The notion of eldership – the idea that older people have a vital role to play as leaders and teachers – has been all but lost from the Western world; instead, youth and speed are prized, leaving older members of society feeling obsolete and irrelevant.
But there is a way that we can bridge the generation gap and help invest our knowledge and wisdom in younger people, writes Trevor Waldock, author of To Plant A Walnut Tree and Becoming Mandela.
I am sometimes asked why I am making the recovery of eldership into our culture such a mission these days.
It’s a fair question. One of the key qualities of an elder is that they see you, see your individual uniqueness and potential contribution to the world. I largely didn’t feel seen as a child, particularly by my father, and so the challenge to see myself has left me convinced of its importance as a quality that I experienced solely through the elders in my life.
The world has become rightly obsessed with a call for more leaders and leadership, but at the same time has failed to put this in its rightful context of what lies beyond leadership: eldership, as the necessary cradle in which leaders are formed. Leadership will never be what leadership needs to be – to serve the world – while we ignore eldership.
And on a personal level, I am trying to make sense, with few guiding maps, of this thing called aging and whether I can aspire and struggle towards becoming an elder myself.
Suddenly you reach a stage of life where you realise you’re getting older. Maybe it started in my early fifties when my doctor said to me, ‘Well, if you were my father…’. Doctors up until that moment had been my father’s age in my eyes, and now the scene was reversed.
Maybe it started when I noticed people’s ages. Walking through cemeteries and seeing how old people were when they died. Alan Rickman died at 70 – that’s just over four years away. My mum died at 68 – that’s just over two years away.
Two brushes with cancer, regular blood tests to check the coast is still clear, blood pressure that starts to jump up and down. Two sons who are thundering up close to 40, grandchildren full of turbo-charged energy wanting Grandad’s hands-on engagement.
Many would say to me ‘This is life’.
And that is the point.
We grow older.
Of course, we are growing older every day of our lives, but one day we wake up to that fact.
In T S Eliot’s wonderful, poignant poem, Alfred J Prufrock wrestled with exactly this issue: “I grow old … I grow old …”
Like me, he was wrestling with the meaning of his life, great questions that still wanted answers for. A creeping loss of confidence, a desire to break out, a fear of irrelevance, surrounded by people who were happy to retire and play golf.
I too still have burning questions about life and contribution and injustice. I still feel full of a life-force that begs to write another chapter.
Nelson Mandela, facing all these questions and more, would have drawn upon the wisdom of those elders that he had spoken of that cradled his formation from birth to death, shaping both his character and his own transition from leadership to eldership.
Elders helped him in his becoming and in 2007, on his 89th birthday in 2007, Mandela founded The Elders, a group of independent global leaders working together for peace, justice and human rights; to qualify, each had have earned international trust, demonstrated integrity, and built a reputation for inclusive, progressive leadership.
In Western culture in particular but also increasingly in other cultures, the absence of elders means the road map of aging is to get an education; accumulate things and status; retire, and then check out. Aging has lost its way, its meaning, its purpose and its legacy.
In the ancient Hindu tradition of Vanaprastha, elders would have gathered around me years ago at the age of 50 to guide me through a vital life transition. The word is formed of two parts, meaning ‘retiring’ and ‘into the forest’. Retiring, not in the sense of stopping work at 65 (a relatively recent invention born of economics), but in the sense that it’s time to pull back from the work of grihastha, the stage of life where we are focused on our careers, accumulating wealth, status and building a family.
Vanaprastha recognises that by age 50 it is time to start detaching your ego from all of these first-half-of-life attachments and go through a purposeful transition that crystallises all your experience to date and turns it into wisdom, in order to invest it into the next generation.
When I changed gear at the age of 62, from founding and leading an international organisation to focus on this issue of eldership and intergenerational mentorship, I didn’t encounter a gentle transition, but a shock as arresting as a Wim Hof ice bath.
‘Withdrawing into the forest’, the work of detaching from my ego-driven self that had created the organisation, the self who had hidden from its shadow side in order to try and shine brighter on the ‘light’ side, my post-traumatic self, long buried and now demanding attention… all came rushing in, begging for some long-overdue work to be done.
It was nothing short of scary, at times terrifying. I can see now the two reasons why Vanaprastha begins at 50: because you aren’t ready to seriously begin the ego work until then, and because the longer you leave it the harder it gets.
I can also see why wise elders were needed to guide you through a transition which is almost impossible to navigate on your own.
I have retired friends who say defiantly ‘It’s my time now’, while others are working into their seventies, terrified of retiring because they believe their relevance and their current identity will be demolished.
And in part, they are right. It will be a dance between breaking down and building up which results in the discovery of a deeper, truer version of yourself, filling up with crystallised wisdom and ready to contribute to a generation desperately hungry for meaning, for wisdom, for support through life’s transitions… for eldership.
So, yes, “I grow old … I grow old …” but I also endeavour to own all of me – the gifted and the flawed, the pearl and the woundedness, the ability and the vulnerability, the faith and the doubts, the optimism and the fear – and to contribute something of use to future generations.
It’s messy and it’s meaningful. It’s sometimes frightening and increasingly liberating. It’s all of this. It’s eldership.
Trevor Waldock will be co-hosting an online event on ‘Planting the Seed of Eldership Early’ with Harvard alumnus, leadership advisor and human capital consultant Triston Francis on Tuesday, 29th August 2023, exploring the concept of seeing yourself as an elder from a young age.
Drawing inspiration from the life journey of Nelson Mandela, the pair will discuss how we can live a life that leaves a legacy that benefits others.
For more information, visit bit.ly/eldershipevent
Discover more at www.emerging-elders.com