The Third Age of Simplicity

I’m very happy to be posting a new essay by Simplicity Institute Fellow, Mark A. Burch. He’s been a bit quiet recently working away on some larger creative projects (more about those in due course) but below I’ve posted his new essay, ‘The Third Age of Simplicity.’


The Third Age

I propose that we think of our lives as passing through three ages. The First Age from birth to thirty is the period during which we learn, commit to certain values, and more or less successfully establish ourselves in the world. The Second Age, from thirty to sixty, is when we flourish (or not) in whatever garden we decided to plant ourselves, mastering our careers, raising our families and building communities. The Third Age is the period from sixty onwards—the age I shall call that of eldering. While the values and principles of simple living remain valid over the whole arc of our lives, the practice of it is inevitably shaped by the age in which we find ourselves.

My aim in this essay is to explore the meaning and practice of voluntary simplicity from the perspective of the Third Age of life. In bringing an “eldering perspective” to simple living, I will perforce mention something about how the Third Age of life is distorted and marginalized in consumer culture. But my main focus will be to point out some of the challenges, opportunities, tasks and gifts offered by the Third Age which can pass through us to our families and communities when we actively embrace eldering as a verb. As we embark on the Third Age we actively engage in meaningful relationships and with the key issues of our day, but our engagement is configured by the Third Age perspective of memory, tested wisdom, humility, deep respect, and a sense of legacy—in short, by our testimony to simplicity as Elders.


Pop culture, which I believe can rightly be conflated with consumer culture, is confused about how aging changes the way we participate in society. In its confusion, it offers few if any positive portrayals of the Third Age of life. In North America, people over the age of sixty or sixty-five are condescendingly referred to as “seniors”—a word denoting scarcely more than advanced age. In a society which allocates value almost exclusively in terms of economic productivity, anyone who is not economically engaged becomes a sort of social “shade” in the classical Greek sense of that term—not quite dead, but not quite alive either—or in more modern parlance, a zombie. The homeless, the unemployed, the socially marginalized, and those with disabilities share this social space with seniors who are often portrayed as addled, medicated, conservative and self-absorbed. These attitudes may also be mixed with a measure of doting affection, amusement and tolerance, if not true respect. On the other hand, affluent seniors are portrayed as entering “retirement”—a period of entitlement, self-centredness and consumptive excess featuring exotic travel destinations, unsustainable pastimes like golf and power boating, pool-side idleness, and a nearly limitless readiness to indulge the material whims of their grandchildren.

One particularly egregious example of this attitudes was a video, advertised as amusing, that was trending on the Internet recently and which featured speaking head declarations by a number of older people who said how little they cared about climate change, or the state of the environment, or future generations, because they had already had their share of the ‘goods’ life and would soon be dead. I found the video shocking, offensive, and perhaps revealing of how some members of the younger generation view older ones. It was also profoundly out of sync with what I had observed in my own community. Having participated in numerous public meetings, consultations, information sessions, debates and volunteer activities in which environmental issues were the priority, I have seen elders over-represented relative to their share of the population, and younger people startlingly under-represented. Elders care about the world we are leaving to future generations, apparently sometimes more than do the future generations that are entering it.

Perhaps equally bizarre in their own way are the efforts of consumer culture to simply obliterate aging altogether. It is as if consumer culture cannot imagine anything positive about aging and therefore seeks merely to fill it with more youth. Here we enter the realm of special exercise programs, age-reversing plastic surgery, cosmetics, dietary supplements, red convertibles, and sexual performance enhancing drugs. Embedded within these is anxiety about aging which conjures no other response to it than somehow extending youth against all the laws of nature. The Third Age thus becomes a threat that must be forcibly pushed back as long as possible and the ideal of “successful aging”—as if one could fail at it!—is to keep on doing what we have always done in spite of the physical and psychological changes that occur in the Third Age. What we lose by indulging this anxiety is the opportunity to embrace change rather than resist it. We miss the opportunity to discover how to be different in our relationships and community commitments while continuing to be faithful to them. The opportunity is to embrace being an elder rather than being an old person desperately struggling to stay young.

