serene ambition™

transforming the culture of aging

Choice

Posted by Jim Selman on 10/12/06

I was leading a seminar today in St. Lucia for about 80 people. We were talking about organizational culture, but I was showing them that culture is culture…the only difference is the perspective and scope of the conversation. So the culture of an organization, the culture of a country or the culture of a society can be viewed as the same phenomenon—simply different levels of what people say about ‘the way it is around here’. In other words, my view is that culture is always a ‘story’ about the way it is and about what is and is not possible. It encompasses who we are and our relationship with the world, and becomes the structure of self-limiting beliefs that organize our institutions, our individual actions and our experience of life itself.

If we want to create a different future than the one that is predictable in the culture we’re living in, we have to commit ourselves to a different interpretation of what is possible—we must, therefore, create a different story.

I’ve been thinking for a long time about ‘the culture of aging’, our collective story about ‘the way it is’ as people grow older. For the most part, aging is a story about loss and decline.

Human beings create culture over time. Culture exists only in our conversations about ‘the way it is’. Therefore, we change our culture by changing our conversations.

In the natural world, when one pushes against something, it pushes back and summons up resources to push back even harder and to grow stronger to survive. Resistance only produces more of what you are resisting. This is why cultures are so difficult to change. It is why people give up, thinking that nothing they do will really make a difference, or become resigned, thinking this kind of fundamental change happens very slowly over long periods of time. The problem with the culture of aging is that most of us don’t have more than 30 or 40 years left now, and if we give the job to the next generation, they will end up growing older into the same culture of aging that we are in.

The ‘new generation’ of elders are terrific: younger, heathier, wealthier and more engaged than any generation that has come before (at least by some people’s reckoning). We are pushing the timeline out further and further for when ‘old age’ begins but we are still resisting ‘old age’. Most of the movements in society to change aging are actually ‘anti-aging’ efforts or attempts to ‘stay young longer’. These don’t change the culture—they actually reinforce the very thing we want to change.

We are used by culture. What we resist persists. If we really want to transform what is possible as we grow older, we must begin by seeing that we have a choice. We don’t have to resist aging. What we need to do is create a new story.

My story is that age is an interpretation and that the future is up to us. We can take more responsibility for the world as we age, not less. We can put on our leadership hats after we retire, not take them off. We can generate more quality of life, more happiness, more love, more health, more creativity, and even be more valued than at any other time in our lives. And on the last day of life, we can have as much possibility as the day we were born.

© 2006 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.

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