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“As we age, we're told that we have to do whatever it takes to stay relevant. I wonder if this just adds more pressure to perform”

Faith Agugu

The definition of relevance is the degree to which something is related or useful to what is happening or being talked about. Relevance is the quality or state of being closely connected or appropriate. Other words for relevance include importance, significant, connected, and pertinence.

As I read through articles about ageing and staying relevant I was shocked by the level of ageism in their subtext.

In the article by Victoria Tomlinson, How do you stay young and relevant?, the writer offers the following advice "When something annoys you – ask, is this a young way of thinking?" The sentiment seems to be that to stay relevant we need to think more like young people, cementing the idea that young is better.

The article goes on to offer how to stay young in mind, up-to-date and relevant once you have left full-time working life with suggestions such as don't ask others to sort out your tech problems, spend time with young people and start on social media.

We cannot minimize the fact that many people feel out of touch with current language, technology, popular trends, and laws once they leave the workforce or an empty nester when the traditional role of parenting is less hands-on. I do however, push against the message that to stay relevant requires us to remain young thinking.

I love the analogy of staying relevant as we age to be like software that we regularly update to continue to receive the most updated information, attitudes, and trends.

I understand the need to stay updated as something we need to consider if we want to stay in tune with our children, grandchildren, and society generally.

In her Washington Post article, Will We Still Be Relevant ‘When We’re 64’? Sharon Jayson, says, "a gnawing sense of irrelevancy and invisibility suddenly hits many aging adults which means self-worth and identity may suffer as that feeling that you matter starts to fade. Older adults see it in the workplace when younger colleagues seem uninterested in their feedback. When you don’t have a corporate structure around you or endless emails warning and briefing you, or those water-cooler moments with colleagues, you can start feeling disconnected, and those who have recently retired might feel unproductive".

Sociologist Markus Schafer agrees. "As people get older, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to feel like they make a difference that matters.”

The different attitudes to ageing between Western and traditional cultures can also impact feelings of irrelevance and no longer 'mattering'.

Schafer points out "one thing about Western societies in general, is they’re much more a youth-centered society and don’t oftentimes give careful thought on ways older people can contribute to the lives of future generations. When people reach their 60s, opportunities to offer advice drop dramatically."

In contrast, in collective or traditional societies in Asia, South America, and Africa, peoples' roles evolve over time but they do not become less relevant. In most of these cultures, the roles of elders are the most important ones to the community offering child-rearing support and acting as the wisdom holders for the community at large.

Whereas in the western model, we age out of relevance, in collective cultures people tend to age into relevance.

Should we embrace our irrelevance?

In his 2015 Harvard Business Review article, "Stop Worrying About How Much You Matter," Peter Bregman wrote that "people who achieve success are masters at being relevant". He goes on to recommend that as we grow older, to become skilled at the exact opposite. In other words, we need to master irrelevancy.

As Bregman pointed out, how we adjust to not being as important in the old roles may matter more in the long run than 'mattering'. Because the truth is that at some time in our lives, we’re going to matter less in certain areas.

That’s just part of growing older. But there’s freedom in being irrelevant. When we’re no longer tied so strongly to our roles, we may be able to take more risks, be more courageous, or do things simply for the experience of doing them. In this way, we can be a more genuine version of who we really are."

Wanting to feel relevant is understandable. But refusing to let go when and where we should, is pointless because there comes a time when we have to pass the torch. It doesn’t mean we don’t matter anymore, only that we accept that our roles have shifted.

Remaining relevant then takes on a practical element removed from the pressure to remain important or at the center of life.

I agree with the idea that we’re all always relevant even if only for ourselves. We never really lose our relevance. Indeed, when we exhibit 'relevance deprivation syndrome', we sign up for our own irrelevance.

I believe that the need to remain relevant in a wider sense just puts more pressure on ourselves at a time when we could be taking a back seat. It's ok to step away, to make room for the next generation of women to shine and lead the way in that sphere.

Jayson reminds us, "maybe no one’s looking for us to lead the next project, but our grandkids might think we hung the moon. We’ll always have value for those who love and care about us. So instead of looking back to what we’ve lost, let’s look ahead to what we’ve gained. Because when we’re not being driven to prove to the world how much we still matter, we can let go and just engage with those who matter to us most".

I love the picture of the founder of Fit Beyond 50, Cathy McGillivray riding her Harley above. Cathy exudes the feeling of vitality, adventure, and a sense of freedom, all of which I believe embody a woman who is living her life on her terms.

In my opinion, women like Cathy are rarely concerned about being relevant. They are usually focused on living an authentic and fulfilling life.

This I believe should be our focus and not so much about whether we are considered relevant or not.

The key is to stay connected, updated, and engaged. Sharon Jayson goes on to say, "maintaining social engagement can give you a greater sense of purpose and give a sense of motivation that can make you behave in ways that are better for your health.”


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