We have all heard the phrase, ‘respect your elders’, but what does it mean?
The concept of respecting your elders comes from a time when information was harder to come by and the greater life experiences of older generations made them privy to invaluable insight about the world. Through the internet today, information is accessible at one’s fingertips, leading to the devaluing of the elderly’s personalised experiences. In this ever-evolving world, the once straight-forward meaning of ‘respect your elders’ has grown from a reminder for politeness to a manipulation tactic used against the younger generations. With the change in interpretations, is this expression still useful or has it become outdated and overgeneralised?
Over time we have blurred the lines between respect and deference, thus leading the younger generations to be taught to defer to their elders and the ‘expertise’ they possess. Though respect is one facet of deference, respect for one’s position in the workforce or society is undeniably different than that for one’s age, and should be treated as such. Respect is a fundamental right that everyone deserves, no matter their race, gender, sexuality, or age. Deference, however, is a privilege that comes from one’s position and authority. This distinction leads to a system of power and influence that establishes an environment where respect is accessible to all. Respect and deference are often used interchangeably, but while giving someone deference for their position is the socially correct response, it is a privilege to be earned, not a right.
Though there is an undeniable connection between age and experience that comes with learning and growing from one’s mistakes, this knowledge is a situational one where one’s life lessons shape the advice they give rather than the opinions they feel obliged to share. Lessons and advice demonstrate that the older generations intend to foster the growth of the youth. Judgments, however, are generally aimed at shaming the youth in an effort to produce a sense of superiority over them, or to force the younger generations to conform to an old style of behaviours. Corresponding with the expectation of youth’s submission, the elderly are under the impression that they possess a certain privilege to judge the younger generations — they believe they have the right to criticise the young. On the one hand, the elderly may have the authority to pass judgment on the young, but only as parents and mentors. It can be the older generation’s place to guide and teach the youth when they are in the position of parent or grandparent because that is an aspect of parenting: to help your children and grandchildren grow to be the best person they can be. In the role of mentor, elders initiate discussions with mutual respect, leading into the original context of ‘respect your elders’, whereas taking the position of judge, the older generations create conditions where deference is assumed. These differing expectations for the relationship between generations foster an environment of discontentment wherein a generational rift may arise.
With increased access to information, there have been rises in political activism from the youth which subsequently have caused tension among generations, because of their differing world views. These tensions have caused the gap between generations to reach the forefront of political conversations, as the youth blame their elders for causing the current societal defects, and the older generations disparage the young for their perceived lack of experience and knowledge. This is when the concept of ‘respecting your elders’ can become dangerous. People of every group deserve respect, however, in today’s tense political environment, the meaning of the word has been muddled by the phrase, ‘respect your elders’. Now used against the younger generations to shame them into submission, the phrase has become a barrier, utilised to block notions that don’t align with older ideologies. This dangerous separation between our generations has placed a strain on our political conversations that undermine the integrity of a system meant to encourage cooperation amongst persons.
Although these tense relations hurt generational relations, they allow for a people’s growth to accept the changing times that would not occur without the upheaval of increasingly outdated world views. Respecting the older generations and their experiences remains useful for society’s progression. However, the expected deference to their methods threatens to return society to a time meant to stay in the past. Communication between generations is as necessary today as it was in the past, because even though there are aspects of life generations may never agree upon, it is in human nature to learn and grow, no matter one’s age. There are experiences and life lessons to learn from those who have lived through decades, and similarly, there is something to be learned from the young who offer fresh perspectives on age-old struggles.
So, what does ‘respect your elders’ mean?