The Possibility of Eldering

By Jim Selman

We see Eldering today as a collective, multigenerational movement to empower each other and transform the paradigms that limit what is possible for the future.


In the past, the word ‘eldering’ meant handing down religious teachings or cultural traditions from one generation to the next. The elders were society’s caretakers and wisdom keepers. Their role was to bring up their family and loved ones and ensure they understood their place in the community and in history, and to take care of the spiritual aspects or the collective knowledge and wisdom of the group. Younger generations looked to their elders for answers to their problems.

Eldering in the 21st century is not about age and experience presuming to have the answers for younger generations. The traditions and teachings of the past may no longer be relevant or valid in our rapidly changing world. We need new ways of relating and living together that honor what we have to offer each other.

Eldering: Collective Awakening

Again and again in history some special people in the crowd wake up. They have no ground in the crowd, and they emerge according to much broader laws. They carry strange customs with them, and demand room for bold actions. The future speaks ruthlessly through them. They save the world.”

—Rainer Maria Rilke (1899)

For the past three decades, the Baby Boomers have dominated the larger conversations and practices of the developed world. The Boomers have had many experiences that changed the world, including mobilizing millions to participate in civil rights movements, world peace, equality and anti-nuclear initiatives. But today’s seemingly intractable problems—terrorism, resource depletion, global warming, pandemics, to name a few—pose unprecedented challenges to our existing political, social and economic structures.

Now, for the first time in human history, more than half of us are going to be over 50 years of age. This demographic shift will influence our reality in profound and lasting ways. Just as the Baby Boomers shaped America’s love affair with suburbia when we were toddlers and then brought us rock and roll and the Age of Aquarius as we grew up, our future will be shaped by the conversation of older Boomers. What’s at stake is whether that conversation will be about resigning ourselves to becoming spectators of our world or whether it will be a conversation for expanding possibility and participation.

The fact is no one—neither old nor young—knows what the “right” answers are to the problems we face today or the problems we will face tomorrow.

Before we create new policies, laws or enterprises, we must confront and resolve the larger question of who we are choosing to be in relationship to “what is”. The most important factor shaping that choice is designing the paradigm that defines our reality.

Changing Paradigms

A paradigm is a prevailing and shared interpretation of the world—a collective worldview, if you will. It organizes how our reality occurs for us, determines what we see as being possible and limits our choices. Our paradigm defines everything. For all practical purposes, our paradigms are our reality.

Each generation shares common experiences, history, cultural developments and challenges: they literally live in different paradigms. As the rate of change increases exponentially, we find ourselves defining a new generation every few years (when we used to every few decades). The paradigmatic gap between generations—and between young and old—widens accordingly.

Reality: Problem or Breakdown?

Our current paradigms persist because they are based in a belief that reality is a problem which human beings are destined to fix.

For most of us, anything that doesn’t match our expectations, desires or standards is viewed as a problem. Our solutions always result in more problems and greater complexity. Eventually, certain problems become intractable and we resign ourselves to believing that solutions are not possible.

So how to deal with intractable problems?

What one person may consider to be a viable solution (from the perspective of their generation’s paradigm) may not be a solution at all for someone from another generation.

We need an alternative way of observing the world.

Consider that something is only a problem if we say it is. Our assessments define what is a problem and what is a solution. However, assessments are only a statement of our perspective on the matter: they are neither true nor false.

Instead of focusing on problems that need fixing, we can identify anything that is obstructing or limiting us from achieving our commitments as a breakdown. For example, we may see global warming as a problem; however, if we are committed to living in a relatively stable, safe environment, personally experiencing the effects of climate change will occur as a breakdown for us. When we declare something is a breakdown, we escape the “problem/solution” mindset. We empower ourselves to take unprecedented actions to “break through” and create a new reality. We have the freedom to invent new structures and processes that combine the best of multiple paradigms. We are no longer a victim of our circumstances.

The Future

“It is too late for later…. ‘Later’ was a luxury for previous generations and civilizations.”

—Thomas L. Friedman, International Herald Tribune, December 16, 2007

It does not matter whether we are optimistic or pessimistic about the future. Optimism and pessimism are only different perspectives. Neither affects what the future will be.

The future will be a product of our individual and collective actions. The question is what will organize and determine our actions? Problems and solutions—or breakdowns and breakthroughs?

We are at a turning point in human history. We will either invent and implement a sustainable way of living in harmony or we will, in all likelihood, face a period of unprecedented suffering.

The future is up to us.