Clearly, we need a different perspective of the Third Age and its place in the broader sweep of a more life affirming and life protecting culture. Equally clearly, the template for the Third Age won’t be coming from consumer culture.

Here I would like to recruit the noun “Elder” to refer to persons living in the Third Age of their lives and who also identify with a specific way of being in this age, the verb, to elder. Elders may be advanced in years, but they are not merely old. They elder in their relationships with others.

Nearly universal across cultures and historical periods is a general recognition that aging brings certain limitations and dependencies to all of us sooner or later. Injunctions abound in religious texts and traditional customs about honouring parents, caring for widows, returning care to the aged that they rendered to us in childhood, acknowledging the sacrifices and contributions that people made in their youth to protect and sustain our way of life. There is also a more or less innate tendency to assist and protect those we perceive to be frail or enfeebled. While it is completely appropriate to extend these courtesies and forms of assistance to the aging, if this is all we do, we risk viewing the Third Age in terms of what is disappearing from life rather than what is flowing into it.

A more fulsome understanding of eldering can be found among the aboriginal peoples of North America and elsewhere. In these societies, elders are often the keepers of collective memory and tradition, dispensers of wisdom and sage advice, ceremonial presiders, spiritual mentors and often, primary care-givers to young children where grandparents have at least as much of a role in child rearing as do biological parents. Some of these roles can resonate strongly even in those of us who are not of aboriginal descent.

One example can be found in the research literature on “transactive memory” (Wegner, 1987; 1991). It seems that memory is not merely a function of individual brains, but rather something that is held collectively in groups. Different members of the group—adults, adolescents, elders—hold different parts of the group’s memory. This amounts to a form of psychological differentiation or specialization among group members that means that not all group members must remember everything worth remembering. We remember not only specific information, but also who in our group holds information we might not remember ourselves. So elders may hold knowledge of family legends and history, adults knowledge of how to make a living in contemporary surroundings, and teenagers specialized knowledge of how to use social media, etc. In this scheme, all members of the family or society hold some of its memory. The tasks that might be most appropriate to elders will not be the same as those for adolescents, nor can they be measured by the same criteria. Moreover, the loss through marginalization of one or another group member amounts in some sense to a form of amnesia. We want to live a rich life but we suffer memory impairment.

Another more personal example of eldering is something I experienced when I was invited to solemnize the marriage of some friends who were a generation younger than myself. This was an invitation to perform a ceremony, to be sure, but I took it also to be an opportunity to meet with them, help them plan their wedding, think deeply about the choices and decisions they were making and what it communicated to others about their understanding of marriage and the commitment they were making. I felt deeply honoured to play this part on their wedding day. I also realized that it would be perfectly appropriate to bring a certain measure of formality and gravitas to an occasion which, lacking them, might easily become just another party. While the party certainly did happen, it was, I hope, complemented to some degree by conscious awareness that this was a significant milestone in the couple’s relationship and for everyone present to consider again the nature of their own commitments to each other, and hopefully to value them more.

I should add that in citing these examples in connection with aboriginal cultures it is not my intention to idolize traditional cultures or appropriate their institutions. Many examples of positive eldering can be found within the Western cannons of spiritual practice and institutional governance as well.

I would suggest then that we view the practice of simple living through the frame of eldering which I posit to include: active engagement with and service to others; memory of our collective past; offers of wisdom and sage advice when appropriate; humility; respect; rational hope; a care for legacy; ceremony; and spiritual mentorship.

Simplicity in the Third Age

I have already offered an extensive description of the values, principles and practices that I think characterize voluntary simplicity as a lifestyle, so I won’t repeat them here (See: Burch, 2000; 2013). I will focus instead on four aspects of simple living that I think have particular relevance to our discussion of eldering, namely: mindfulness, sufficiency, ecological trusteeship, and self-reliance.


