Returning Older Americans To Traditional Mentoring Roles
Most Americans continue to believe that the education of our youth and young adults is to be accomplished by a combination of parental upbringing and formal schooling——K-12, college, and possibly graduate school——with tutoring and even therapy along the way, if necessary.
Could it be that this established educational track is no longer sufficient when our young adults have to struggle with the mounting social and economic conditions that surround them, including, but not limited to, the unprecedented unemployment rate of their age group, which signals that there is something profoundly wrong and a massive threat to their futures?
The Federal Reserve reports that “so-called “parental co-residence rates” have risen across the country over the last decade. In 12 U.S. states, this rate for 25-year-olds rose above 50% as of 2012-13. Four states—Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Vermont—have seen rates rise by more than 20 percentage points between 2003 and 2013. And 36% of the nation’s young adults ages 18 to 31—the so-called Millennial generation—were living in their parents’ home (Pew Research Center analysis)
It’s No Wonder That Some of Our Sons and Daughters Are Showing Signs of Personal Wear and Tear
From Steve Boyle:
From my mentoring experience, I believe it’s no wonder that some of our sons and daughters are showing signs of wear and tear from the mounting social and economic conditions that surround us all. We know the signs: anxiety, resistance, withdrawal, apathy, unhappiness, lack of focus, lack of self-esteem, excessive sleeping, irresponsibility, hostility and, increasingly, narcotics use.
My greatest mentoring challenge occurred while attending Columbia University’s Teachers College, where I was the mentor, guardian and financial benefactor to a 26-year-old heroin-addicted mother and her 6-year-old daughter for a two-year period (no family relationship between them and me). After bringing them under my roof, to her great credit, the mother detoxed in three months and then enrolled in a 13-week course at a theater make-up school in Lower Manhattan, where she was hired by her school as a make-up instructor upon graduation. We had few issues over that two-year period, and the mother went on to become a key member of the crews that support the on-the-road Broadway shows that tour the U.S., and the daughter, now in her 20s, is doing well.
I became further immersed in these personal wear and tear situations as a high school and middle school teacher in a small town along the U.S./Mexico border. I taught economics to the seniors, general science from 6th through 9th grades, and I offered an entrepreneurship course as an elective. I was also a mentor to the hardest-case, at-risk students in the school, where my assistance included, (i) moving one student, with the help of a justice of the peace, from impending incarceration to a counseling group; and (ii) extricating another student—-with a quiet warning from the town marshal—-from probable arrest just as a multi-agency narcotics bust swept through town to apprehend 21 persons of interest. The path was cleared for both students to advance and they moved to higher ground.
Moreover, I found that mentoring and teaching entrepreneurship go hand-in-hand because our next generation is yearning to compare notes and swap ideas about how to proceed with their plans for the future. And they yearn to do this with older, well-experienced, trusted individuals——resembling a caring uncle or aunt, or a devoted grandfather or grandmother——the authentic figures in their lives who are good listeners and storytellers of the real world; those who will provide their insights from long and diverse personal experience——and, in doing so, help each student develop his or her own internal compass.
Our Young Adults Are Facing Obstacles That Parental Upbringing, Formal Schooling, Tutoring and Therapy May Not Be Able To Address
My experience as a mentor confirmed my belief that the obstacles many students face are not able to be addressed by parental upbringing, formal schooling, tutoring and therapy. Do we conclude that Americans are out of ideas about addressing the full education needed by our next generations under these unprecedented times? Does history have anything to offer?
Thankfully, there is long historical evidence that the resilience and solidarity of many indigenous societies rested on a strong educational force of elders who, because of their advanced age, long experience, and insights, held the respectful attention of their youth and young adults and prepared them—in terms of resilience and moral character, as well as competency——to face and address changing social and economic conditions of great difficulty.
What About A New Breed of Mentors Who Are the Elders of Our Current American Society To Bring Their Age, Long Experience, and Insights To Our Next Generations?
