Neal Milner: Old Folks Are A Lot Less Fragile Than You Think - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Stressed out Gen Zers could take a few lessons from the elderly.

The U.S. is now 11 years into the largest epidemic of adolescent mental illness ever recorded.  

Adolescents have become more fragile and frightened as their worlds have become more frictionless.  

The elderly — you know, the ones we normally think of as so fragile and in need of care — may be one of the best resources we have to fight this scourge of Generation Z depression and anxiety.

That’s because the elderly are so innovative and such risk-takers.  

In a recent interview about her new book of short stories,”Old Babes in the Woods,” Margaret Atwood, who’s 82, said this about growing old: “It’s more fun than you think.”  

“As long as you’re not actually dying or having dementia, you just have a lot less to lose. You can color quite a lot further outside the lines, especially compared to young people these days.”

Not the way you think about the elderly? You’re not alone because the conventional view of old folks is quite the opposite. 

We typically think of old people in ways that make them subjects rather than agents.  

After a long life, so the story goes, they need to be rewarded with care and comfort. Job well done, now they deserve peace and quiet. Pastoral. Give me shelter.

The upshot, also the downside, of this view is that pastoral also implies putting someone out to pasture. 

Author Margaret Atwood has said about aging, “It’s more fun than you think.” (Wikimedia Commons/2014)

Their contributing days are over. Sure, they do grandma and grandpa stuff, the “older role models as part of healthy aging” kinds of things.  

That’s far from seeing older people as warriors in the fight against the plague of depression.

I’m not saying all old folks are or even can be like Margaret Atwood. (Face it, only Margaret Atwood can be like Margaret Atwood.)

But her model of living has legs. Aging leans more in the Atwoodian direction than you may think.  

People who are 85 and over are the fastest growing demographic in the US. That age brings about a lot of fragility — 85 seems to be a benchmark — but just as a part of aging.

There’s good evidence that aging is not simply a downhill process. Because age-wise — and because happiness follows a U-shaped curve — there is a decent chance that older people, including those 85 and over are happier than those high schoolers six or seven decades younger.

Overall, old people handled Covid’s emotional turmoil better than young people. Certain reasoning and conflict-resolving skills get stronger as a person ages.

With that in mind, it makes sense to see older people as risk takers — not just preservers of the old ways, but rather as less-to-lose, life-experienced cultural innovators pushing younger folks to move outside the lines. 

Like kicking some ass because he or she has the right skills and lacks the emotional restrictions and fears that younger people feel.

The introduction of the “like” button on Facebook and the switch from flip phones to smartphones are the main culprits in the adolescent crisis.

The psychologist Jonathan Haidt who has done the pioneering research linking social media use to adolescent emotional turmoil, says that since 2012 or so, adolescents “came to believe that they were fragile and would be harmed by books, and words, which they learned were forms of violence.”   

People that age began to rely more on their anxieties as guides to reality, and of course anxieties make a person fearful and defensive.

Gen Zers have become less confident of their ability to control their own fate. They act and think in other distorted ways characteristic of depression. They’ve become more risk averse, partially because technologies like social media and smart phones, have disempowered these adolescents by removing “so much of what used to be the ordinary friction of existing as a person in the world.”

A blue and red neon sign on a brick wall that reads: GENERATION Z
Generation Z suffering from anxiety should be exposed to the risk taking behavior of elders. (Getty Images)

It’s topsy turvy, isn’t it? Adolescents with their fears, vulnerability and aversions to the complexities of the broader world sound like the way we commonly think of the pastured elderly while it’s older people who have the skills, spirit and push to be the risk takers. 

Right now, then, there are two linked problems: adolescent mental health and disempowerment of the elderly.  

We wring our hands over the seriousness of the adolescent problem, as we should because it is truly frightening.

Old folks’ disempowerment is more insidious, mainly because in our kindness we don’t think we are disempowering them at all. After all, we can’t be hurting them because we are helping them.

A start is to understand that the turvy is really the topsy and the topsy is really the turvy. The adolescent mental health crisis threatens the historically optimistic, conventional view that each generation in America is more capable than the last. 

At the same time the older generation is much more resilient and adventurous than the usual clamor about the elderly imagines.

This is so weird. The motto of my generation was “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” because we were the ass kickers and the cultural innovators.  

So, at the same time we recognize and are properly frightened by Gen Z’s downward spiral, we need to think of ways to use old folks as resources to keep things from going downhill even more.

This involves something more than your 80-year-old neighbor saying, “Well, back in my day….” 

It involves exposing Gen Z people to active, innovative older folks who are more fearless than adolescents believe, possibly as part of the youth advisory groups that Beth Fukumoto talked about in her recent Civil Beat piece.

Change broader cultural stereotypes that pasture the elderly. Remember how quickly attitudes regarding same-sex marriage changed when the number of gay TV and movie characters increased?

These are directions, not policies, but we need to remember how much social change takes place in the cracks between government action.  

Adolescents need more mental health services. But they also need a lot more than that.

At the same time, elderly people need a lot less: a lot less paternalism and a lot less diminishment of older peoples’ value.

Two generations of healthy minds are better than one.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

I thoroughly enjoyed this article. I come from a tradition, Mexican, that honors the elderly as warriors and leaders. I'll be 72 this year. When people ask when I plan to start slowing down, I reply that I'm not done speeding up yet! My fellow baby boomers survived polio, the threat of nuclear war, the civl rights and women's movements and the Vietnam war. We are in a perfect position to assist the lost Gen Z kids. Where do I sign up to help!

Pablo · 2 months ago

In today’s society elders are stigmatized and are constantly called vulnerable which in turn leads to ageism. Institutions like the State’s Office on Aging and the Elder Abuse Office at the prosecutors office further add to the stereotype of the frail senior. Do away with these programs and treat everyone the same!

Internet_Stranger · 2 months ago

The article draws further curiosity. I never heard about Jonathan Haidt nor how to start looking for scholars on social media and youth today. I searched and listened to an interview and a commencement speech that he gave. Finally, I find a much-needed scholarly insight on social media and the GenZ. Also, the pep talk that GenZ might be looking for. Just note that his generalization applies more to middle class folks.

Ca · 2 months ago

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