Just as every society recognizes that children are not the same as adults, I think every society, to one degree or another, has respect for its elders.
After all, age brings knowledge and experience, which are valuable things. When you’re young, everything is new, and nearly overwhelming; the first joke you hear is the FUNNIEST THING EVER, while your first broken heart means YOU’LL NEVER BE HAPPY AGAIN. As your experiences grow, you gain perspective, and can maintain your equilibrium in the face of things both good and bad. Your toolkit for problem-solving expands, and you know which solutions are more or less likely to work. Small wonder, then, that elders tend to be leaders — at least in the absence of something like strict primogeniture that can transfer a title to a babe in arms. But the force of age reasserts itself even there, with the practice of regency, an adult ruling in the child’s place until the child reaches their majority. (And sometimes past that point.)
“Respect for elders” is considered a hallmark of East and Southeast Asian societies in particular, because it’s a major feature of Confucian philosophy. It’s noteworthy that Japanese, unlike English, makes a distinction between the words for older siblings and younger ones; the former are ani (brother) or ane (sister), while the latter are otōto (brother) and imōto (sister). Birth order matters enough to be tracked on the vocabulary level. Nor, despite the phrase “filial piety,” does this apply just within a family: the higher-ranked and more senior students at my karate dojo are senpai, a term of respect whose etymology reflects the fact that they have gone before (it’s the same sen as in sensei). The converse of senpai is kōhai (in Korean, seonbae and hubae). In its strict form the dynamic between those two can be quite hierarchical, with the junior using honorific language for the senior and performing all kinds of menial tasks, such as maintaining their senpai’s sports gear or cleaning the office.
But lest we think this is just an Asian thing, consider the English tradition known as fagging. It bears a very strong resemblance to the senpai/kōhai arrangement, though it’s more limited in its scope (being confined to school rather than extending through work, hobbies, and other parts of society). Military organizations may have a similar dynamic, with new recruits being put through a hazing period of servitude before being accepted as real members of the unit. Such systems tend to be self-perpetuating: after you’ve been on the serving end of that dynamic, you often feel it’s only natural or fair to enjoy your time on the receiving end.
The interface between seniority and age can be complicated. During a recent karate seminar in Okinawa, my husband and I got into a discussion of this with some of the younger black belts, on the topic of who is expected to pour drinks (water, tea, sake) for whom at dinner. In the karate context, the standard answer is that the lowest-ranking belt present should be pouring (senpai/kōhai at work). But my husband is forty, while the black belts in that conversation were in their early to mid-twenties. They unanimously agreed that they would feel wrong having him pour for them, even though he’s a brown belt; in the calculus of seniority, the age gap takes precedence over the rank gap. Conversely, European aristocratic hierarchy sometimes had elderly noblemen bending the knee to sovereigns barely old enough to wipe their own noses. The relative weights of these things vary.
How old is old enough to be an elder? It depends on the society. Where life expectancy is low, forty might be enough to qualify you as a greybeard. Where people live longer, though, you might be sixty and fuming that you still haven’t earned that level of respect. There might be a specific age at which you receive that distinction — perhaps a numerologically significant number — or it might just happen when you reach a certain stage in life, whether that’s social (retirement from your previous responsibilities) or physiological (post-menopausal women).
As for what happens when you achieve that status, again, it will depend on the society. Maybe you’re no longer expected to engage in normal labor, but can sit back and let other people take care of you, earning your keep by dispensing your hard-earned wisdom. Maybe you can engage in special religious rituals, entering into mysteries the younger generations are not allowed to see. Although it’s rarely defined on a formal level, elders can often get away with behavior that would never be tolerated from someone half their age; in particular, widows in the West have frequently enjoyed a degree of social and economic freedom that married women could never aspire to.
In theory, the rights and privileges that go with being an elder are counterbalanced by some degree of responsibility. Much like the liege lord in a feudal relationship of vassalage, a person with respected senior status is supposed to provide some benefit to the people below them: advice, instruction, patronage, protection, etc. But of course, as with any hierarchical relationship, you’ll have people who abuse their higher position to reap all the reward without giving anything in return. They may feel it’s their right; as I mentioned above, after you’ve been through the grinder of the lower status, you may believe you’ve earned every bit of payoff you can wring from the situation. Or maybe the elder just isn’t very qualified for the status they enjoy: while knowledge and experience can accumulate with age, it’s also possible to make it through decades of life without gaining an ounce of real wisdom. Then the younger set find themselves in the awkward position of trying to figure out how to navigate around the elder’s dumb ideas or unreasonable demands, without too openly flouting the customs of their society.
The United States these days tends to idolize youth to a remarkable degree. The Hot New Thing attracts attention, while the older employee/performer/etc fades into the background, taken for granted at best, discarded at worst. We advertise a thousand products and services designed to make you look younger, because wrinkles and grey hairs, once badges of pride, now get treated as unsightly blemishes. But respect for age is more common than its converse, and we shouldn’t lose sight of the reasons why.