Many, if not all, cultures around world, show a high degree of priority towards respecting their elders. The Japanese have their ‘Respect for the Aged Day’ and Confucius put respect for elders and seniority as one of his main tenets, which the Chinese follow to their heart, or at least try to the best they can. It is, in fact, part of Chinese law itself. The concept of ‘respect’ is so ingrained especially in Asian cultures, it is reflected in the languages of people. Hindi as well as most of the surrounding Indo-Eurasian family use similar variations of the words ‘tu’ ‘tum’ ‘aap’ to denote respect to the second person. Aside from the ‘teme’ ‘omae’ and ‘anata’ used to accord respect, or the lack of it, the Japanese add honorifics such as -san, -chan, -kun and -sama to distinguish levels of closeness and familiarity right from the get-go. Speaking on a first name basis would therefore be a sign of either close relationship or outright disrespect.
Some languages leave little room for ambiguity of elderly status. In Nepal one is obliged to address family members as well as strangers using honorifics, like ‘-dai’ for elder brother and ‘didi’ for elder sister. The words ‘-bhai’ meaning ‘small brother’ and ‘baini’ meaning ‘small sister’ can be used but, if the elder wishes, only the first name of the junior is sufficient. But as with any language, there are ways to wiggle out of situations where seniority is not clearly established, or is not wished to be clearly established, in which cases the honorific ‘-ji’ is added – same in neighboring India. It is especially used in cordial, business and political situations where seniority, respect and nepotism are all foundations of the national structure.
Respect for seniority is apparent in other species as well. In the animal kingdom, mammal species whose societies mirror aspects of our own show a similar respect, if not veneration for their adults. Adult elephants keep the adolescent ones in check, showing them acceptable ways of behavior and their part in the herd structure. In herds where adult elephants are missing, whether naturally or more likely through poaching for their exquisite and rare tusks, the adolescent elephants – with their high testosterone and sex drive – have been known to be violent and sexually aggressive towards the female elephants in their herd. Consequently, there are constant power struggles and the tendency to turn solitary increases. This spells disaster not only for the herd but also for the people living in the area. It causes destruction of life and property, and lends ammunition to feelings of resentment and antipathy towards elephants, and consequently, to much-needed elephant preservation efforts. This is great news for poachers. But could such effects also mirror in homo sapiens?
History of Respect
Since our hunter-gather days, elderly respect was a natural consequence of how the history and progress of our civilizations went. If one wanted to learn the best way of killing a mammoth or avoid the poisonous mushrooms, one had to rely on the experience and knowledge that elders possessed. It is the same knowledge passed down through generations that we have come to term ‘collective knowledge’ which is what, I believe separates humans from the rest of the animal world. It is also of interest to note that the word ‘uncle’ is older than the word ‘father’, with the former a vestige of our tribal identity and the latter coming perhaps only after increased settling down at the advent of the agricultural revolution. Those days are far removed from today where reluctant grandchildren teach their grandparents how to add previously disconnected friends, sometimes for decades, on Facebook.
Almost 10 millennia later, through the advent of the Gutenberg press, we were able to store knowledge on paper and distribute it at a scale previously unimaginable, making it possible for the knowledge that would only be handed by elders to be transferred readily through books. However, knowledge passed down from elders was still highly revered and even necessary in some fields. Craftsmanship – such as katana-making in Japan, or the intricate woodwork of Nepalese temples – was one such field where the master-disciple relationship was crucial in the dissemination of techniques, intricate culture-laden workings and the spirit of the ethnic craft itself, that being passed down through generations, had now an element of tremendous pride in it. It is the same with ethnic literary heritage such as stories that have been told and passed down through generations. However, these gems of culture are slowly disappearing, unable to keep up with the pace of modernization.
Elders, especially in collectivist cultures, were always known as carriers of wisdom, tradition and knowledge. The god of Abraham is, unsurprisingly, painted as an old bearded man signifying his godly aspects of wisdom and omniscience. Rather more surprisingly, virtually all gods in Hindu mythology are portrayed as young – with not even a single strand of mustache growing – even though their collectivist culture venerates the old. The reason being that youth signifies the Hindu belief in eternity. This difference reflects the difference in how the two cultures perceive the afterlife. For the individualist culture, especially if it follows an Abrahamic religion, this is their final life. For the collectivist culture, especially India and Hinduism-influenced cultures, this is one of many. I believe this perception has an effect on their pace of life as well. After all, why the hurry when eternity is there?
Nepal, A Gerontocracy
Another theme that constantly appears throughout the annals of history is the conflict – of ideas, beliefs and perceptions – between the old and the young. Take the case of Nepal. During the constitutional monarchy, which ended in 2008, the average age of the incumbent prime minister, at 67.1 years, was greater than the average life expectancy of an average Nepali in 2008, at 66.1 years. Based on the 2011 Nepal census, the median age of the Nepali population stood incredibly young 21.6 years, while emerging super poor, sorry superpower, neighbors India and China rest at 29 and 37.1, respectively. Put simply, the ones who are lead are three times younger than the ones who lead. A largely young population led by politicians seen as ancient is seen as a disaster by many. It leads to the notion that politicians are completely out of touch with the problems of the young, problems which are of grave concern to a large section of the population and the future itself.
This problem is compounded by Nepal’s demographic composition where a person at that median age, is four years too young to contest for the lower house of the parliament, 14 years too young for the upper house, and 24 years away from contesting for the office of the President or Prime Minister. Since 2008, the average age of the incumbent Prime Minister of Nepal has reduced to 63.9 years, but without adequate reforms and policy, the cavernous age divide will still be gaping for at least another several decades. Perhaps, with local elections looming on the horizon in a long time, the future may be different yet.
Future of Seniority
As the large numbers of young people today turn into the elders of tomorrow, elderly care is sure to become a big business in the future. Estimates suggest that 636 million people over the age of 50 will be living in China in 2050. That is virtually half the population of China and about 8% of the estimated human race in 2050. Elderly care is already a big business in Japan, which holds the peculiar distinction of being the only country in the world which sells more diapers for elders than for babies. The millennial generation will constitute the biggest market for elderly care in perhaps all of human history. The most decisive distinction in how elderly care is employed will depend on how many families in 2050 will remain nuclear: like much of the Western world, or joint: like much of the Oriental.
Regardless of the place, elders are not the ‘burden’ they are perceived to be, especially for the economy. They have much more yet to contribute to the future, as both a source of experienced understanding, and if they are anything like my own, a source of tremendous compassion for the young even when they disagree on their values and beliefs. Respect for them, as has been the case for history so far, should not come out of culture or respect’s sake, but for their own personal character, integrity and capacity for empathy. I believe that this is the only type of respect worth having anyway, no matter how old you are.