder who can tell us?

Pictures: an elder who influenced Chris (CB) Chris learns from another elder (CB) Climate protesters outside Royal Bank of Scotland (CB)

Chris Bird is our latest recruit to the social reporters.  He has coordinated the TotnesTransition Building & Housing Group for some years and wrote ‘Local Sustainable Homes’, the Transition book on sustainable housing based very much onpractical experience of his own renovation and building projects. He has been involved in Transition Streets as a member of the steering group and at the moment is a Wingate Scholar researching community renewable energy. He is a director of Totnes Sustainable Construction.


Peter Burton's picture

The role of Elders in Transition

Thanks for the thought provoking post, Chris.

I agree that there is the usual 'assume' risk that any label carries.

By which I mean, just because a person reaches a certain age, doesn't mean they've got much to offer.

However, anything that challenges sterotypical attitudes, such as linking ageing with decline and youth with insubstantial ideas seems to me to be a good thing.

Peter Burton (a fellow, rather than fallow, 60 year old)

Sara Ayech's picture

Great post

Great post Chris, and welcome to the blog. This was also the reaction of a couple of people in our group when I asked them about it, but I do agree that although life experience is useful, learning is definitely mulit-directional.

Mandy Meikle's picture

Perceptions old & new!

Great post Chris and welcome to the Social Reporters. Learning from our elders about how things were done in times of a lot less cheap and easily-available energy, and including people who often feel useless or out-of-touch because they can't or won't use a PC, is one of my favourite aspects of Transition. While I agree that people with more life experience have the potential to mentor the young, I wonder who decides whether the mentor's conclusions on life are appropriate? Some people are content, happy and full of wisdom while others may be full of bitterness, remorse and cynicism. You may see both traits in the same person given different circumstances. And these people may be of any age.

I guess it's all about attitude. Our expectations affect our reaction to, and memory of, any event. If we expect writing to our MP to change the world, then we'll be highly disappointed and may become cynical. If we expect our MP to ignore our letter and s/he responds with interest and goes on to raise our concern in Parliament, then we'll be pleasantly surprised and may be spurred on to greater things. As Greek philosopher Epictetus once said, "It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters". So let's learn from each other regardless of age. Let's respect the pessimist and the optimist, the old and the young - and all in between.


Anni Kelsey's picture

I agree with the comments above that potentially all generations

I agree with the comments above that potentially all generations can learn from each other.  However, I do think that there are certain things that pretty much only come with age / experience.  I can only speak from personal experience but I know that whilst my core principles and motivations have not changed since my teens I see things differently because I am now in my late 50s and have much more life experience now.  

What one does with that life experience is of course up to the individual and whilst some become cynical and hardened others mellow and soften.  But everyone who grew up in the 50s, 60s and even 70s experienced life without many of the frills and trappings now thought to be indispensable.  No central heating, no car, very little in the way of consumer goods and certainly not extraordindarily cheap technological gadgetry.  I would not necessarily wholeheartedly welcome returning to some of the relative privations of my younger life but I do know that much that is probably seen as essential by many people today really is not.  

As a child I often felt very glad to grown up with more comforts than my parents and grandparents had known as children and feel that I would have hated to have had to go down the garden to the toilet and had no bath in the house, never mind no electricity, but now my own childhood would look really hard to many of today's children.  We all have different experiences and I think the experience of people who grew up some decades ago is inherently valuable just because it is different and it can be very hard to imagine experiences that one has not had personally.

Chris Bird's picture


Great comments  - exactly the sort of reaction I was hoping for i.e. a recognition that 'honouring the elders' needs to be looked at critically.

I've just read Rob's piece on his decision to fly off to the US and it reminded me that 'rules are for the guidance of wise men (and women!) and the obedience of fools' - same goes for Transition Principle Number 10.

Mike Grenville's picture

According to Stephen

According to Stephen Jenkinson "Getting older is inevitable.  Getting to be an elder is not.  Grief gets you there."  He is coming to the UK in September 2013 to run a weekend course. This is what is says it will be about: Young people need and deserve real recognition of their worth and purpose in life, and a living example of enduring discernment and courage for the hard and often empty times that are upon us all. The esteem of parents and friends can only go so far: elders must bring the rest. Elders’ status as grand people and god people comes from having wrangled wisdom from experience. Grandparents must now be elders even – especially – when no one asks it of them. The proving ground for learning elderhood is learning grief – an enormous challenge in a death phobic, grief illiterate, ‘be all you can be’ time.

Kerry Lane's picture

Great post Chris, welcome to

Great post Chris, welcome to the social reporting team and thank you for highlighting why I never quite got my head around the honouring the elders ingredients. I totally recognise that people gain life experience and skills throughout life and so theoretically the sum total increases with age! But as you so rightly point out that doesn't mean people of every age don't have something to share. Something I have learnt in permaculture is that everyone know their own solutions the best as they are most intimately aware of their situation. So rather than expecting other people to give answers I think everyone sharing their knowledge and perspectives is more valuable.