By the Third Age of the practice of simplicity, mindfulness, and probably formal mindfulness practice, have become habitual elements of our daily round. Years of practice have stabilized attention and deepened self-awareness. They have also helped develop our intuitive capacity to stand in a dialogue relationship with our own depths and inner wisdom—though it is a matter for others to decide whether or not to call us ‘wise.’ In having discovered these wellsprings in ourselves, we are more able to perceive and honour them in others. We find ourselves capable of conversing in depth with others. We are also able to listen to what issues from the depths of another with patience and respect because we know first hand the price of such knowledge. This manifests not so much in what we say as in how we are in the company of others. Some of the sensibility I’m trying to describe is well captured by the 18th century Samurai warrior Yamamoto Tsunetomo (c. 1716):

At a glance, every individual’s own measure of dignity is manifested just as it is. There is dignity in personal appearance. There is dignity in a calm aspect. There is dignity in a paucity of words. There is dignity in flawlessness of manners. There is dignity in solemn behaviour. And there is dignity in deep insight and a clear perspective.
These are all reflected on the surface. But in the end, their foundation is simplicity of thought and tautness of spirit.

So our own practice of mindfulness, in addition to providing the foundation for our practice of simplicity, can also help us bring qualities of steadiness, depth, respect and attentiveness to all our conversations and relationships. These qualities can be exceedingly important as remedies for the scattered, shallow, casual inattentiveness which so characterizes relationships in consumer culture. They are especially important to our eldering of young children. It can be a formative experience in one’s youth to find even one or two people who know how to take time, pay close attention, and seriously listen to whatever may be arising from our own deep intuition.

In addition to the quality of attention that we develop through mindfulness practice, we have probably also discovered gratitude. If we have developed an ‘aptitude for gratitude,’ this will manifest in our eldering both through our presence in company with others and in our conversation. Obsession with material consumption is fostered and amplified in consumer culture by all sorts of methods that focus attention on what we lack rather than what we have. But gratitude arises when we become conscious of the ‘glass half full’ perspective on our lives. As elders we can take up a role for ourselves, not as moralistic scolds who warn others that they ‘should’ be grateful for what they have, but rather, with humour and warmth, to simply point out (notice) the sheer florescence of ordinary existence that mindfulness reveals to us.

In seeking to help foster mindfulness and gratitude in others as well as ourselves, it can be edifying to call attention to our own memories of those who in one way or another were examples to us of simple living grounded in mindfulness—whether as a formal practice or not. When we elder by keeping memory alive on behalf of others, we connect the present generation to past ones and we keep fresh the lessons they learned about how to live richly on a little. We have probably all met people in the past who have this happy aptitude that combines gratitude and sufficiency in ways that are admirable, amusing, and sometimes even heroic. Moreover, if we have tasted the fruits of affluence ourselves and found them insipid, eldering is our opportunity to testify to this fact of our experience and share its lesson.

Another aspect of mindfulness practice in the Third Age concerns how we entrust to others the material things we have used and enjoyed in preparation for the transition which has no need of material things. I refer here to another loop in the spiral of the practice of simple living that takes us beyond shedding what was always excess clutter and a nuisance in honouring our life purpose, to loosening our hold even on what we think is necessary. This is perforce a delicate matter which cannot be hurried and one which calls for the utmost discretion. But mindfulness practice in the Third Age is no longer occupied with the negative task of clearing out clutter, a task we performed long ago. In the Third Age we bring mindfulness to the question of what to pass into the care of others that we have found beautiful, useful, or singular. We elder this mindfulness when we involve others in the process of this discernment, hear ourselves testify to what meaning these objects hold for us, and entrust them to the care of future generations. I don’t mean here that we should busy ourselves with saddling our children with barns full of heirlooms. The value of the practice, as usual, is not discovered in the quantity of things entrusted but rather in the depth of the emotions and awareness they can evoke in the moment of giving and receiving.

When in the Third Age our mindfulness practice brings us to those matters that are larger than personal and to the sacred, we stand at the threshold of spiritual practice. We elder, I think, when we openly acknowledge the place that spirituality has had in our lives, and to the importance of giving conscious attention to spiritual concerns. This needn’t invoke religious talk per se, but rather the deliberate intention to honour what is deepest and most sacred in our human experience. Again speaking personally—this occurred for me not in a church, but at the tender age of five when my father taught me how to fish. On that first day of fishing I was told to sit still in the boat, be quiet, and pay close attention to what might be stirring in the water, especially my fishing lure. When I reached adulthood, these simple literal instructions became metaphors for my entire spiritual practice—to be completely still and utterly silent while paying close attention to things that are invisible.

