Stephen Jenkinson: Elderhood In A Time Of Trouble

In past eras of human civilization, the wisdom of respected "elders" guided much of the decision-making in society.

But today, when youth is revered and age is equated with obsolescence and irrelevance, that role and its sage counsel have been lost.

It's not that we as a culture don't have desperate need for such wisdom. We do. Perhaps more than ever given the intractable and unsustainable issues we face -- an over-indebted world economy, resource depletion, species loss, eroding civil liberties, etc.

In this week's podcast, Stephen Jenkinson, author of the new book, Come of Age: The Case for Elderhood in a Time of Trouble, returns to explain how the role of elder might be re-instated. It won't be easy, but it may just be one of the essential ingredients we need to make it through the challenge times ahead:

How do you come by wisdom? Now, it even crept into the way you characterized it if my hearing was good. And it's this, that wisdom is more or less a naturally occurring resource that's a consequence of – not unlike coal or natural gas – it's a naturally occurring resource that will simply derive from the passage of time and enough kind of pressure placed upon the human strata.

In other words, if you get old enough, and you're old enough long enough, wisdom is an inevitable and naturally occurring consequence of that ageing process. Chris, if that was true, we would be utterly awash in life wisdom right now. Why? Because this is the oldest any population on the planet has ever been as a ratio of its entirely, or, in addition to that I should say, in real numbers, there are more old people among us than have ever been anywhere ever in human history to the degree that that's ever been tracked. So that's a profound roadblock or collision to come to. We have more old people than ever before, and we have more information than ever before, at least access to it.

And it appears to me that we are more disabled fundamentally than we have ever been as a kind of felt condition, that it's the shear consequence of this information has a paralyzing effect, not an enabling effect. And the only way you overcome that is through anger or a sense of utter moral disillusion. So if this is the background to the moral revolution that's being fermented, I'm not unhappy that I won't see the consequence of it, even my age, because I'm not sure I would want to.

So I would come back to the understanding of wisdom and imagine out loud something like this, that wisdom is not an inevitable consequence of the aging of a person or a population, that, in fact, there's nothing inevitably occurring about wisdom at all. And if it's not naturally occurring and it's not inevitable then what is it? The answer is, to me, it's an accomplishment, it's a labored over accomplishment. So how is it accomplished? Is it inherited? Do we get it from the worthies, from the grey headed worthies of the bygone era? My answer is, almost inevitably, no, it's not derived from that. That's where we get our prejudices from.

Because wisdom, first and foremost to me, is a consequence of a deeply labored over travail, meaning that your wisdom is achieved according to which you engage the particular problems of your particular time and place. And so the example of laboring over wisdom can be inherited, but the actual content, the terms of engagement for wisdom, they have to be crafted according to the times.

Therefore, if I've come to the end of this, you could say that elderhood, as a social institution, is inheritable. Yes, of course. But the function of elderhood, the content of it, the actual labor that elders are obliged to and the way by which we are nourished by them, is the degree to by which older generation takes up its lifelong work of understanding the world that they’ve inherited, of understanding how deeply underserved the world has become by virtue of their lives, in our case, a willingness to assume an immense amount of moral represent for that truancy, and at least the beginnings of a labored over sense of conscious. Not personal consciousness, but social and political and moral conscious about the condition of the world that the likes of people my age are about to hand over to people in their 20s and their 30s and younger. So you could say then that elderhood is first and foremost a functional, seismic, ongoing responsiveness to the particular troubles of the times. And that's why you can't generalize about the content or the real function of elderhood from one generation to the next.

One of the deep problems that younger people are facing now is they don’t even get to have generations anymore because the rate of change that you mentioned is happening so quickly that their sense of who their peers are have been reduced to a matter of a decade, not a generation. A generation loosely could have been once upon a time thought of something in the order of let's say between 30 and 45, even 50 years. But we're talking about decades now. And that's who your people are now if you're a younger person, somebody on five years either side of you, those are your peers. And anybody older or younger than that, by virtue of the rate of change and what it's doing to people, is making those people strangers to you, that they're literally born into and inhabiting a different time, a different era of life than you are, even though you're literally both alive at the same time.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Stephen Jenkinson (78m:53s).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Excellent podcast guys.