The goal of such a new mentoring practice would be to assemble, train, and deploy a force of American elders who have the age, the life-experience, and the insights our next generations need to cope with increasingly difficult social and economic conditions predicted ahead. Such elders are the women and men who have already connected the dots; who know how the world actually works; and who have tremendous energy to draw in our youth and young adults to give them the grounding needed to advance with a sense of solidarity and with their inner compasses revitalized.
These elders must come from all walks of life and rely heavily on experiential education to maximize their effectiveness. Accordingly, classroom instruction, which is the forte of conventional academic education, would be minimal. Instead, internships, on-the-job training, apprenticeships, workplace studies, and extensive use of workplace simulators would dominate the learning environment. The elders would play a major role in sharpening the critical thinking of their students by broadening their perspectives and organizing them into “thought communities” in which the impediments to trust are eliminated and openness, creativity and the challenging of existing paradigms would be routine. One such example is to reexamine the premises of education along the following lines: Institutions of education of any society, in the best cases, hold and project the group compass of those societies; becoming the repository of the ideals, the core beliefs that provide vital direction, and the sense of solidarity to sustain themselves under the most adverse conditions.
This is not an abstract issue: There are many credible predictions of an upcoming national, and possibly global, collapse and eventually a recovery on both the societal and economic levels. And American education must lead in preparing our next generation to face and cope with this prediction.
Accordingly, the internal compass of any society and its embedded educational system must have a “great narrative” as its cornerstone, which reinforces the personal identity of its members. Neil Postman, in his THE END OF EDUCATION (1996), provides an excellent insight into the importance of a great narrative as a fundamental necessity of any society, community, or group. All such narratives, according to Postman:
“…….tell of origins and envision a future, a story that constructs ideals, prescribes rules of conduct, provides a source of authority, and, above all, gives a sense of continuity and purpose…..one that has sufficient credibility, complexity, and symbolic power to enable one to organize one’s life around it…….one that provides people with a sense of personal identity, a sense of a community life…..Our genius lies in our capacity to make meaning through the creation of narratives that give point to our labors, exalt our history, elucidate the present, and give direction to our future.”
Could it be that this new breed of mentors—elders of our American society—are the right ones to re-illuminate the great American narrative for the benefit of our next generation, and the next generations to follow? If it is unlikely to come from the parents, from schooling, from tutoring, or from therapy, who are more ideal than the elders—–ones of long experience and insights who already know that great American narrative and have internalized it long ago—–to pass that folklore on to our next generations?
Everyone knows the standard narrative of aging in the modern world. In a nutshell, it sucks. According to the dominant story of our day, getting older is one long, depressing decline into degeneration, illness and irrelevance. Certain events are said to be inevitable: decreased physical and cognitive function, massive medical bills and possible bankruptcy, neurological melt-down and perhaps worst of all, social and cultural irrelevance. In short, getting older is a disaster to be avoided by any means possible.
The outlook is grim, so we medicalize the process with every power we’ve got. We treat aging like a disease and conjure up all manner of treatments and substances to slow, stop or reverse the ravages of time. Time becomes our enemy. Gripped by fear, we promote the virtues of “healthy aging.” A flood of books, magazine articles and experts tell us how to get older without well, getting older. We try to stop the clock, reverse the damage, delay the onset, reduce the effects and dampen the symptoms. What we really mean by “healthy aging” is not aging at all.
The personal and social consequences of this narrative are catastrophic. Not only does it make us increasingly miserable as time goes by, it also drives the widespread practice of ageism. Under its influence, we begin to see seniors as nothing more than a drag on society and the economy. Old people are a burden and an inconvenience; they become progressively less valuable to us with every passing moment. Human value, in other words, decreases over time.
This chrono-phobia is both dangerous and counter-productive. Not only does it devalue much of human life, it also puts us under an insane level of stress. If you believe that your “golden years” are your 30’s and 40’s, followed by a progressive decline into illness and irrelevance, the clock is going to be ticking loud and hard. Your sense of urgency will magnify with every passing year. You’ve got to hurry up and make something happen because once your body starts to slow down, it’s game over. Even worse, you’ve got to make yourself a big pile of money right now because once you hit 50, the medical-industrial complex is going to step in and take most of it away.
