Think ‘wisdom’ and it is likely that the face of an old man or woman comes to mind. Historically, when societies were more focused on preserving tradition, the association between old age and wisdom made sense. But what about today?
If I were to answer instinctively, I would say that there is still a connection. But I am aware of my bias here – which is, by the way, a sign of wisdom, as mentioned later – because being in my 50s, I am likely to support the ‘older thus wiser’ camp.
Having met quite a few older people who did not have a single drop of wisdom in them, though, I know the answer is not so simple.
But what is wisdom exactly? And what does it mean to be wise in our fast-paced and increasingly virtual world, where the only constant is change? Researchers use many different words to define it: from knowledge, experience, thinking, and good decision-making to compassion, kindness, and emotional regulation.
There is for sure a cognitive dimension to it: the general knowledge we acquire through education and experience.
Both a support and a challenge for the ‘older thus wiser’ view
The older we are the more we should have learnt. Yet cognitive abilities tend to decline with age, and so does our capacity to absorb new information. Plus, nowadays the internet gives anyone access to a lot of knowledge, and younger people are, in general, better at navigating this.
Based on the above we could say that wisdom may increase with age up to a point and then decline. Yet this is not the whole story. Because there is also an emotional dimension of wisdom, with introspection and self-reflection at its core. This is what, I believe, we are not very good at.
We are so focused outwardly, over-stimulated, over-thinking, over-doing. But the truly wise are those who have the courage to look inside and master their inner world.
Research tells us that wise people understand who they are at a deep level. They are in touch with their emotions and know their biases, limitations, and negative sides. They constantly learn from their experiences and mistakes. They are more tolerant, empathetic, and compassionate, thus better able to connect deeply with others.
This way of being is hard to attain. It is a journey of self-growth that needs nurturing and takes times and effort. Which is why researchers agree that old age does not guarantee wisdom, because what matters is not how much time you have had but rather how you chose to live that time.
Even if old age does not guarantee wisdom, though, it surely plays in its favour, giving us more opportunities to learn from challenges and mistakes. A key shift is realising that the time in front of you is less than the time you have lived. It makes you slow down and look at life from a different perspective. It often drives a desire to be a better person, to have better relationships, to live a more meaningful life.
So what is my conclusion?
That today there is still more wisdom in the hands — or hearts — of older people. Which is why I want to make a plea to the marketing and advertising industry. Please stop ignoring over-50s or treating them as if they were cognitively and/or physically impaired.
They offer an incredible opportunity, given their wealth, but to reach them you need to show you truly understand them. Their wisdom should be acknowledged and respected.
Older age should be celebrated as a time that has its positives, not just joint ache, vaginal dryness, and funeral planning. It is a time of creativity, growth, and hunger for new experiences. Over-50s are less loyal to brands than marketers think. They are curious and willing to experiment and try new things as much, if not more, than younger people.
They want deeper and more authentic connections. Community matters a lot to them. And as they are experienced and know their minds — the worse you can do is patronise them. Insulting their wisdom means they’ll never forgive you. Celebrating the wisdom of the aged can also have much wider societal benefits. It could teach us all to respect and honour our elders, as it should be.
And it could inspire everyone — young or old — to slow down, go inside, and connect with the richness of our emotional world, too often overlooked versus thinking. This would surely make our planet a better, wiser place.
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