“You don’t begin to earn respect until you’re 40,” is roughly how a local saying goes. Ghanaians respect age and the experience that goes with it. For instance, during dinner with a friend and her family, her children stopped me from serving myself after we all say grace. They explained that, in Ghana, food is first served to the eldest people present and the young’uns last.
The thinking goes that it takes time to “pay your dues” and you won’t be making the real money until you’re in your 40s. Twentysomethings are not considered much more than “young boys” or “young girls”. At that age, you’re still “hustling” or trying to figure out a role for yourself in the world. Young women in their 20s may be overly relying on their looks or “what God/their momma gave them” to try to get ahead while young men may be doing hard labor or getting into trouble. By your 30s, you should have figured out what to do and you should have some experience to boot. But only in your 40s do you begin to reap the rewards of your experience.
If you make it into your 50s or 60s, people may begin to call you “Ma”, “Pa”, or “Chief” as a sign of respect. In some ways, you are a protected class where it’s not uncommon for your juniors to seek your guidance. In fact, in many families, there is a “head of household” who everyone in the (extended) family is expected to run important decisions — marriage, starting a business, school fees — by him. You don’t have to do what he says but you’re expected to, at least, seek his wisdom. Typically the head of household is the most economically successful “uncle” in the family. He doesn’t have to be the oldest but he usually is.
Furthermore, in many families, the family elders meet regularly — once a month — to review important decisions. For Ghana, the big chiefs of each of the major tribes called the National House of Chiefs “may hold four (4) ordinary and two (2) extraordinary meetings in each year for the despatch of normal business and vital national issues which may be referred to it by the Government for the views of the Traditional Rulers.”
This cultural aspect is not unlike East Asian (Chinese, Korean, Japanese) nor Middle Eastern (Arab, Iranian) cultures.
The American Way
In contrast, this concept of equating age with experience seems antithetical to how the US operates. Americans worship the new and capitalism over age and experience. Why is it that every American seems to know who Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, or Larry Page/Sergei Brin are? These people embody the promise that anyone can become a cajillion-aire seemingly overnight and at a young age.
In the US, you often hear how the 18-35 age demographic is the most prized because it’s believed that these people are most receptive to advertising. Their habits have yet to be formed so they are the ones that advertisers chase. Perhaps inadvertently, the culture becomes youth-oriented where the elders are expected to listen to the young-uns. You need someone to explain how this Twitter thing works and why I need it my life. In Jon Favreau’s movie “Chef”, the down-and-out chef and father is mesmerized by how his 9-year old son has promoted their food truck via social media. He pats his son on the back and holds him up as his “head of marketing.”
As someone growing out of the most attractive demographic, I believe perhaps the US should be more interested in what its elders have to say. Most fields, e.g. law, medicine, management, you only attain mastery through practice and experience in a number of circumstances. For instance, in real estate, the great Sam Zell, 73 and chairman of Equity Group Investments, is known to be a ridiculously good “market timer” presumably because he’s seen it all before. While some groups, SCORE Association, do exist that seek to extract the knowledge and experience from our elders, I also feel America tends to disregard them far too easily. For instance, I’ve heard from many past engineers that their companies tend to weed them out as they get on in years.
Americans’ tendency to experiment and reinvent themselves and their companies is one of its key competitive advantages. My only hope is that people recognize the wealth of knowledge and experience of those that have come before them.