The Culture of Aging

People sometimes ask me what I mean by ‘the culture of aging’. I can start by explaining what I mean by ‘culture’.

Culture is, first of all, a word. And, like all words, it is a label for some phenomenon, some observable thing or idea. Culture is a concept and a very basic aspect of who we are. It contributes to how we relate to the world and, most of the time, constitutes an opening for our actions. It is a context for our human experience and occurs as a kind of non-stop conversation about ‘the way it is’. Culture defines our local reality, our norms and acceptable practices and, most importantly, what is and is not possible. Our paradigms or interpretations of the world persist and are maintained through culture.

I think of culture as similar to those Chinese boxes or Russian dolls, in which one is nested inside the other. At the individual level, we can observe how culture manifests in the behavior of individual people (such as how we drive, how we eat and how we behave in a variety of situations). Culture also defines our experience of relationship. For example, our experience of friendship, family, marriage and teams can vary from one culture to another. Each of these relationships occurs very differently depending on whether you live in California, Nigeria, Argentina or Italy. Most of us have a real experience of ‘organizational culture’ and how it can shape people’s moods, actions and ‘hallway conversations’ to the point of enhancing or limiting results in the real world. Some companies have gone out of business because their culture did not allow for change. We can keep adding larger and larger ‘Chinese boxes’ to include society, ethnic traditions, civilizations all the way up to seeing the level of a culture of ‘human being’ that is reflected in universal concerns and taboos.

The point is that culture, at whatever level we perceive it, organizes our practices. Humberto Maturana, a famous biologist/philosopher from Chile, showed that human beings, like all animals, are ‘disclosers’—we interact with the world we perceive, not some direct, unfiltered experience of an ‘objective reality’. Moreover, the world we perceive might be understood as a projection of our worldview. In other words, we have a self-referential relationship with everything. In practice, culture not only defines our world. For most of us, culture is our world most of the time.

Which brings me back to the culture of aging. Just as our ethnic heritage can be one of the Chinese boxes, our age is one of the most defining characteristics of who we imagine ourselves to be. Just listen to people speaking about not only their personal relationship with their own age, but also their view of others and age in general. It is a very specific conversation (and if we listen to enough people, consistent to the point of almost being repeated verbatim, as if it were a cliché).

Just as an organizational culture can be observed as the conversation about ‘the way it is around here’, the culture of aging can be observed as ‘the way it is when you are young’ or ‘the way it is as we grow older’. We are born into an historical discourse that for some may lead to being a wise person, a sage or even a ‘national treasure’ (as is the case for some old masters in Japan). But for most, to grow older is not about being listened to, acknowledged, honored and appreciated for our life experience and contributions. No, it is about surviving, facing physical challenges, and gradually disconnecting and disengaging from other people and the day-to-day business of living.

This ‘conversation’ about growing older is no more true or false than any other historical ‘story’ that over time has faded into quaint memory and superstition. Yet, it persists. It is often sustained by a “Yes, but” reflex—“So and so doesn’t fit that profile,” or “That isn’t the way I think.” It is the exceptions that often make the rule. The fact that very few of us look forward to getting older with any enthusiasm or see old age as a positive experience to be embraced and celebrated makes the point.

Changing culture is difficult. In fact, it is almost impossible to do on purpose because culture has the capacity to either include (homogenize) new ideas and possibilities into more of the same or reject any anomalies or challenges altogether. We might say the purpose of culture is to enable the persistence of the past—to perpetuate the story of the way it is and the way it works—whatever our beliefs and worldview have been. What is required is not to ‘change the culture’, but to create a new conversation, a new worldview that is consistent with our current vision and commitments. As individuals, we can create this new reality by speaking and living the ‘new story’. And when enough people no longer buy the ‘old story’, then the culture will shift for everyone.

As Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt the power of an individual or small group of people to change the world, indeed that is the only way it ever happens”.

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