VOICES: Elon Musk’s comments ignore older Americans’ value, contributions

Noreen Willhelm is a former journalist and nonprofit executive, now serving as Senior Fellow with The Dayton Foundation’s Del Mar Encore Fellows Initiative. (Credit: Andy Snow)

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Noreen Willhelm is a former journalist and nonprofit executive, now serving as Senior Fellow with The Dayton Foundation’s Del Mar Encore Fellows Initiative. (Credit: Andy Snow)

“I don’t think we should try to have people live for a really long time. That it would cause asphyxiation of society because the truth is, most people don’t change their mind,” Musk said. “They just die. So, if they don’t die, we will be stuck with old ideas and society wouldn’t advance.”

- Elon Musk, Fox Business, March 27, 2022

What a shockingly ignorant, ageist, narrow-minded proclamation by one of the titans of 21st century American industry.

In an interview with Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer, Business Insider’s parent company, Musk, 50, talks about his own loneliness, how dying will “come as a relief,” as well as what he sees as the risks of an aging population. But for someone who thinks of themselves as one of the most valuable creative minds on the planet, he exhibits a stunning lack of imagination — and information.

Older adults can and do make enormous contributions to our world, in business, our communities and government. Retired teacher Evangeline Lindsley was 75 when she co-founded Daybreak, Dayton’s emergency shelter for youth; 72-year-old Larry Connor, founder of the Miami Twp.-based Conner Group, is preparing to pilot a rocket to the International Space Shuttle.

Since 2017, the Dayton Foundation has been employing Del Mar Encore Fellows – recently retired professionals – to work with area nonprofits on big community issues. It was a Del Mar Fellow, working to help the Area Agency on Aging remedy the crisis in the home care workforce, who came up with the idea of training laid-off restaurant workers to be personal care aides during the pandemic. More than 80 people have successfully completed training. Other Fellows have found solutions to increase access to healthcare for low income older adults; expanded the Rock Your Homework program at Dayton Metro Library; another is working to connect employers with skilled older workers with the Collaboratory’s Silver is Gold initiative.

Business benefits from having multiple generations of workers. According to Forbes, “Leveraging the unique strengths of each generation and enabling them to learn from each other creates a more collaborative, engaged environment.” The Harvard Business Review notes, “Age-diverse teams are valuable because they bring together people with complementary abilities, skills, information, and networks.”

To assert, as Musk does, that “it is just impossible to stay in touch with the people if you are many generations older than them,” may say more about his ability to maintain relationships than anything else.

The world is already aging. In 2018, the number of people over 65 in the world outnumbered children under 5. The U.S. crossed that threshold in 1966. Does that mean nothing useful has been invented in the U.S. in the past fifty years? What say you, cell phone users? Microsoft investors? Tesla owners?

Older people bring knowledge, perspective, flexibility and value to the table. Matched with the creativity, energy and focus of young people, you have a well-balanced, dynamic workplace or community, getting the best of what is available from our human resources.

Instead of decrying the aging of the world, Musk and other business and government leaders would do well to examine how to harness the wisdom and experience of older people. After all, it’s the only natural resource that continues to increase.

Noreen Willhelm is a former journalist and nonprofit executive, now serving as Senior Fellow with The Dayton Foundation’s Del Mar Encore Fellows Initiative.

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