09 December 2009

Youth, Adults, Elders and Ancestors in the eyes of Dominant Culture

In any society/community/tribe there are generally recognized stations of life, each of which correlates to certain responsibilities to the community held by the individuals in that station,  as well as responsibilities of the community to those individuals.  For example, in one dominant view, adults are often charged with the rearing of children, either literally or figuratively.  Inspired by Chris Bartlett, one of my mentors and Faerie elders, I view individuals as primarily fulfilling the role of either child, adult, elder or ancestor within a community. 

Because our dominant culture is both heteronormative and capitalist, I will first look at how we typically are taught to assign people to these roles and how the value of each group, as well as the individuals in it are perceived.  Heteronormativity constructs youth/adult/elder/ancestor as child/parent/grandparent/deceased while capitalism sees student/worker/retiree/deceased.  These systems of understanding the child/adult/elder/ancestor roles are both concerning.

Heteronormativity is a hierarchal system of value where the undeniable gold standard is one man and one woman, married until death do them part, conceiving and rearing children that are wholly biologically "theirs." Deviations from this ideal include blended families resulting from divorce and subsequent remarriage, adopted children, sexual and romantic relationships which are not heterosexual, sexual and romantic relationships which are not limited as being held between only two people, etc. Like beauty, hierarchy is in the eye of the beholder and the relative values of marriage and childrearing vary individually. Regardless, measuring adulthood and (possible) subsequent status as an elder by these criteria means that the contributions of many adults and elders to their communities are undervalued or disregarded entirely.

Taken from a capitalist point of view, the only two roles of value are the youth/student and the adult/worker.  While I would not state that capitalism is entirely without value, as a world view, it is disturbing to measure an individual's worth only by his/her/hir future potential (youth) or current ability (adult) to generate capital.  In this paradigm, elder status is not achieved by wisdom or a concern and responsibility for future generations, but simply by advanced age and the cessation of work and generation of capital. Thus, the elder role doesn't functionally exist; instead there are only old community members who are winding down, waiting for their retirement fund or life force to hit zero, and hoping for the latter to happen first.

Finally, both heteronormative and capitalist views of the dominant culture disregard ancestors entirely.  Clearly, ancestors are of zero value in a capitalist view, unless you are perhaps an entrepreneur  selling a service to track genealogy.  There is nothing in a heteronormative construct which inherently devalues ancestors, yetin our culture the primary interest in researching them seems to be to satisfy curiosity or perhaps learn more about our medical and genetic destinies. 

Ancestors can and should be treated as active participants in a community.  For some reason it is easy for us to regard someone we've never met, perhaps an author, as a mentor and a coumminity member.  Contrary to that, and despite the fact that our ancestors often leave very real and palpable contributions to us, our view of death is that we mourn, let go, and forget.  Perhaps this is due the pervasiveness Judeo-Christian belief systems in our society about the linear nature of life and death.  Many other spiritual beliefs would maintain that we can still contact our ancestors regardless of the life/death divide, or that they would be reincarnating to continue their progression towards Nirvana.  Such a view helps to invalidate the "out of sight out of mind" attitude with which we seem to regard our dead.

Having established some of the challenges our dominant culture has instilled in understanding our communities as collections of youths, adults, elders and ancestors, I will continue to publish subsequent blogs regarding each role, it's responsibilites and primary characteristics, and so on.  As the series progresses, I will return here to turn some keywords into hyperlinks and cross reference the blogs.


  1. Good stuff. Looking forward to this series.

    I would add that in the capitalist view, you also have founder stories, particularly when the corporate brand is involved. Consider Eddie Bauer, Frank Perdue, Dick & Mac McDonald (I don't know if they're actually dead yet, but you see my point).

  2. I'm curious about how you feel the founder stories affect the tribe. Ostensibly, founders and leaders of large ventures like those should be straddling elder and adult responsibilities in so far as they are generating capital and yet also looking out for their corporate tribe for several generations. What else makes these cases special and significant?