Respecting Elders in a Society of Rugged Individualism


My intention is to stir up a conversation as to a possible answer to why there seems to be a decreasing degree of ‘respecting your elders’ in the United Stated and other individual focused cultures (as opposed to collectivist cultures).

In my times of contemplating the subject of decreasing respect I came to an interesting observation…

Generally speaking there is a dramatic difference between what ‘respecting your elders’ means in a collectivist culture as compared to what that means in an individualistic culture.

Respecting your elders in a collectivist culture could mean that one respects the customs, rituals, and traditions that are followed with great consistency by the group.  As all individuals are unconsciously motivated to meet the needs of the group it stands to reason that the elders have great insight into what the collective needs are… therefor when you are respecting your elders you are respecting the collective need and fulfilling the collective intention. In this way when you respect your elders in a collectivist culture there is a clarity and a consistency in regards to what the younger generations are respecting.

Respecting your elders in an individual focused culture may not have the clarity or the consistency in regards to what variables are to be respected. If the Elders of such a culture are unconsciously motivated primarily to meet their own needs then respecting those elders calls for one younger individuals to respect the subjective desires of one older individual. This means that respecting your elders calls for the younger generation to respect an infinite amount of variables related to each differing older person… those variables to be respected may prove to be truly difficult to isolate and respecting one elder often causes the youth to disrespect another elder. Respecting an older person’s independently created beliefs could unfortunately be going directly against what the young individual was conditioned to do… the culture conditions the young ones to be motivated by their own desires and not by the subjective desires of an older person.

The short of it is that perhaps respecting elders truly has very little to do with age… instead this principle is more likely to succeed when the elders are representatives of the collective needs. Therefor respecting elders is synonymous with respecting the collective over the individual.

In an individual focused culture respecting your elders means that you are arbitrarily respecting an older individuals subjectively created needs simply because that individual in chronologically older than you are… respecting that older individual very often means that you will not be meeting the needs of yourself as an individual (which is the primary unconscious motivator) or the cultural or collective needs.

I am from and individualist culture… it makes sense to me that if I wanted the youth to respect me it would be best if I allowed myself to make decisions which were in the best interest of the collective. If I am to ask for respect simply because I am older I worry that I might be asking the youth to enable my vanity.

I am a lover of balance, and though this post seems to favor collectivism I would like to clarify that it is likely a balance which harvests the greatest harmony.

In relation to the variable of respecting our elders I am simply suggesting that we are so far away from that place of balance that a more radical collectivist intention may be needed to bring us to center.

Quick oversimplified definition of terms –

  • When I say an Individualist culture I am talking about a culture in which the individual is primarily motivated by independent ambition. A person of this group is very motivated to fulfill individual goals which are perceived to be largely separate form collective goals or separate from the goals of the system which encompasses that individual.


  • When I say collectivist culture I am referring to a culture in which the individuals are primarily motivated by collective ambitions. A person of this group is very motivated to fulfill the collective goals of all the people that are in the same system as that person. This person would authentically prefer to do that which was in the best interest of the group despite whether it was in their own individual best interest.

The environment that we grow up within affects the ways in which we experience rewards and therefor effects how we are unconsciously motivated. A person who grows up in a culture of individualism can choose to put the needs of the group before them; the difference is that the choice is motivated by expressing the freedom to make an independent choice. They feel internally rewarded by meeting their need to express their individualism… which guided towards meeting the collective need.

It is argued that a person from a collectivist culture would not feel as though serving the group was truly an independent choice… they are unconsciously motivated to do so… they feel internally rewarded by meeting the needs of the group.

Of course these are gross over generalizations and there are infinite differences within individual focused and collective focused cultures.

If we tell a youth to respect their elders in the United States what variables are we asking them to respect? (Ex. Conservatism, liberalism, alcoholism, perfectionism, racism, volunteerism, Buddhism, athleticism, compassion, capitalism, individualism, collectivism… etc.)



William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.
William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

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