Eldering: Transforming Age

By Jim Selman | Bio

I think that one of the things going on these days is that ‘Baby Boomers’ are waking up to the fact that they have a choice about how they age and what it means to be old. The Boomer label is just a demographic slogan. Personally, I don’t like being lumped into a single category with 70 million other folks. This sociological category of “Baby Boomer” (which is now almost synonymous with growing older) makes it easy for us to slip into generalizations about age and aging, generalizations that have been here for generations. Even when we attempt to show how Boomers aren’t like other generations, we are subtly reinforcing a profoundly negative and disempowering stereotype of what it means to grow older.

When I first started to work with culture I remember someone telling me that ‘sex’ was a biological fact, but ‘gender’ was just an interpretation that we collectively ‘buy into’. The same idea struck me about age. Change as we age is a biological fact. But age itself and what it means is just an interpretation—a cultural story that we take for granted as ‘truth’. While there are obviously lots of exceptions, most of us are growing older into a story that at some point we decline, life offers fewer possibilities and that our later years are not something to look forward to. Most people reach what they consider to be their ‘prime’ and then become resigned to have what time they have left be as comfortable as possible.

Since 1980, I have been committed to changing this story. This is why we created The Eldering Institute and the Eldering Manifesto.

Every generation thinks that their experience and view of the world is special or unique. More often than not, the ‘young’ think that the ‘old’ people don’t understand or listen and are out of touch with the way the world really is. The ‘old’ think that the ‘young’ lack respect and are destroying important values and even the very fabric of what is important in society. Growing older is often characterized by wizened ‘oldtimers’ in rocking chairs bemoaning the state of the world. If we could simultaneously eavesdrop on millions of conversations in coffee shops, carpools and wherever people are gathered, we could listen to people talking about ‘the way it is’ as they grow older. Whether people agree or disagree on a particular point doesn’t matter. What we can observe is that most of the conversations are the same. Collectively, they reveal a ‘culture of aging’ in which the prevailing view is that how old you are dictates what is and is not possible in life and comprises our conventional wisdom about ‘reality’—ourselves, the world and what will happen in the future.

Like most people of my post-World War II American-born generation, I live at a time in history that is unprecedented on many levels—a time that is arguably a turning point not only for civilization and the planet, but also for the human species itself. Never before have we seen so much change in such a short period of time. Never before have we had to face so many life-threatening crises, nor have we ever been presented with so many opportunities. The human genome has opened possibilities for not only eliminating disease but also being able to ‘engineer’ human biology. The fields of physics and metaphysics are merging as we learn that the Universe itself may be nothing more than ‘great clouds of possibility’. Many of the theoretical assumptions underlying the fields of management, psychology, economics and political science are proving to be false or no longer relevant. Institutions, organizations and even governments that seemed to be stable, even permanent, are failing at ever increasing rates. We can no longer trust our models for forecasting the future. The limited carrying capacity of the planet, our climate and our essential resources (such as water, rainforests and arable land) are, for the first time in history, threatening our survival.

Yet, in the face of these and many other breakdowns, human beings have never been more creative, had more freedom, more tools, and more possibility. We’re told knowledge is expanding exponentially and technology (while two-edged) is transforming our reality every day. Human consciousness movements are proclaiming that the promise of the ‘New Age’ is right around the corner. The Internet is becoming a universal platform for cross-cultural communication and global solidarity is appearing to be a real possibility. Political ‘reality’ is moving slowly but inevitably toward evolving new structures for accommodating cultural, ethnic and religious diversity within larger systems for resolving conflict, eliminating corruption and creating a universal ‘rule of law’ for the planet.

The point isn’t about whether we should be pessimistic or optimistic about the future or whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. The point is to recognize that we individually and collectively have a choice about how we relate to the future and that whatever the future will be will be a consequence of our individual and collective actions. It is also important to realize that the demographic group living today that will have the biggest impact on what our collective future will be are those in what has been called the ‘Baby Boom’ generation—my generation, give or take a few years. This is simply because there are more of us.

If the past 60 years or so is any indicator, society will go whichever way the ‘Boomers’ go—from suburbia and rock & roll in the 50s to a long stream of movements that put a man on the moon and challenged the Viet Nam war in the 60s, to Feminism and Civil Rights in the 70s, to Gay Rights and Environmentalism in the 80s and “globalization” and the Internet in the 90s. Since the 21st century began, we’ve been caught up in domestic and global ideological conflict while working to transform our worldviews of what is possible and discovering profound ‘truths’ about the nature of who we are and our Universe. What we are up to now is confronting and reinventing what it means to grow older and what is possible in the last third of our lives.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.