The New Elders

Eric Utne and career coach Richard Leider on mentoring, wisdom, and why boomers can still save the world

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The numbers, to crib an enduring remnant of '60s slang, are mind-blowing.

Between 1946 and 1964, 78 million Americans were born. Products of the post-war baby boom, they compose 20 percent of the populace and, based on sheer numbers, stand to become the most politically influential group of senior citizens in the nation's history.

As families, policymakers, and health care providers brace for the coming gerontocracy, author Marc Freedman imagines two future worlds in his book Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life (Public Affairs, 2007).

In the darker version, the year is 2030, one in four people is over 60, and these seniors are proving to be a collective pain in the pocketbook. 'Walkers outnumber strollers, nursing homes proliferate while schools close,' Freedman writes. 'The millennial generation, now mostly in their thirties and forties, have taken 'extreme working' to new heights, pulling extra shifts to support not only truly needy children and the elderly, but also a vast cohort of 'greedy geezers' spending one-third of their lives on subsidized vacation.'

This bit of Freedman's prose is pitched at an angle that's increasingly popular among cultural commentators. Despite recent figures that suggest aging trends could play out calmly -- in part because boomers likely will work longer and won't retire en masse -- doomsday scenarios make for tantalizing headlines, especially when the villains are burned-out hippies or soulless sellouts or both.

Freedman ultimately believes in a brighter future, one that represents a school of thought quietly emerging among aging influentials. 'Faced with the practical necessity of extended working lives, boomers have made it a virtue, getting busy on their next chapters,' he writes in a second scenario. 'A generation that set out to change the world surely did, by changing the way the world thought about the purpose of work and the definition of success.'

While optimism like Freedman's could be dismissed as stereotypical boomer narcissism, today's aging citizenery is uniquely positioned, fiscally and physically, to cultivate its knowledge and experience. Unfortunately, wannabe elders are hemmed in by a culture bereft of ritual and an economy fueled on adolescent abandon. Just as there are precious few living traditions or institutions in place to facilitate intergenerational dialogue, there's little guidance available for older citizens who want to contribute.

Enter Richard Leider and Eric Utne, boomers closing in on what they believe will be the most meaningful years of their lives. Over the past year, the two have exchanged ideas on how to jump-start a larger dialogue about rites of passage for the young and how older people can become this society's new mentors.

Both have done the roadwork. Leider, founder and chairman of the Inventure Group, a coaching and consulting firm in Minneapolis, is co-author of Claiming Your Place at the Fire: Living the Second Half of Your Life on Purpose (Berrett-Koehler, 2004), which provides a road map for what he terms 'vital aging.'

Eric Utne, who founded Utne Reader in 1984, is co-founder and executive director of Earth Corps for Global Service (www.serveyourplanet.org), a project that aims to create 'a vast planetary force of college-age students, mid-life adults, and post-career retirees to address both human and environmental needs.'

After several casual conversations over morning coffee, the two entrepreneurs agreed to meet with Utne Reader to discuss mentoring, wisdom, and their generation's remaining potential.

Let's first dispense with the elephant in the room: Given the political, economic, environmental, and social failures blamed on the boomer generation, why would young people listen to what anyone over the age of 50 has to say?

Eric Utne: We are the generation that took human life on this planet to the brink and, given the specter of global climate change, may have already gone over the edge. We managed to destroy community, looked over the edge with nuclear energy, we've seen diseases rage across the planet -- HIV/AIDS, possibly avian flu in the wings.

If we have anything to offer, it's a cautionary tale: Don't live your life the way we did. One thing we have abandoned in this youth culture, this frenzy for modernity, is our rites of passage. A real acknowledgement that you're leaving adolescence, you're stepping into adulthood, and you have a place in the community. That you may have gifts to offer that you're not even aware of; that you have an obligation to contribute. So our work is to create opportunities for those encounters, for those rites of passage.

