Tall Pedestals for Old People

There’s a tricky space for adults as we grow up in our community work.

Spending all these years working with children and youth, I’m treated with more respect than ever before. Young people quiet when I speak, and older people lean in to listen. My peers recognize the experience I have and the knowledge I’ve accumulated, and my friends turn to me for advice. I’m a truly blessed man.

Getting my first job in this field of human engagement at the age of 14, I practically grew up in my career. I learned and grew along so many different pathways with so many different teachers and mentors who I will always stand indebted to. They were kind and harsh in equal measure, often working to make sure I didn’t grow up egotistical, other times letting me fall flat on my face when necessary. Always attentive, each in their own way. In the same way, my young people have taught me too. They’ve listened at times, learned other times, and let go occasionally.

This is how I’ve come to stare at this tall pedestal. Its about a million feet sometimes, and stands next to others’ tall pedestals. That’s the myth older people like me tell ourselves, anyway. We believe that since we’ve had all this experience and learned all this stuff we’re due some kind of innate respect and access that others aren’t.

However, I have learned that time owes us nothing, and none of us are due anything because of our age. Respect must be earned by subsequent generations and for all sorts of reasons. Age is an arbitrary distinguishing marker relied on by the lazy and privileged. The privilege of growing old doesn’t automatically anyone anything beyond wrinkles and Social Security, and even the latter is in question these days.

This doesn’t mean that young people should not be taught to value their elders, or that respect should only be afforded to those who demonstrate their worthiness. Instead, it means that the people who are in power right now- middle age adults- should set about teaching young people and each other that they can form substantive relationships between generations in order to foster meaningful interactions, which in turn allows older people opportunities to earn younger peoples’ respect. In turn, this allows elders to respect young people.

I read recently that youth and old age are the two mystical bookends of a lifetime. One end is occupied by visions and action, while the other is filled with reflections and ease. I believe that. But let’s acknowledge that tall pedestals for old people get nobody anywhere fast. Instead, let’s create a level playing field we can all benefit from.


CommonAction is available to train, speak, and share about this topic and many others. Contact me to talk about the possibilities by emailing adam@commonaction.org or calling (360)489-9680.

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