Was just talking about this issue with my dad yesterday :open_mouth:

Of course I have plenty of people in my life older than I who have given me great advice. That said, as far as life changing advice, the advice I have gotten from baby boomers has been overwhelmingly bad.
One that I got over and over again in the early and mid 2000’s was ‘buy as much house as possible’, I don’t have to tell you how that ended. I think the issue was they simply have been extrapolating their own experience, and I think my generation is realizing that is no way to give advice. The boomers were hitting their investment years as we were literally hitting the nadir in large asset classes like stocks and bonds. Education costs were also dirt cheap when they went entered college so they think its a no brainer to go to IOU University no matter the cost because it worked out for them.
In many cases they have failed to have to dig deeper into ‘the system’ because for much of their lives the system didn’t bite them. Well its bit millennials, and bit us hard.
I have made two decisions that have really altered my life for the better, and in a big way. First it was go to a Maritime Academy and get into oil drilling after also being accepted to a prestigious business school. My career has been hands down wonderful to me, while the lives of some I know that went to that business school has not been so good (smart guys too). This career essentially bailed me out of that horrible 2005 home purchase. Next was getting involved in crypto currency. Both of these decisions were fought tooth and nail when brought up to the boomer generation.
Lesson learned is, first be very careful when taking the advice of the prior generation. Second, when giving advice to my girls, I will always tell them to do their own exhaustive research on the micro and macro level when making decisions. I will not guide them based on extrapolating my experience

I am continually amazed by the wisdom found in the Book of Proverbs:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. Proverbs 1:7
We could use a dose of this kind of thinking - just a our forefathers did:
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish mbition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. 17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. James 3:13-18

"Always listen to what others have to say. It may not do you any good, but it's bound to make others feel good about themselves".
1st man: "Why do you Jews always ask so many questions?"
2nd man: "Why shouldn't we?"
Father: "Son you should show better judgement!" Son: "How do I get that?" Father: "From experience!" Son: "And how do I get that? Father: "From bad judgement!"

I loved that line Rector, “by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”
Of all the things lost in these crazy days, it is perhaps the solitude and time to reflect that has cost the most. The more I learn the less I know for sure.
I am becoming more and more humble and living with humility as time goes on. I’ve learned a lot, but that has only opened up vast portals to how much I really don’t know. Dig into any one subject and the well is bottomless.
Practice anything, no matter how trite, and you can always improve, find a new subtlety of motion, and become faster, smoother, more skilled.
The mystery of life is profound, and the more we uncover about the science of life, the more it is clear that the complexity involved in a single ribosome performing a well-regulated task is almost beyond comprehension.
So what is required of us in these troubled times? How do we gather wisdom? Where does it come from?
Increasingly I understand that it comes from everywhere and nowhere at once. There’s a great intelligence upon which we draw, and it comes from the void and can be heard best in silence. I’m agnostic as to the language that is placed upon that source of wisdom.
Perhaps it comes from heaven: But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.
Perhaps it comes from a similar place with a different name. Call it intuition, or call it ‘the great unknown’ and it doesn’t matter to me, I don’t know what the right name is nor do I care.
I do care that I have access to that greatness, that intelligence, that wisdom, and getting to it (for me) comes from learning to let go of my ego, my sense of self and self-importance. It’s not something I gain access to, but rather something that I can perceive if I can let enough things go, the shields that prevent me from really hearing, seeing and sensing the great mystery of life.
A great place to start is by questioning everything. “Am I sure?” “Do I really know what that thing is, or what happened?” “Who am I?”