Richard Leider: For me it's a misnomer that the younger generation is awake and older citizens have somehow fallen asleep. We've all been asleep. We all need to wake up. The other thing is that [the boomers] have the money, the resources, and the companies. And people of all ages need to learn to work and play together, to make sure those resources are leveraged wisely.

So for knowledge to pass from generation to generation, everyone has to play an equal role?

RL: It's all about reciprocity. Younger people have information, older people have experiences, and you start to blend those together to get a new kind of wisdom, a new form of conversation.

EU: We're the first culture in human history that hasn't had initiation, hasn't had a way for people to find their place in the greater community. So young people self-initiate through experimentation with high-risk behaviors, from drug use to adrenaline sports.
As Richard was saying, it's reciprocal -- it's not just the old passing on their 'infinite wisdom' to the young. We're living in a global culture right now. Community has a whole new definition. It's not just people who are of the same blood, or same philosophy, or same tradition, or same locality. We're facing unprecedented times, and we need rites of initiation that reflect that reality.

What makes for the best relationship between mentor and apprentice?

RL: The core of it to me is trust. And the only way to build trust is through deep presence -- meaning that both parties need to sense that it's an embodied thing, an earned thing. I also think the great mentors are lovers of questions. They have the presence to hit the pause button and listen. And then they ask more questions. It's out of this deeper presence, this willingness to be patient, from which a meaningful relationship will grow.

EU: A good mentor can bless. A good mentor can see who you are, who you aspire to be. I remember being drawn to a mentor because he had certain qualities that I wanted to emulate. So I was there copying him, finding some part of myself that resonated with who he was. His name was Bob Schwartz, and he was a great entrepreneur. He had this gift of being able to introduce people. He could introduce you as the person you aspired to be. He could see you and acknowledge what you were striving for, and that was such a beautiful quality.

RL: I often teach people to seek out their 'sounding board.' It's like a board of advisors, and you can request them to listen and play different roles. So if someone wants a vocational mentor, they can pick a certain group of people to be in that arena. For life questions, another person or group might be more helpful. Life has gotten way more complex, and that requires a diversity of input. The most important thing is that no one, young or old, tries to go it alone.

What is wisdom?

RL: I'm just writing this book and I'm doing a deep dive into that question, and it seems like everybody points to research done at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. After studying it from every angle, culling all the literature, and interviewing across cultures, the one thing everyone agrees on is that wisdom is about seeing the big picture -- knowing what's important and what the priorities are.

There are a lot of mentors who've had experiences and they can show you kind of where the stumps are in the water, but they're not necessarily wise. The wise can see lots of different truths, not just theirs or yours, across a larger spectrum.

EU: There's a guy in Minneapolis named David Lebedoff who wrote an article for Esquire some years back. It's my favorite article of all time. He observed that from grade school on, people are divided by their test-taking abilities. Those who test best are moved on to advanced-placement classes, and then they get into certain colleges, and we end up living with, working with, and hanging out with people who have similar test-taking abilities.

He said the danger is that people start thinking that their test-taking ability, their so-called 'measurable intelligence,' makes them more fit to make decisions for the rest of us, somehow makes them wiser. He says that's anti-democratic. The best decisions -- and our founding fathers recognized this -- come from the majority, and what the majority has in common is not test-taking ability or knowledge but life experience. That's where wisdom comes from. A farmer who never goes 50 miles from his farm in North Dakota has a different kind of life experience than someone who's traveled the world, but he may be just as wise, or even wiser, than that globetrotter.

Is wisdom a prerequisite for mentoring?

RL: No, but I do think we all need to ask the larger questions. You don't have to have the answers, that wisdom, on tap, but the questions need to speak to a greater purpose.

EU: I heard [the Dalai Lama] speak once, and the first thing he said was, 'I am just a simple monk.' That recognition of our common humanity is what still sticks with me.

RL: And he's got a robust sense of humor. I think part of wisdom is the humor to be able to see what you don't know and don't understand.

What role does spirituality play? Is it necessary?

