The other day, I was having a discussion about someone’s grandma. They mentioned that grandma had some relatively strong ideals around things like gay marriage and relationships, politics, news, sport, and even the weather, among other things. This wasn’t really a surprise to me; these ideals are often the case with many from a bygone era, where cultural norms and societal acceptance were very different than they are today. Things change, people move and grow, and we are all generally better off for it.

And this got me thinking… what if society is creating this rigidity? What if society is the cause of all the stuck-in-their-ways, racist, bigoted old people out there?

It’s all in your mind

Studies have been done over the past few decades that look at our behaviours as we age from a neuro-chemical perspective. These studies show that as we age, our neural pathways that we use seem to become less dispersed and more reenforced. Instead of using a lot of different parts of our brains to process thoughts and information, we use a fewer number, and use those more frequently. We also know that the more you access a particular part of the brain, the more those pathways are reenforced, making it the path of least resistance. The term muscle-memory comes to mind.

However; is this perhaps a symptom or a cause of behaviour?

Society suggests

We often talk about respecting your elders, teaching it to our children, and acting as such. If an elder says something, we mostly go along with it. After all, many have much life experience, and have lived a lot of the things they talk about. Stories are shared as lore, as are ways of doing things. Cooking by following a grandparent’s recipe is a common example, as is the classic old wives tale phrase.

“Older people know better” – and we often raise our kids following this unwritten rule. What if reenforcing that stereotype actually creates those pathways in our elder’s minds? What if – because society has us accepting the traditional things that many elderly people do as gospel – this actually reenforces those who act in those ways?

Perhaps, because we make it normal to tolerate what older people say, even if it is a saying, action, or otherwise from a bygone era that is no longer acceptable in society today, we are instilling this behaviour. It’s not that they are ‘stuck in their ways’… but maybe that we are creating an environment where being stuck is deemed acceptable.

The ageing population

Taking this thought to the next level, we know that people seem to be having children later in their lives than they did 20 years ago. Thirty is the new twenty, and forty is the new thirty. Our population is ageing, people are living longer, and we have more older people – over the age of 60 – than we have had at any time in recent history.

A scary prospect is that through reenforcement of the aforementioned stereotypes, our societal growth will slow further. Critical thinking may slightly wane, and obscure or disruptive problem solving will be left to the youngsters. We are even seeing this come to being: in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley areas, many older developers and IT workers are displaced, only to be replaced by younger counterparts. It’s often believed that fresh blood is needed to inject difference into an organisation, providing new perspective. While this is true when people get institutionalised as they can by sticking to a role for too long, there would be nothing that could necessarily stop a more senior person who was open to critical thinking to perform as well as someone of a younger vintage.

Making the switch

It’s certainly interesting to think that we might all be the cause of the undesirable and oft intolerable insight that is provided by some older persons. Changing that discourse would also be a generational change – this isn’t a switch that could happen overnight.

Instilling different ideals in our children at an early age would be a fantastic place to start. Encouraging growth and education that lasts a lifetime – and providing an environment that enables that – would be wonderful. And perhaps in 20 more years, when we start to see the fruits of our efforts, we might have an answer to this hypothesis.

I am not a neuro-chemist, brain specialist, or anything remotely approximating a medical professional. That being said, it certainly has me thinking – should we keep our ageing population on their toes, challenging fixed assumptions, encourage critical thinking and problem solving of varied natures? Or do we continue to tout the “respect your elders” line, possibly reenforcing their sedentary thought processes and stagnating growth in those twilight years? Society will tell…

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