Tremendous podcast Chris and encourage you to continue booking guests that continue to develop emotional capital. This was a master class in emotional intelligence, philosophy, and late night kitchen table talk.
I’m at a crossroads because I feel the insanity of being in two worlds: working in fintech to create the next hocus pocus AI tool while daydreaming about a permacultured life with more blue sky, oxygen, and love. Seeking courage and wisdom for my next path.
My mens group is discussing death and dying this Friday so I’ll bring some of this wisdom conversation into that circle. Bought tickets for myself and friends to attend the show in Minneapolis.
Thanks again.

There were may insightful pieces to the podcast but I must disagree with his perspective on human growth. Unlike growth in material things, human emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth does not need to come at the expense of anyone else. Though some people make a business out of helping others grow, it’s not fair to criticize them for needing to pay the daily bills… Admittedly there are, as in any endeavor, people who scam those who seek help in growing. That doesn’t negate the entire practice.
I had a friend (since passed away) who was fond of saying “I had an idea. I met a man with an idea. We exchanged ideas. Now I have two.”

I actually liked some of the podcast, but parts felt heady and disembodied to me. Jenkinson seemed to not see the shadow of his expertise. I especially did not like his conception of the “self” as being a negative thing. For me the self is related to embodiment and as we get to know our embodied selves, there is a great deepening as we open ourselves to the great wisdom and intuition of the body - something that has been evolving and developing over several hundred thousands of years. The types of therapy I practice as a psychologist including Somatic Experiencing and Neuro-Affective Relational Model (NARM) involve a base of the brain up approach (more right-brained) combined, in the case of NARM, with top-down awareness of developmental patterns, etc. Jenkinson’s heady top-down approach left me wanting.

I agree, emotional and spiritual growth to me is a kind of deepening and shouldn’t be equated with growth in the number of cars or growth of cancer, etc. Jenkinson was also a little too heady for my tastes.

That wasn’t really my understanding of what was said. SJ rejects the the “be all you can be” mentallity, but not the accumulation of wisdom. I think you’ve likely missunderstood. He seems to saying wisdom deepens, it doesn’t grow…

Pipyman wrote:
That wasn’t really my understanding of what was said. SJ rejects the the “be all you can be” mentallity, but not the accumulation of wisdom. I think you’ve likely missunderstood. He seems to be saying wisdom deepens, it doesn’t grow.......
The way I hear Stephen is that he distains how "personal growth" has become another consumer item, something you go out and buy and get some of. There are countless courses and books where you can get some "personal growth" without ever really having to go beyond the purchase and actually do the very hard work of challenging your existing belief structures, wrestle with painful ambiguity, and come to your own sense of proper wisdom. There's an industry built up around self-improvement and, to put words in his mouth that might not belong, a lot of it is a waste of money and time. I agree too that he comes very strongly from his head, and I come from a more combined place personally, but I derive a huge amount from his careful examination of language, narratives, and the way he observes the world. As always, the invitation is to take what works and leave the rest.

I did find the style a little wanting, but he did make many good points. Seemed like he was trying to elucidate he difference between knowlegde and wisdom and the necessity of suffering and struggle as means of becoming wise, though not so clearly. And a willingness to live consciously and be present to the conflict and ugliness of this world without trying to make it OK.
You cannot accumulate wisdom they way you do knowlegde, which is perhaps what he was trying to articulate. Wisdom strikes in those moments when we see the relationship between the apparent dualities of this world and things suddenly become obvious, clear, and intense. Complextity and diversity remain, but without confusion. The veil between the self and the other drops, and direct perception proceeds unabated.
And always afterwords, that is so obvious, why didn’t I see that before! And in that clarity of direct perception (what I think we wrongly call intuition), we are somehow less and more at the same. Less obsessed and absorbed with the Self and more connected to the world around us. It is in a way it a reductive process, but that is, in a way, trying to use materialist language to describe a nonmaterial process.
Good discussion, a foundation from which to understand all the other issues of our time.

experience is the map
wisdom is the ability to read it

… when your understanding of the world and how it is suddenly drops away; when the direct perception undermines all clarity; when the relationship between things in this world becomes less obvious, and confusion is left as a permanent veil?
And because the foundations of my existence are destroyed, more absorbed with self than ever – for how can I possibly help another person when my foundations are gone? I would do damage, even trying to help.
For that describes the coallescence of what I have experienced over my last twenty years, these last five years.

