Wisdom Of The Aging

Dec. 21, 2004
Why retire when theres gold between your ears?

The common belief among young people is that those of us who are over 65 tend to lose our minds and live off the intellectual fat weve accumulated over time. They assume that its only a short step from "being in the groove" to "being in the grave." Although Im at an age when Im beginning to feel my corns more than my oats, I still have plenty of get-up-and-go. And the half-step I have lost in speed I make up in savvy. Aging is inevitable. Growing old is not. We all age. But we dont have to grow old. Growing old is a bad habit no elder executive should develop. Age, however, is a great teacher. It teaches us that ideas dont work unless people do, that people who think they cant are usually right, and that those who disregard the mistakes of the past will inevitably repeat them in the future. Age teaches us that genius has its limitations but stupidity does not, and that the speed of the leader determines the pace of the pack. Fast-track people in their 30s and 40s have no conception about what 70-year-old people think or what they think about. The 70-year-old, on the other hand, knows exactly what the 30-year-old person thinks. They were all 30 once. And they interface with 30- to 40-year-olds a lot, many of whom are the children of 70-year-olds. Some of them are their relatives. Some of them are their neighbors kids. Some of them are their employees. Some of them are their bosses. And some of them are even their spouses. Mostly, 30- to 40-year-olds think about themselves. And when they think about us elder folks (which they do very little), they think were in the way, or out of date, or out of step, or out of reason, or over the hill, or in another world. Ancient types like us arent with it, for it, or into it. Were mostly too old, too set in our ways, and too conservative. Were too critical, too opinionated, too demanding, and too authoritarian. In their minds, we not only created the generation gap -- we are the generation gap. Its time to change the perception that people over 65 are old, that they are useless, that they should be retired rather than employed, and tolerated rather than respected. Its time to correct the impression that elder people are in poor health, uninteresting, unproductive, and unteachable, that we cant take care of ourselves, that we should summarily be relegated to a temporary parking lot called retirement until we die, and that old age is a period of decline rather than a period for new growth and development. I want to get the message across to fast-moving, disinterested youngsters that they would be wise to avoid the mistake made by a researcher friend who was studying fleas. He put a flea on his desk and trained it to jump over his finger at his command. Then he pulled off two of the fleas six legs. "Jump," he ordered. The flea jumped. Two more legs were removed. Again, the flea jumped when commanded to do so. Finally, the researcher pulled off the remaining two legs. "Jump," he commanded. The flea did not move. With that, the scientist reported: "My research proves conclusively that when a flea loses all six of its legs, it becomes deaf." Until now, young executives on the move have been deaf to their older associates. I recommend they read Ken Dychtwalds Age Wave; it will change their view of the future. Dychtwald sees three separate and unprecedented demographic phenomena affecting our lives: "The senior boom. Americans will live longer than ever before, and older Americans are healthier, more active, more vigorous, and more influential than any other older generation in history. . . . "The birth dearth. A decade ago, fertility in the United States plummeted to its lowest point ever. It has been hovering there ever since, and its not likely to change. The great population of elders is not being offset by an explosion of children. . . . "The aging of baby boomers. . . . As the boomers approach 50 and pass it, their numbers will combine with the other two demographic changes to produce a historic shift in the concerns, structure, and style of America." . . . And a historic shift in American industries ability to cope with these dramatic changes. Chemists tell us that the chemical value of the human body is approximately 98 cents. On the other hand, electronic engineers estimate that it would cost $20 billion to duplicate the marvels of the human brain. This suggests that the space we should be exploring more is the inner space between our elder executives ears. It is full of golden knowledge collected and stored over seven or more decades. It needs to be mined and shared. Sal F. Marino is a former CEO of Penton Publishing Inc. and an IW contributing editor.

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