“I look forward to growing old and wise and audacious.”
— Glenda Jackson, British Labour Party politician and former actress
“How many of you are 55 or older,” he asked. “Stand up.”
I heard a story once about conference for elite executives where the topic of an afternoon session was advertising, specifically with social media — Facebook, Twitter and such.
The guest speaker was a young hotshot — an Internet marketing guru — known for his unconventional approach.
At the speaker’s request, about 10 members stood up.
“Did any of you bring a young associate to this conference?”
Those standing looked at each other and shook their heads.
“Then you should leave,” said the guru.
“Because you’re not going to get anything out of this session and do you know why?” Everyone stared at the hotshot.
“You’re too old.”
A murmur rippled through the crowd. The comment seemed cruel — inappropriate.
“Too old to understand what I’m about to share, so leave now and don’t waste my time.”
Insulted and hurt, a handful of the over-55 group did just that — got up and left. The rest who decided to stay were asked to sit down, be quiet, pay attention and try to keep up.
I wasn’t there. I’m not certain what prompted the comments.
Part of it might have been ego, a little grandstanding.
Some speakers will attempt to shock an audience to get a reaction — to stay memorable.
Maybe the speaker knew that some of the people would leave due to insecurity and that others might stay because they had something to prove about age and learning.
As a speaker, I don’t condone this approach. I find it unkind and besides, the assertion is untrue.
The ability to learn, grow and assimilate new information and ideas does not end somewhere in our mid-50s.
For the person with healthy self-esteem and a healthy curiosity — the dedicated lifelong learner — learning, growing and assimilating need never end.
Back in 1927, Edward L. Thorndike — an American psychologist who spent nearly his entire career at Teachers College, Columbia University — declared that the ability to learn declined slowly and slightly at a rate of about one per cent per year after age 25.
At the time, most educators operated under the old adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
It wasn’t until the 1980s that a study by Malcolm S. Knowles, the renowned American adult educator revealed that it was only the speed of learning that slowed, not intellectual power, and even this decline could be minimized by continual use of the intellect.
Knowles discovered that learning differed between adults and children.
Adults needed to know the reason for learning something.
Adults needed to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
Adult learning was problem-centred rather than content-oriented.
Adults also responded better to internal versus external motivators and, perhaps most importantly, adults were more interested in learning subjects having immediate relevance to their work or personal lives.
A further study by K. Warner Schaie, PhD, co-author of the Handbook of the Psychology of Aging, declares that that mental ability gradually improves until about the age of 40, at which time the abilities tend to stabilize until approximately age 60.
After that, the decreases are minimal until the mid-70s.
Thus, the ability to learn, retain and assimilate new information does not decrease until the sixth or even seventh decade for most individuals.
The literature supports the idea that adult learners are able to mentally process at a higher cognitive level with respect to analysis, conceptualization, creativity and judgement ability.
In my experience, adults are often more eager and motivated to learn and approach learning from a place of readiness and time perspective — meaning the older adult knows time is limited.
What it comes down to is a willingness to learn, a desire to embrace change without fear and the gumption to challenge hotshots who might label anyone older as unable.
The people who stayed in the room had something to prove.
Perhaps that they weren’t going to be intimidated by the kid on the stage.
Or just maybe — being comfortable in their own skin — they were able to look beyond the bluster and arrogance of youth and find value in the message.
Research shows that our ability to learn and evolve continues well into our later years. I believe that such is also the case with our ability to grow and maintain our self-esteem.
Certainly, self-esteem will rise and fall and can rise again over the course of a lifetime.
In my experience, our falls often result from underestimating our power to learn, change and grow.
We must always appreciate how much we can achieve (and learn) when we become willing to accept challenges and take responsibility for our lives. Lifelong learning is the province of the healthy self-esteemer, so make a commitment today — this very moment — to never stop learning.
Margaret Mead, the American cultural anthropologist, once wrote, “It is utterly false and cruelly arbitrary to put all the play and learning into childhood, all the work into middle age and all the regrets into old age.”
I don’t think it’s ever wise to single out people or label them as unable.
To do so is arrogant presumption. Sadly, there will always be those individuals who choose to label others.
Perhaps there’s some solace in the knowledge that no-one escapes growing older.
One day the hotshot will be 55 or older and may be asked — by a young guru — to stand up and leave the room.
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.