That is a challenge for all of us, when what we were lead to believe, (based on past experience, cultural conditioning, family upbringing, etc), is proved to be inadequate to describe what is coming at us in the present moment. That is, I think, a permanent part of the human condiation and a challenge for all of us.
What direct perception means to me though, is something quite different. It is those few moments in life (some may say by the grace of god, depending on your belief system), that we are able to see things as they actually are, completely free of our own conditioning, both culturally and personally. It is a connection so deep it transcends the individual self and puts us in contact with something much larger.
What that much larger thing is, I will avoid because any description, since it becomes a mindfield of belief systems. In my own personal experience, that connection creates an inner peace that transcends the turbulance of daily life. Saves us from the confusion of a seemly dualistic reality.…

Wisdom isn’t just something that happens with the passage of time or with the acquisition of random experience. It does require time but wisdom is definitely not the monopoly of the elderly.
Wisdom is the process whereby the dogma we are programmed with at youth finally gives way to reason and knowledge. That’s a process that can take a long time and requires some intelligence as truth must be discerned from the constant rhetoric of belief and custom. Distilled from background noise in much the same way as a detective searches for clues at a crime scene corrupted by careless passersby.
Humans love to believe and conform so it’s inevitable that people blindly following the crowd, believers of the status quo, resist the alternative thinking that the wise proffer.
Inevitably then it is only the famous, those with some kind of public recognition, who’ve earned the rank of “respected cultural leader”, that enjoy the privalige of being heard. Often those people are merely our presidents, our industry leaders or Hollywood music and film superstars. They are rarely particularly educated or intelligent.
Thus it is only through crisis, when culture finally breaks down and the crowd finally begins to listen that the greater wisdom begins to be heard.

Having attanded such a gathering in the 1980’s, with the likes of Bly, Hillman, Meade and the mythopoetic wisdom which many men engaged afterwards seeking what, if not, the wisdom of our elders from seven generations ago. I say it is good that men and women can come together and speak of life, and death.

"Full circle, from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb, we come: an ambiguous, enigmatical incursion into a world of solid matter that is soon to melt from us, like the substance of a dream. And, looking back at what had promised to be our own unique, unpredictable, and dangerous adventrue, all we find in the end is such a series of standard metamorphoses as men and women have undergone in every quarter of the world, in all recorded centuries, and under every odd disguise of civilization." -- Joseph Campbell.
…what we are taught. All and sundry adorn themselves with mind, use it as trimming wherever possible. Mind and spirit, when in combination with something else, are the most widespread thing there is. There is a masculine loyalty, the spirit of love, ‘keeping up the spirit’ of this cause or that , ‘acting in the spirit of our movement’ and so forth. How solid and unimpeachable it sounds, right down to the lowest levels! Everything else, the everyday crime of bustling greed for gain, appears by contrast as that which is never admitted, the dirt that God removes from under His toe-nails.
But when the spirit stands alone, a naked moon, bare as a ghost to whom one would like to lend a sheet—what then? One can read the poets, study the philosophers, buy pictures and have discussions all night long. But is it spirit that one gains by doing so? Assuming one does gain it—does one then possess it? This something called spirit, so firmly bound up with the form in which it happens to manifest itself, passes through the person who wants to receive and harbor it, leaving nothing behind but a slight tremor. What are we to do with all this spirit? It is continually being produced on masses of paper, stone and canvas, [social media] in downright astronomical quantities, and is being as ceaselessly ingested and consumed with a gigantic expenditure of nervous energy. But what happens to it then? does it vanish like a mirage? Does it dissolve into particles? Is it an exception to the natural law of conservation? The dust-particles sinking down into us, slowly settling, are in no relation to all the trouble involved. Where has it gone? Where, what, is it? Perhaps, if one knew more about it, there would be an awkward silence round this noun ‘spirit’… —Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities (copyright 1953)