Finally, eldering in the Third Age of our mindfulness practice confers a particular sort of spiritual courage which we can share in all our relationships with others. This consists specifically in according to our own spiritual and ethical experiences some measure of authority, at least as they pertain to our own lives. In the Third Age, spirituality consists not in the accurate recitation of traditional dogmas imposed on us by outside authorities, but rather the readiness to believe our own experience, and to speak from that experience. We say now not, ‘this is what my holy book says,’ but instead, ‘this is how it has been with me.’


Eldering in the Third Age of life brings us once again to consider one of the central questions of simple living, namely: How much is enough? Or phrased a bit differently, what is that graceful point, that ‘golden mean,’ of sufficiency of material possessions such that we avoid the dehumanizing deprivations of poverty on the one hand and the injustice, violence, and ecological toxicity of affluence on the other?

We have, of course, brought close attention to this question throughout our lives. But in the Third Age, and in a time when society generally is spiralling toward an involuntary and inescapable energy descent from fossil fuels, the example we set to younger generations by our own consumption choices, and the affirmations we can offer as to the riches to be found in a simple life, are increasingly relevant.

I remember once browsing the pages of a ‘retirement planner,’ a publication produced by a major financial services corporation. It was urging me to set goals, to imagine retirement as a time of entitlement that I had earned by working my whole life. I could choose any of three paths forward, if I could afford it—the Professional Retirement Package that included wine with dinner three times a week, one winter holiday in a sunny destination and the security of knowing that my income in retirement would be about three-quarters of my pre-retirement income. Moving up a step, I could strive for the Executive Retirement Package which included more wine, more off-shore holidays, a cottage at the lake and presumably more cholesterol in my diet. The Elite Retirement Package included even pricier wine with every meal, presumably including breakfast, seasonal accommodation in locations that allowed for a sun-chaser lifestyle, more clothes, more gambling, and much more golf. The primary concern surrounding these choices was what I could afford, not what example I would be setting for future generations, or even what thought I might have for the sort of world I would be leaving for them if I indulged such choices. Even more apposite to this example is that it gets wrong the question of what constitutes a good life. The question that we need to bring into our eldering is not how many things are enough things for a good life, but rather how many desires are enough desires?

So we have an opportunity in the Third Age to re-examine our own practice of sufficiency and evaluate it as a skillful means both to a good life for ourselves and also for our descendants. If we have pursued affluence, eldering offers one opportunity to tell the story of how that worked out for us. Have the extra bottles of wine and extra rounds of golf really delivered the good life as advertised, or is it a pitfall that our descendants might avoid. As that great poet of simplicity Henry David Thoreau (1962) once wrote:

… When I have met an immigrant tottering under a bundle which contained his all…I have pitied him, not because that was his all, but because he had all that to carry. If I have got to drag my trap, I will take care that it be a light one and do not nip me in a vital part. But perchance it would be wisest never to put one’s paw into it.

In the Third Age of our lives, nowhere does consumer culture nip us in a more vital part than in relation to our grandchildren. Consumer culture portrays grand-parenting as a special relationship best cultivated through consumption. Gifting of material things is portrayed as the default expression of love, rather than in its more ancient role in establishing, cementing and nurturing bonds of reciprocal obligation. On special occasions like birthdays, seasonal holidays, graduations, marriages, etc., gifting, while intended as a part of these rituals of celebration, can nevertheless function as an indirect way of modelling the culture of materialism and hyper-consumption. Eldering in this context may involve simply calling everyone to mindful attention to this process, its origins and effects on the world, and to a playful search for meaningful alternatives.

Ecological Trusteeship

As I reflect more on the meaning of ‘ecological trusteeship,’ again the eldering prerogatives of memory, storytelling, and promotion of mindfulness spring to mind.

