What is the role of an elder in our society? If you take a look at the part Bill Clinton played in Tuesday's election, you might get a pretty good idea.
Whether you agree with Clinton's politics or not, he undoubtedly helped the president win a number of votes by doing several things "elders" are particularly good at.
1) Clinton was able to take the long view. And, for a lot of folks, he put the election into perspective.
Elders are the only ones in our population who have actually lived through much of contemporary history. Clinton remembers the 50s, 60s, 70, and 80s. Not only was he a president, he was also a teenager and young adult who experienced some of our nation's most tumultuous times. Although not everyone agreed with him, Clinton was able to help put current economic and foreign policy challenges into perspective for a lot of people because they respected his years of experience.
2) Clinton demonstrated his ability to see both sides of some of the biggest issues.
Clinton connected with voters around the country because he was able to appeal to Democrats and Republicans. Why? Because Clinton was able to acknowledge frustrations felt on both sides. As many older people are able to do, he could see (and explain to others) why people feel the way they do. He could sympathize with conservatives who want a balanced budget and lower taxes, and, at the same time, support liberals who want better-paying jobs for the middle class and a social safety net for those who need it.
3) Clinton was able to bring people together.
Not only was Clinton able to present an argument that recognized both sides of an issue, he was able to bring opposing people and viewpoints together. As elders will often do, Clinton was able to offer a give and take strategy that demonstrated compromise was possible. You do have to cut government programs, he said, but raising taxes on the wealthy back to the levels put in place by his own administration might help satisfy both Republicans and Democrats. Many people seemed to agree with him.
4) Because he didn't have a direct, personal stake in the election, Clinton was able to stay above the fray and connect with the voters he was trying to persuade.
Mitt Romney and Bill Clinton are about the same age. But Romney had a clear stake in the election and was not able to take the advisory "elder" role in the campaign. Clinton had nothing direct and personal to gain from campaigning for Obama unless, of course, you believe he was doing so to garner support for his wife, Hillary, in 2016. Even so, he, himself, would not directly or immediately benefit from an Obama win in Tuesday's election. That left him free to rise above daily party fights and take on the role of the "wise" political elder.
The elder's role in many cultures around the world (and, at times, even in our's) is to act as an advisor, a mediator, a calming, experienced presence in a world of youthful impulsiveness and short-sided passion. This is a role you as an older person can take on, too--in your family, neighborhood, community, religious organization. The world needs more gentle guidance, experienced perspectives, and wisdom. Why not offer up some of your own?
*Two books that expand nicely on the role of elders are The Journey of Life by Thomas R. Cole and What Are Old People For? by William H. Thomas, M.D.