Where have all the elders gone?

Posted by Flux on 

10 October 2011

What is trending now?

We have traded our elders in for Google. A trend lately is the ‘disappearance’ of our elders our traditional sources of wisdom and counsel.
Our society, especially in the west, and very specifically in South Africa is becoming more and more segmented. Our population is intentionally and unintentionally divided according to age.

Why it’s important?

Intentionally or unintentionally separating generations dilutes and even cuts off the flow of wisdom, wisdom being the experience to handle knowledge. And with more knowledge to our disposal than ever before we need wisdom and experience more than ever before.

A couple of reasons why this is happening are…

Disintegration of the family unit

With almost 2 out of 3 marriages ending in divorce contributing greatly to the almost 9 million, that is half the children in South Africa growing up without present fathers. The basic family unit has long been described by many as the most basic building block of a healthy society .


122 000 kids are living in child headed households. Children as young as 9 are raising their siblings. Up to 600 000 kids have lost at least one parent to HIV/AIDS.


As a result of the worldwide economic crisis we are seeing tertiary students finishing their bachelors’ degree only to find out that they are not able to find employment, so they return to their studies. Finishing an honors, masters and even a doctorate before being able to find work. What we then have is the most educated workforce in the history of mankind, with little or no real experience or wisdom.

Cultural differences

Ever since the industrial revolution, education systems have resembled assembly lines, creating divisions according to age. Where the most natural learning process is to learn in mixed group where the older can teach the younger. The long standing apprentice model is long gone.

As a result of the youth movements during the 1950’s and 60’s there has been a marked difference between the cultures of the generations, more than ever before. For example there was no marked difference in the fashions of living generations before the 1900’s or even before the 1950’s.

Ritual and ceremony

Initiations ceremonies are disappearing largely due to misunderstanding and due to some of the reasons mentioned here. Young men never really quite feel like young men, they have no marker to distinguish childhood from adulthood. The link between the lack of ritual and mentorship and the allure of gangs has long been discussed. See The Ritual Process by Victor Turner.


Due to the rapid growth in technological development, I’m typing this on an iPad while my mother still got driven to school in a horse drawn buggy, massive cultural differences have begin to appear between the generations. As though they were not only from different periods but from different cultures.

And with easy access to the internet, as said at the beginning of this observation, we no longer need elders to teach us a skill because we have Google and YouTube.


A celebrity used to be someone that was celebrated for their achievements or contributions to humankind. Since the 90’s anyone that showed up wearing a dress made of bacon or is photographed without any clothes is now called a celebrity.  No longer does it takes years to build a career, you just need to be spotted on YouTube or win a competition.

All these factors are causing further disconnection between the experienced elder and the inexperienced youth ending with both parties viewing the other as irrelevant.

What’s the butterfly effect

With no connection to responsible present parental figures and elders the futures of our societies and cultures are at risk. What can result is morally lacking and ethically frail culture, a culture that in some places will have almost limitless resources at its disposal.

The Pioneers

There are however groups and individuals that have been started to address this trend and created almost counter cultural and intentional expression that aim to spread wisdom.
The Elders are a group of experience individuals called together Nelson Mandela in 2007.

‘…an independent group of global leaders who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human   suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.’ ( See

Wisdom, the coffee table book by Andrew Zuckerman shows beautifully shot portraits of famous individuals over 60 along with a written piece of containing their wisdom.

Certain spiritualities are intentionally creating spaces where youth and the aged can mix and build relationships. (See

Education systems are rediscovering the value or vertical instead of horizontal grouping. See Sir Ken Robinson’s talks on and Google Maria Montessori to see her 100 year old, still ground breaking, education philosophy.

Global hotspots

This trend seems to dominate western culture, where technology and information are more readily and freely available, and the areas where western culture have influence. In the other areas, mostly in native cultures in the so called third world, that are not so connected seem to be ironically more connected cross generationally and are relying on the relationships between the generations to spread skills and wisdom.

By: Pierre Du Plessis

About Pierre

Pierre is a communicator, a dreamer and a troublemaker. He loves how we are all connected in more astounding ways and more than we ever thought.
He is completely obsessed with life in contemporary culture and he wallows in new ideas and marvels at how they can restore and re – create our world.

Image credit: Gallo Images/ Getty Images

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