Sadly, the modern health and fitness industry is a powerful enabler of this destructive narrative. We are enthusiastic partners in the medicalization of aging. For every age-related insult to the human body, we claim to have a solution. Diets and substances galore, exercise programs for every ailment, the list goes on. Magazine covers and websites glorify youth and the promise of eternal life. According to our marketing, aging is not inevitable. It’s simply the failure to eat the right things and move the right ways. If you get on a program with us, you’ll never have to suffer the ravages of time.
Viewed in the context of human history, today’s narrative is distinctly abnormal. In the Paleolithic era, tribal survival was highly dependent on the experience and wisdom of tribal elders. The “old ones” knew how to stay alive. They had witnessed the cycles of weather and seasons. They had participated in many hunts and had seen the waxing and waning of animal life. They had seen the tribe suffer and flourish. In this world, the words of the elders carried considerable weight. Far from being a drag on society, they were essential to survival. As the keepers of vital knowledge and wisdom, they were the most valuable and respected members of the community. In the Paleo world, human value increased over time.
Tragically, we are the first culture in human history to devalue its elders. Likewise, we are the first culture in history to reject the very people who might help us choose the best path forward. To make progress, it’s essential that we turn this narrative of aging around, but where shall we begin? A good first step would be to give up our obsession with youth. Yes, there’s plenty to be said for the vitality and exuberance of young adulthood and all the pleasures that go with it. But to cling to this at the exclusion of all else is to go blind to bigger possibilities. The wiser course is start taking responsibility for becoming tribal elders. This means learning the ways of the world and sharing our knowledge with those within our reach. It is not acceptable to simply long for retirement on the golf course or worse yet, a retirement home. We must step up.
In primal world, the elders were fully aware of this role. Their experience made it clear: their primary purpose was to act on behalf of the tribe, to share their knowledge, to give away their insights so that the tribe could live another day, another season, another year. There would have been no thought of retirement, no notion of self-pampering or hoarding. For the Paleo senior citizen the primal directive was simple: give your knowledge away so that the tribe can live.
And with all due respect to the seniors in today’s world, there’s no escaping the fact that many older people have hitched their star to the wrong narrative. They’ve bought into a belief that one’s senior years ought to be a time for relaxing at the second home, taking golf lessons, lounging in the shade or touring the country in a gigantic RV. Retirement, in other words, is about pampering the self. But in the traditional-native-indigenous view, this behavior would be seen as self-indulgent, narcissistic and profoundly anti-social. In fact, the duty of the senior citizen is to take leadership, to assume responsibility and show the way forward.
As chronically aging people in the modern world, we have been dodging our responsibility. The urgency of our time is to teach what we know, to pass our knowledge to the younger members of our tribe so that they might live. So take a new look at your body and your life: Your wrinkles, your aching joints and your diminished athletic performance are not downsides to be eliminated; they are badges of authority and reminders of your sacred responsibility.
You have a job to do.
Get on with it.
Above, Shaman of the Achuar People of the Achuar Territory in the Ecuadorian Rainforest
Below, Lew Sanborn, age 86, 7,500 free-fall jumps, former owner and chief instructor, Orange Sport Parachuting Center, Orange, Massachusetts—-the first commercial free-fall sport parachuting school in the United States, which opened on May 10th, 1959
Below, Batch Pond, Senior Norseman Pilot, Orange Sport Parachuting Center, staying jump qualified—-formerly a barnstorming biplane pilot
Below, Dusty Smith, age 76, Associate Professor, English Department, Gettysburg College, former Manager, Orange Sport Parachuting Center, Orange, Massachusetts
Below, Steve Boyle, age 76, High School Teacher, Economics and General Science, Patagonia Union High School, Patagonia, Arizona, former Manager, Orange Sport Parachuting Center, Orange, Massachusetts