In the “Lemon of Troy” episode of the Simpsons, Bart and his little friends are in the midst of some noisy debate when Grandpa Simpson begins to speak. Milhouse says, in awe, “Hey, an old man is talking!” All the children immediately quiet down and sit on the grass, looking at Abe Simpson happily in anticipation of wit and wisdom from their elder.
It’s a great comic moment because so many people, old and young, value the company of the young more than that of the old. Young people are fresh, original and exciting and old people are boring, and, well, old. For example, Larry McMurtry whinges in this month’s Spectator about once going to a swish Hollywood party and getting “stuck” at a table with Jimmy Stewart and other “gerontological cases” while other guests got the chance to chat up Madonna.
Just as I cannot relate to people who dread old age, neither do I identify with those who view contact with the elderly as a chore. Had I been sitting next to Madonna at that Hollywood party, I would have swapped my spot with McMurtry unhesitatingly to get to talk to Jimmy Stewart. Stewart could tell me about his experiences struggling to make good in 1930s Hollywood, his subsequent stardom, his military service as a bomber pilot, and his friendships with other great actors such as Henry Fonda. Whatever Madonna would say couldn’t compete in my eyes.
There are many valuable things that old people can bring to conversation, but the greatest gift I think is that they can tell us about the times when we weren’t yet alive. Younger people can tell me what it’s like to be young now, which is not uninteresting, but I’d much rather hear the stories and perspective of someone who preceded me in history. It’s like learning from someone who has traveled to a country I have only heard of, and who can through their superior knowledge transform how I think about where and how I live.
Among my most vivid experiences of this sort was a discussion about 1950s Britain with someone slightly younger than me. What a wretched time, we agreed: Austerity that makes the current version look like luxury, ration books, stuffy social mores, few career opportunities for women etc. And then an 80-year old sitting next to us said “I loved the 1950s”. A bit surprised, I asked why.
He smiled peacefully and said “A whole decade without a world war. It made all of us so happy.”