Given our interconnected world, our so-called pursuit of happiness has consequences beyond the personal sphere. Our actions and behaviors affect other people, our surroundings, and our global environment. The mainstream adult values of incessant achievement, of material over psychological and spiritual growth, of progress for the sake of progress, of looking out for number one, of valuing speed over slowness, of preferencing image over substance: all of these behaviors and goals run counter to a sustainable planet.

Elder values, in contrast—with their emphasis on personal encounter, on slowing down, on being rather than doing, on paying attention to our authentic selves, on inner rather than outer growth—have less detrimental impact on people and planet than adult values do. We need to attend to elder values if we are to live in a sustainable society and world, if we want to nurture a kinder people, a healthier and more livable planet.

We cannot continue to develop and use earth’s resources without limit. We cannot continue to ignore the wellbeing of the world’s population while focusing on our individual wellbeing. Through our interconnectedness, we are more and more influenced by those who are not as privileged as we are, who do not enjoy sufficient access to resources. We cannot pretend that their suffering does not affect us.

Learning from Our Wisdomkeepers

Though a familiar concept, wisdom is not talked about much within our societies. We are prone to speak more in terms of knowledge and information rather than wisdom. Wisdom may be understood as good judgment based on accumulated learning, a learning that requires time and maturation. The latter is often only possible after a long life filled with trials and experiences.

Traditionally, the term elder described a person who possessed wisdom through having struggled with the conundrums each life invariably brings. Continued learning and deepening awareness were the fruits of such struggle. Elders were said to practice eldership, a role that offered wise counsel and judgment to whoever sought it.

Today’s societies have suppressed this role, a loss that is evident through an emphasis on youth, an anti-aging philosophy, and a stress on technical, specialized knowledge rather than wisdom. Much research in the last few decades shows that emotional maturation continues during the aging process, as does a deepening of our awareness or wisdom. We now see life as a long progression, a growth that continues all the way until our passing.

The Purpose of Aging and Old Age

Humans are meaning-making beings. We need purpose to feel fulfilled. What is our purpose when we get older, old, and very old? How do we make sense of our accrued years within societies that have done away with the role of elders and forgotten about eldership? Clearly, the world needs elders and the values they bring to the fore. Even a cursory view of the world today and the many issues needing to be tackled shows that people and planet are not well served by our dominant adult values. Elder values can augment these adult values with a more sustainable approach to these challenges. For this to happen our aged population, our elders, need to start valuing themselves, to appreciate what their life journey has endowed them with.

We are in a unique position to help elders take such a long view of life, where aging is valued as a maturation and deepening process. It is the very process of aging that allows a person to ripen into full humanity, to develop into the elder who is able to guide and mentor the next generation. In this way, elders are to be understood as stewards of society and the planet—as has traditionally been their role. Would we not rather have the most experienced and wise leaders guiding us, especially during troubled times?

The Road Ahead

If we intend to restore the role of eldership in our societies, then much psychological work lies ahead. Notably, we will need to address an ageism that many younger, but especially older, adults have internalized. Many decades of messages about the undesirability, even disease, of aging must be addressed and countered. Many of our elders have retreated into adults-only communities, hiding in their homes or, if they can afford it, at elder vacation spots. Furthermore, the script for retirement in which the elder ceases engagement in productive work has to be rewritten. Civil involvement by our wiser, more mature citizens is needed now more than ever. We may regard the last phase of life as perhaps the most important, as the peak of the human crescendo, when a long life of experience and learning may find a most singular focus and purpose – for both, ourselves and others.