On Inheriting Elderhood
Looking Back Across the Generation Gap

by Stephen Wing

published in Co-Options, newsletter of Sevananda Cooperative

I've been losing my elders. Not those of my parents' age, many of whom are still around, but some older friends of my youth who led the way into a strange, unprecedented time when we were "finally," as Neil Young sang it, "on our own."

Leading the way again, Eddie, Earle and Michael have passed on and left me wondering.

Ever since the invention of time itself, parents have been passing down to children the slow accumulation of custom and belief called "culture." Generation after generation of children have added their own contributions and passed it on. This seems to be the basic way human society is designed to operate.

Naturally, we modern Westerners have rejected that model. Wisdom and experience are now passe, because among the contributions of my generation was the discovery that you can't trust your parents. "Culture" is learned nowadays by imitating the latest crop of teenagers.

Parents, traditionally, are the keepers of tradition; the children are in charge of evolution. In a tribal society where parents and children love and trust each other, both roles are valued. Rather than eliminating tension, a cooperative society puts it to use for the common good.

But naturally, in our competitive Western society we experience any such tension as a conflict: a "generation gap." Conflict means drama, as any successful Hollywood screenwriter can tell you. It's much more entertaining if opposites are enemies.

In many sane and sustainable cultures, child-rearing is the grandparents' domain. Cured of youthful assumptions, delusions, egotism and pretense— as well as society's— the elderly might have a clearer view of reality to pass on. Such a delayed feedback loop has obvious advantages.

But naturally, not here. Over the past half-century we Americans have pioneered a bold new cultural mutation. We efficiently quarantine our senior citizens in special compounds to avoid catching that wrinkly, spotted condition which seems to have no cure.

During the same half-century, by no coincidence, the social engineers of advertising and PR quietly achieved another radical mutation. Once upon a time, when a child reached puberty anywhere on Earth, he or she joined the world of adults, with or without a coming-of-age ritual. Until the Baby Boom generation, there was no such thing as a "teenager."

Imagine the perfect consumer: suspended between childhood and adulthood, with a full-grown body and a child's love for toys and play; grownup appetites for entertainment and enjoyment, and childish attitudes of self-absorption and dependency; an adult's boundless interests and a child's endless energy— and parents to pay the bills. Someone whose only relationship with the elderly is an annual Christmas present.

But as the Boomers aged, "teenager" became more than just a phase. Many of us seem to have adopted it for life, as if it was a paradigm of our generation, an identity we carry (or that carries us) to our graves. How many do you know who strive to keep their college-student lifestyle intact, partying and movies and the latest brand of fun?

Don't judge us too harshly. Remember, the early Boomers had no elders they could trust. We tagalongs had only them.

So how is Western culture going to get passed down from the current generation to the next? This used to worry me. Then it dawned on me that for all its virtues, Western culture is the most destructive force on the planet— trumpeting the virtues of free enterprise and democracy while steadily funneling the planet's living wealth into credit-driven self-indulgence and corporate dividends.

Maybe it's a good thing our "culture" doesn't get passed on in the usual way. No wonder each generation of teenagers in turn rebels against their parents' materialism, nationalism, militarism, ethno-centrism, or all of the above.

Since the Baby Boom, in fact, teen rebellion has become a major theme of our culture, passed down from Generation X to Generation Y like ancient ancestral wisdom. But exactly how is it being transmitted across each successive generation gap?

Until you visit another country or spend time in the wilderness, it's almost too omnipresent to notice. Like a baby chick that imprints on the first moving thing it sees after breaking out of its shell, we've all grown up trusting the media. And as cable channels multiply and competing media offer a more and more bewildering variety of entertainment, it's easy to overlook the agenda of "popular culture."

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Through their media interface, continually selling us the latest way to imitate rebellious teenagers, corporations have taken charge of human evolution. By investing heavily in right-wing politicians and fundamentalist Christianity, they have co-opted tradition. Where we once had a culture they have substituted a marketplace, and they're milking it for all we're worth. The corporations of today add a shiny new polish to the phrase, "organized crime."

I imagine old-folks homes full of regretful elders, only now realizing the foolishness of their youth, of our entire culture, and wishing they could warn their grandkids— anybody's grandkids. But they have been effectively sidelined.

Former grade-school teacher John Taylor Gatto's books Dumbing Us Down and An Underground History of American Education describe how the compulsory school system was designed from the beginning to scientifically turn kids into passive, obedient workers and consumers. Former advertising man Jerry Mander's books Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television and In the Absence of the Sacred explain how the technology of mass media is used to make us a nation of shoppers, trained to be led by the nose from sale to sale.

Whether the internet can save us will depend. If we use it like a TV set or a newspaper, there is no end to the amount of useful, fascinating, and inspiring information we can find, consume and collect. But if staying informed takes up all our time, it's useless. Right now I've somehow gotten on so many email lists that it's difficult to pick out one action alert and respond.

But even activism isn't enough. In an epoch of dangers and disasters beyond anything the Boomers faced, I believe that the gap of distrust between the generations— that no-man's-land now filled by the corporate media— is territory that must be reclaimed. I try never to forget that whenever a younger person is watching, we are all elders. Whether good, bad, or simply trying our best, our example is always noticed.

If our actions are true to our words, if we respect our youngers enough to somehow gain their trust, if despite the efforts of social engineers the generations can find a common thread to call "culture," in the long run we may find that thread is a lifeline we desperately need.

Thank you, Eddie! Thank you, Earle! Thank you, Michael! All my relations.