Americans move on average once every five years, usually for work. Romantically, we're afflicted with wanderlust, a Manifest Destiny ethos (if you're white and your family has been here for a few generations, anyway), ancestors who crossed the vast oceans or the desperately dry plains in search of a better life for themselves and their families.
The romantic version isn't the whole story, of course--plenty of Americans were brought here in chains, as indentured servants or slaves, or they came as refugees from wars, famines, or collapsing governments. That story continues--anyone with any hope of escaping systemic poverty these days is encouraged to move out of their hometown, get an education, and find work in a city somewhere.
Though equal parts romantic and tragic, that story isn't this one. This story is about what was lost when we became a fragmented, mobile people, with multiple generations scattered around the continent and sometimes around the world. This story is one of hope for a different future.
The Grandmother Hypothesis is one theory on how humans evolved an extended lifespan past menopause. In our early evolution as a species, the theory goes, grandmothers helped look after and provide for their daughter's children, thus ensuring that their daughters could have more children more rapidly and that more of them would live to pass on their own longevity-slanted genes. While we might credit our public health system with our current longevity (except...not), hunter gatherers who make it through the trials and tribulations of a rough childhood have a decent chance of living to a ripe old age, thus providing for their tribe in a myriad of ways.
Those of us who aren't hunter gatherers either live states away from our families, or have an alarming tendency to lock up our elders in prison-like conditions while we wait for them to die under the guise of them receiving "appropriate care," which can include everything from benign neglect to outright abuse. We're too busy with our own kids, too financially strapped, too emotionally exhausted to take care of mom on our own--so we outsource it to someone who may or may not give two fucks about her. Luck of the draw with people making $11/hr. All the while, we secretly hope that when we get old enough to suffer the same fate, our own children will be more generous.
We've lost our family continuity because of these choices, no matter how logical they seemed at the time. Parents without help are forced to outsource their own child-rearing while they scramble to get by. Kids are raised by nannies, childcare, and the not-so-educational educational system. Even with parents that care, parents who are willing and able to take their kids to the zoo or the museum on weekends, their kids are spending maybe two to three hours a night with their own families.
How bad is that outsourced raising for the kid? Tough to say, though plenty has been written about it. Anecdotally, I was one of those kids--daycare followed by pre-school followed by half day kindergarten followed by daycare from an early age. I have few early memories of my family, and even fewer positive ones. My own family was rife with problems, from alcoholism and hoarding to financial stress, so it's difficult to separate that environment from any lingering effect that my own outsourced raising may have had on me. But I am not particularly close to my family and deliberately moved away almost as soon as I could--likely perpetuating the same cycle of absentee parenting on my own children, some day.
More than the loss of an extra helping hand, we've lost our sense of connection to the past. Elders are repositories of information, forgotten skills, older ways of connecting. These are skills we're going to need in the future as the world gets smaller, but few of us have any personal experience with them. Some of our grandparents or great-grandparents lived with no electricity, learned how to take care of themselves to an extensive degree, could bake and sew and fix things that mystify us today. That time wasn't all that long ago, relatively speaking, and it's not all that far away either, but in the interim we've forgotten how to live without mechanization, automation, and digitization. When's the last time you rode a bike or walked more than the distance from the parking lot to the entrance of the grocery store? When's the last time you changed your own oil or diagnosed a plumbing problem?
Further, most elders have been through their own trials by fire. Three out of four of my own grandparents served in WWII--one grandfather serving in B-29s flying over the hump in Asia. Our own stresses and struggles pale in comparison to growing up in the wake of two World Wars, living through or serving in Vietnam, multiple recessions, race riots and civil strife, and so on. And that's just in America--my husband's grandparents survived Auschwitz. A sense of history and perspective is useful for society as a whole to maintain a sense of gratitude, a willingness to sacrifice for the future (baby boomers, I'm talking to you), and an understanding of how bad it can really get.
All that said, the blame for the loss of community and continuity does not lie fully on the younger generations in this equation. Many older folks these days are, well, older, but they aren't elders. What we need in this time of transition and crisis are true elders. So if you're reading this and you've reached the hallowed age of, say, 60 or thereabouts, don't pat yourself on the back just yet. You may or may not be qualified to pass on your wisdom.
It's somewhat arrogant and pretentious for a 27 year old to decide what qualifications someone needs to serve in an unrecognized and underappreciated societal role, but hey. This is my blog.
Here we go:
1. You've been through your own shit and you've processed it. Maybe you had mental or physical difficulties, maybe your own home life was bad, maybe you struggled with a sense of failure, or low self-esteem, or emotional stunting, or addiction. Maybe you achieved your dreams and they weren't what you hoped for, or maybe you never did make it to the big time. Maybe you were a criminal, a prostitute, a CEO. I don't blame you for the life you've lived or the choices you've made to get by. What I want to see is an acknowledgement of where in your life you've hurt yourself or others, an effort to resolve those hurts as best you can, and an ability to put into clear and concise language what lessons you've gathered from your life. I don't expect perfection, but I do expect maturity. If you're still enacting patterns from 20 years ago, you're not an elder. You're just older.
To add to number one--be able to acknowledge both your privilege and your prejudice. We're all a little bit racist. I actually don't care if you are, but I expect you to to be able to recognize and elucidate where those feelings come from. And I expect you to squash any actual expressions of racism or prejudice for the fear-based bullshit they are.
2. An understanding that the world has changed. Maybe you were able to pay for college with a part-time job and the debt you accrued, if any, was minimal. Maybe you were able to take care of a family on a blue-collar factory job while still making it to Disneyland once a year. Advice like "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" is bull shit in this hyperconnected, globalized, increasingly unequal world. Of course their are still opportunities even for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, but those opportunities are decreasing. As an elder, you need to recognize that your life may not be a good template for someone growing up today. Acknowledge that in your advice to them. Have some humility. Some lessons are universal--passing on the importance of honesty, grit, learning, and so on is worth doing. Some lessons are not--your grandson isn't necessarily lazy because he still lives at home at 27.
3. Recognition from the broader community that you know what the hell you're talking about. You don't get to decide that you're an elder. Other people do it for you. If your kids aren't willing to talk to you about their lives, that's a hint that they probably don't see you that way (though that doesn't necessarily mean you aren't an elder, see next point).
4. Due to fractured family dynamics and the general fucked-up-ness of many American families (single parent homes, multiple marriages, financial stress, chronic illness, addiction, etc), your own kids may be too tortured by their upbringing to turn to you--though if you've honestly and genuinely gone through step one, maybe reach out. That doesn't mean your years of experience and wisdom should go to waste, though. An elder is looking to be a part of their community wherever they are, whether that's the Elks Club, church, volunteering in schools, or something else. Every interaction you can have with a younger person has the potential to shape and mold them for the future--and many of them don't have elders or even parents they can turn to. Be a part of helping the future of your community survive and thrive with some continuity and sense of historical perspective intact.
5. You're willing to serve in whatever capacity you can. Not everyone is physically capable of hoisting grandchildren overhead. That doesn't mean you aren't valuable. Look for creative ways to be a part of your community. There may be local organizations able to help with transportation, if necessary, or a neighbor. Look around. Reach out to schools, senior centers, community and rec centers.
6. Finally, if you've read this list and you have doubt that you meet all these qualifications, that's a good place to start. Nurture that doubt and humility. An arrogant assumption about the quality of your wisdom and experiences is not a good place to offer advice from.