But, something that deserves more attention is how the younger generations regard the older ones. Younger people have always seen older ones as "boring" or "old-fashioned" or "out of touch." That will always be true. The youth will always be Kevin Bacon from Footloose, and the old will always be John Lithgow.
When it gets concerning is when we ignore all that we can learn from the elders. By elders I mean the advisors to your chapters or the alumni who still contribute to the fraternity as volunteers. And I guess I'm referring to those with a little more gray hair than others. Fraternity will be better when we can respect these individuals more, and here are three reasons why we often fail to do that:
1. We impose the undergraduate frame of reference on our elders.
The biggest problem is an age-old one in fraternity life. We see the fraternity experience as only our undergraduate years. When we do that, then we put a box around the wisdom that our elders can provide. We think that all they can offer is advice on how to experience those undergraduate years based on how they experienced them. This makes their advice easy to dismiss because times indeed have changed in regard to how students experience college life. I can tell you stories on what life was like when I was in school, but it’s hard for me to advise you on how to do it in 2014.
Because of that, we are missing the mark on the frame of reference our elders can really provide: how fraternity can influence our lives beyond and outside of the undergraduate years. How powerful it is that we have in our midst individuals who have experienced several decades of living the values of fraternity. If fraternity (and life itself) becomes more clear and more understood as we get older, then why wouldn't we want to learn from those who have achieved that deeper awareness? Instead, we turn to these gray-haired sages in the back of the meeting room and ask them to tell is what Greek Week was like when they were in college. Instead, we should be asking them to tell us what they've learned about brotherhood during the course of their lives. And what lessons of the fraternity Ritual speak loudest to them now. Simply put, the greatest gift that our older alumni can provide us is not how to be an undergraduate fraternity or sorority member, but how to be a lifelong fraternity man or sorority woman.
2. The value of experience in developing wisdom has been diminished.
This is a societal problem. We seem to be drifting away from the notion that experience is the best provider of wisdom. Instead, we're more likely to take what our Twitter feed or internet search tells us instead of the older adults that surround us. Theory and the next big idea trump practice and the ideas that have been tested. Old age is more likely to carry with it notions of vapidity than wisdom these days.
I have made it a point in my life to position myself close to those with experience and those older than me. I am one of the youngest in my Kiwanis Club, and I love it. The stories I hear those other members tell provide me with a glimpse of wisdom earned by experience. When I hear a retired corporate executive gush about the weekend he spent with his grandchildren, it's a signal to me about what really matters in this world. I have resisted joining young professional clubs because I have found that my peers, while being able to provide camaraderie and fun, can't provide the same level of life education.
Experience is still the best teacher. You can read all you want about swimming, but until you get into the water, none of it matters. Don't rely on leadership lessons from charismatic 20-somethings who consulted for a year and then wrote a book with a catchy title. Instead, learn leadership from the man or woman in the room who has worked throughout their lives with all types of people and who has witnessed the highs and lows of organizational life.
Experience takes the lofty ideals, and makes them real. You can memorize the creed of your fraternity, but your older alumni can actually teach you about it. What if fraternities and sororities helped lead a movement back towards the value of experience? What if we talked about our inter-generational aspects more as an asset? We should be proud of the opportunity we provide to bring together the wisdom of experience with the wonders of youth.
3. Alumni are seen as parental figures rather than brothers or sisters.
One of the great wonders of fraternity is that its Ritual becomes a bridge between all types of difference, including age. Once you accept the oaths of membership, and the Ritual is revealed to you, you become equal as a brother or sister with all those who came before you.
When it comes to human connections, we often let superficial aspects – such as choices in clothing, music, or movies – crowd out much more significant similarities. Does it matter that you like Walking Dead and he likes CSI when you've both spoken the same commitments to the same ideals?
Perhaps if we change the lens on how we see our elders from “an authority to report to” to “a brother/sister to walk beside,” they may become more approachable to us. And respect may be easier to bestow.
Overall, our elders will make mistakes, and some of them can do more harm than good. Yes, there are a few that stay involved for the wrong reasons or who try to pass along the poor choices they made as undergraduates to the next generation. And yes, there are some who are moving too slowly in terms of diversity and acceptance. But the vast majority can help your chapter grow because they provide the wisdom of experience. And they can help you grow as well, because their frame of reference is unique to yours.
Look past the superficial differences and you’ll see a sister. Or a brother. Someone to learn from. Someone who has seen much of life, and provided much as well. Someone who deserves our respect.