EU: Yes, for any relationship to have depth, I think it is. To me, that doesn't mean a particular belief system. Seeing the essential human being in the other, getting past the differences, is essential. That for me is spiritual.

RL: The wise elder knows that a balanced life is about both saving and savoring the world. She sees the whole, and the whole is not just you and your predicament. Whatever language you want to give to that, whether you call it spiritual or something else, the central idea is to recognize that it's about something much bigger than you are -- you just need to figure out your role.

EU: I just want to point out that I find myself savoring the world on Saturday night and I find myself trying to save it on Sunday morning.

[Laughter]

Ah, that's what this is all about: Just one last chance to redeem yourself? One last gasp for the boomers?

RL: In all seriousness, I'd be careful not to limit this to broad labels, like 'boomers.' The data and demographics are irrefutable: We're going to be a gerontocracy, and things like purpose and community are missing or at risk all over the world. So we can't romanticize it. We can no longer say, 'Oh, the elders are great in all these other places.' There needs to be a global conversation that transcends labels.

All that said, in this country there are boomers who will live longer and with more resources. That's a first in history. So what do they want? What is their destiny?

Why don't they just want to take a load off, go golfing or travel?

RL: Part of the boomer ethic has to do with an enduring desire to save the world. Part of it has to do with higher education levels and an increasing attention to personal development. Part of it is that we simply have longer, healthier lives. Retirement is a social invention, after all.

EU: I know I dreaded the idea of getting older. I thought I would be decrepit and marginalized and stuck in an old-folks' home. That's what we do to our elders. We call them empty-nesters. To me, it all comes back to this idea of community. We don't have real communities in this culture. Not multigenerational communities. We've got gated communities, where we stick our infirm or our aged in institutions. In other cultures, the elders were venerated.

So how do you begin the transformation? What must the boomers do to prepare themselves for service?

EU: I imagine introducing people to a whole range of different meditative practices. It might be journaling; it might be meditation; it could be from Western or Eastern esoteric tradition. Then there's the possibility of having a deep experience in nature. That can be profoundly transformative, since it really helps people listen outwardly as well as inwardly.

The whole idea is to help people find ways to identify what their unique gift is. I believe that each of us comes in with a particular gift to give to the world, and people need to connect with opportunities to give their gift. It might be environmental restoration. It might be working in an AIDS clinic. It might be conflict resolution. It might be building a school, or teaching English or computer skills. It could be domestic. It could be overseas. There are no bounds.

RL: I define calling as the inner urge to give your gifts away. And that inner urge is from cradle to grave. So one's job might end, but one's calling never ends. That's why the boomers are interested. They don't know what to call it, but they're either interested in working or serving in some capacity, as long as they're healthy and capable of sustaining their lives that way.

Gifts, plus passion, plus values, equals calling. Using your gifts on something you feel purposeful or passionate about, in a healthy environment, an environment that allows your voice to come forward.

EU: This whole conversation is making me think of the Parzival myth. Parzival is the [Holy] Grail story, and some call it the first modern myth. It comes from the 12th century. It's this guy who like so many of us is on a quest but doesn't even realize he's on a quest. He gets caught up in one distraction after another, fighting, seducing, being seduced, getting distracted, being too busy, and he forgets what his mission is. By some dumb luck he ends up in the Grail castle and meets the ailing king, but he doesn't ask The Question. If he had, he would free the king, free the people, and claim his own authority. Instead, he's cast out and goes wandering again for many years, having more encounters, making more messes. Eventually, through relationships, he discovers his heart and his capacity to feel what another person is feeling.
He ends up back at the castle again, and this time he meets the king and asks the question -- 'What ails thee?' -- thereby freeing the king, freeing the people, and becoming the Grail king, his destined role.

It all comes through relationships. It comes through connecting with another human being. That comes through life experience. And that comes through struggle. For me, that's what this is all about.

Want more? Read the rest of Utne Reader's September / October package on mentoring: