Becoming older

Cato Hemels

Yesterday my grandfather turned eighty. A special birthday of a dear family member. To celebrate this milestone together, friends and family traveled to Limburg from all over the Netherlands. There was an extensive meal and perhaps even more extensive talk. About the past, the present and the future. For example, a great-uncle told my nieces and me that we are the future and we speculated about what the world looks like when "the grandchildren" turn eighty. Because of all the beautiful stories, I also got a glimpse into what it is like to turn eighty in the Netherlands today.

Different culture, different values

It got me thinking about what it's actually like to turn eighty in a different culture. I came across an inspiring TED Talk of Jared Diamond, in which he talks about his 50 years of research into aging in New Guinea. He compares traditional societies such as "New Guinea farming societies" with modern societies like ours. According to Diamond, differences between traditional and modern societies can be divided into two dimensions. 

The first dimension is employability. In New Guinea, many older people make themselves useful by helping with cooking, looking after the youngest children, making tools and textiles, or transferring knowledge. I myself must immediately think of the term "sustainable employability". A hip term that is often discussed in Western business, while it seems to have been practiced in New Guinea for centuries. Sustainable employability means that companies focus on the health, involvement and development of their employees, who work to an increasingly advanced age.

The second dimension in which societies differ is cultural values. Consider, for example, the difference between collectivist versus individualist values. For example, most families in New Guinea live together under the same roof, with their friends literally around the corner, while most older people in the US live without their children and childhood friends. The average American moves every five years. This increases the chance of ending up at a great distance from family and friends. 

Another example of Western cultural value is the focus on work. In many modern societies, great value is attached to having a job. When you stop working, it may just be that you are less respected. Our culture also places high demands on people when it comes to independence and self-reliance. Requirements that older people can often meet less naturally, which can also lead to a "decline in value". This decline in the value of older people in modern societies contrasts sharply with the high level of respect for older people in New Guinea. They are respected for their life experience and knowledge. The absence of libraries and the internet ensures that the elderly are the source of information. Where we often google something, they go to an older person to ask their question. 

I think that as a society, we are hugely depriving inzijolder people, and leave a lot of potential untapped, if we stick to the image that they are of less value than the rest of the population. In that regard, we can learn some wise lessons from the societies in New Guinea. 

Baby boomer image

In addition to these lessons, Jared Diamond also lists a whole range of skills that older people (regardless of culture) are often very good at and that we as a society should use. In this way we improve the lives of individual elderly people and achieve an optimum as a society. As far as I'm concerned a great starting point, which Diamond tells more about in his TED Talk, which I definitely recommend to look at in its entirety.

By the way, one of the skills that Diamond says increases with age is the ability to help others without getting in the way of one's ego. I think this is a perfect description of the image I have of my grandparents. Caring, helpful and unconditional. Not entirely in line with the stereotypical image of baby boomers, I suspect. 

Cato Hemels is an analyst at ftrprf. She wrote this article in a personal capacity for the theme Generations


Leave a Reply