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Elders' wisdom could save us


Flickr image by JamelahWhy do we consider it a joy to look after infants and children, but a burden to care for the elderly? 

A degree of self-examination along these lines could provide a useful backdrop for community discussion that will follow today's announcement by Prime Minster Julia Gillard of sweeping changes in the way aged care is organised and funded.

The power of imagination allows us to look at the face of an older person and cherish the child that is obscured by the frail body and/or mind. Alternatively we can look at age as a value in itself, almost a tradable commodity. Many non-western cultures refer to the aged as elders and regard them as a vital source of wisdom that sustains their societies.

Gillard is right to stress that the increasing aged population must not be seen as a 'problem' requiring a 'solution'. But it would be better if she was able to go further and lead us to understand that our elders are an asset. In other words, what is derided as 'grey power' could contribute to our overall economic and spiritual prosperity as much as our mineral wealth. 

She refers to the two generations of retired — baby boomers and many of their parents — as if the cost of supporting them is a double burden rather than a double investment. Clearly that is the way most of us read the numbers as well.

Yet if we were able to convince ourselves that the larger non-working population is in reality a bank of wisdom, we would have a positive incentive to work harder to support older Australians. 

This may sound far-fetched, but it is arguable that a society will benefit economically if it is fuelled in greater measure by the wisdom of its elders. 

If we ask ourselves why society doesn't learn from its mistakes, the answer could be that we listen to our youth and not our elders. For instance, it looks as if we could be heading into a new global financial crisis (GFC). The reason is partly our failure to learn from the mistakes that caused the GFC three years ago. 

Many of the decisions on the financial markets are made by financial traders who are in their 20s. If they valued and sought the advice of their elders — including those with memories of the Great Depression — it is possible that a further GFC could be averted. This may seem a simplistic assertion, but it is one that is yet to be tested.

Youth may be the future, but there will be no future without the wisdom of the elders. If we look at challenges posed by our ageing population through the prism of this insight, we will have ready answers to many of the painful financial questions that confront us as a society.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Julia Gillard, aged care, elders, wisdom, GFC, Productivity Commission



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Existing comments

Young men are brash and bold, even foolhardy.

Testosterone levels peak in men's 20's, and decline thereafter. From a reproductive perspective this makes sense: younger men are more driven to seek out prospective mates, and are more likely to live long enough to help raise the children.

Younger men are the warriors, the aggressors: they're the ones who'll go out and fight, and on average it's the fittest who'll survive long enough to be old and wise, and prudent.

An article in The Observer of 19 June 2011 goes on to make the point that while gender "... inequality has been an issue in the City for years, ... the new science of 'neuroeconomics' is proving the point beyond doubt: hormonally-driven young men should not be left alone in charge of our finances …" ["Testosterone and high finance do not mix: so bring on the women", Tim Adams, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jun/19/neuroeconomics-women-city-financial-crash]

David Arthur | 08 August 2011  

I watched Julia Gillard giving her recent policy speech on age care (on TV). It was possible the best speech she ever gave. We all know her as the tough tungsten skinned politician we all have come to dislike. Her speech actually gave sign that she is in fact human and has she has some feeling like other human beings. Her policies against the murderous people smugglers and her empathy towards more mature Australians indicate that she may able to show some real human emotions.

Beat Odermatt | 08 August 2011  

Without claiming wisdom, those of us who lived through the Great Depression certainly adopted priorities that lasted.
High on the list have been been 'security'- a 'safe' job and a home. And, during the Depression, comradely help for those down on their luck.

Fortunately, the crazy economics of the 1930s - that made matters worse - was superseded by Keynesianism - government spending when unemployment threatens and pulling back in prosperous times.
It seemed that bad times would never reappear and later generations became over-confident - houses too grand and spending without regard to the future.
And now 'Keynes' has almost become a swear-word and greed is no longer a vice.
Perhaps there is a middle way, taking concern for a reasonable life from beginning to end, without extremes.

Bob Corcoran | 08 August 2011  

Beat Odermatt, who are the people smugglers? If you are thinking of the crews of the boats, the epithet 'murderous' is grossly unjust. If you refer to the businessmen who organise the travel, it may be just in some cases. They provide a service that is desperately wanted. If they are greedy, using unseaworthy boats (and risking the lives of their crews as well as their passengers), deliberately overloading the boats (and even not letting passengers get off when they see how dangerous the situation is) then maybe it is fair comment. If they are not motivated by greed it is not fair. It would be interesting to know how many of them see it as providing a service to the needy for a fair price (which must be enough to play for the boat that the vindictive Australian government will probably burn), and how many are just in it for the money and too bad what happens to the refugees.

Gavan | 08 August 2011  

I've substituted 'aged' for 'refugee' here: The power of imagination allows us to look at the face of a refugee and cherish the person that is obscured by the cultural difference. Alternatively we can look at the refugee as a value in itself, almost a tradable commodity. Many non-western cultures have a vital source of wisdom that sustains their societies. Could we not thus, substitute the 'aged' concept here for 'refugee'? Could not the increasing refugee group be seen not as a 'problem' requiring a 'solution' and wouldn't it be better if Julia Gillard was able to go further and lead us to understand that our refugees may well be an asset. In other words, what is derided as 'the refugee problem' could be something that could contribute to our overall economic and spiritual prosperity as much as our growth as a people. It is interesting too, that many of our 'aged' folk want to give the refugees a fair go - like we did the Vietnamese refugees.

Dr William Hartley | 08 August 2011  

To Gavan. In the highly unlikely event that one of the people smugglers is doing the trade in humans “out of the goodness of his heart”; they remain guilty of leading people to their death. The Government of Australia is trying to stop the trade in misery. The profiteers from this trade, may they live in Indonesia or pretend to be “human right activists”, are guilty for the tragic loss of human lives. These people know that people will die and they still fight to keep the people smuggling operations open. At least Julia Gillard is taking some actions to save a few lives.

It is interesting how the same people fight for the rights of animals and lobby to ban the export of livestock, but supports the smuggling of people in boats far more dangerous than the livestock vessels.

Beat Odermatt | 08 August 2011  

Unfortunately those young traders have no incentive to listen to their elders. They are there to make a buck and some older person warning them of the dangers to the whole community would hardly cut it with those brought up on a diet of the 'rights of the individual' and economic rationalism.

Peter | 09 August 2011  

Such common sense.. Thank you for the thoughts behind the article

annetine forell | 09 August 2011  

As one of those considered old hat by some of the young I really applaud what you say. At 79 I am still active in leading a poetry group, am director of our publishing house and feel I have plenty to contribute to the community. Thank you.

Jean SIetzema-DIckson | 09 August 2011  

Good point Michael -- this point echoes the experience dealing with Ministerial Minders when dealing with government. They are invariably young 'alpha' males, supremely confident in what they don't yet understand. Mind you, they often become wiser elders!! I am old now and don't know nearly as much as I did at 28.

Barry B | 12 August 2011  

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