In 1960, I was twelve years old. I remember my social studies teacher bringing to our attention the fact that the human population had just then reached three billion. We received this news as a momentous occasion. I think most of us in some vague way thought of it as being evidence of human progress, even if mostly in terms of reproductive success. Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s ground-breaking book The Population Bomb, would not appear until 1968. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which raised an alarm about the grave environmental consequences of industrial chemicals, and in particular the pesticide DDT, would not appear until 1962. The first Earth Summit in 1972 in Stockholm, Sweden, was a full decade in the future. While these and other consciousness changing books and events waited in the wings, it was still possible for us to believe that environmental impacts flowing from human activities were the stuff of science fiction. We lived in the consoling delusion that things like climate change, extinction events, changes in the chemical composition of the oceans, coral bleaching, changes in the ozone layer, and rising sea levels were events that occurred on millennial time scales and well beyond human influence.

One of the challenges of fostering a true sense of ecological trusteeship consists in the fact that each new generation perceives itself to be born into a ‘full world’, i.e., that whatever environmental and social conditions are present constitute the baseline of normalcy from which all other changes are measured. What is missing from this comforting worldview is the fact that the changes which occurred during the lifetimes of previous generations tend to be forgotten, or at the very least, marginalized by more urgent and contemporary concerns. While it is the task of historians to compile and transmit the multigenerational story of the changes that humans have wrought, some part of this task can also find its place in eldering.

I find it both appalling and necessary that I tell twelve year olds alive today, that is, children born in 2004, that Earth now has two and half times more humans and only half as many animals as when I was their age (Harrabin, 2014). These two facts are not merely coincidental. I hear noticeably less bird song, just as Rachel Carson predicted. The great seasonal migrations of song birds and waterfowl that transit the North American mid-continental flyway where I live are thinner and quieter. The fish landed by anglers both commercial and recreational are smaller and fewer in number. There is almost no old growth forest left anywhere close to where I live. And from the air it is clear that the crazy quilt of commercial agriculture now practically fills the land when not long ago there remained vast tracts of near-wilderness. These changes, changes which were supposed to require millennia to manifest, have all occurred in my lifetime, within my own experience and living memory. Year by year, the world is become less colourful, less animated, less musical. As elders we need to share these stories and help younger generations understand the relationship between themselves, their lifestyles, their sheer numbers, and the rest of the living world.

Central to this task is getting our language right, because our language needs correction and the correction required is most obvious from an eldering perspective. Over the last five decades, well meaning people who have had a care for what humans are doing to our planetary home, have expressed the need for ‘development policies’ that promote sustainability. But in the current reality, ‘development’ is mostly a euphemism for degradation of nature. ‘Sustainability’ is all about how to perpetuate this degradation as long as possible so that we humans don’t have to change our lifestyles. Sustainable development is in reality a policy of perpetuating degradation. Nowhere on Earth can we find a single example of a resource or an ecosystem ‘which meets the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Brundtland, 1987).’

Some have noticed this toxic paradox and proposed that we use the language of ‘stewardship’ rather than sustainability. But even here, especially in faith communities, stewardship is a synonym for prudent management of money, or else it refers to biblical examples of ‘good and faithful stewards’ who turned a profit for an absentee landlord. Implicit in this language is the idea that we might manage nature the way we manage money and God will reward us—except that the relationship between a monetary system and an ecosystem is at best one of analogy and certainly not congruency. We should all be aware of the hazards of reasoning by analogy and in our role as elders it is our place to interrogate this language and point out its deficiencies.

From an elder perspective, I think a more apposite term for our relationship to the natural world would be that of ‘trusteeship.’ The traits that distinguish us most among the other species on Earth imply both a corresponding moral responsibility and a practical contingency to act as trustees whose role is to preserve and enrich a legacy on behalf of others—those others being both past generations whose memory and aspirations we keep alive, and future generations who are their heirs. Sustaining the world in suspended animation is both practically impossible and morally repugnant as it locks in existing patterns of discrimination and injustice. On the other hand, ‘stewarding’ the Earth is simply code for continuing exploitation but in the names now not only of greed but of God as well. We need instead some more generous purpose for our presence here and some deeper sense of how we achieve it. Instead of being the terror and dread of all other creatures, might we not embrace a bit more of the spirit of Wendell Berry (1987) when he wrote: “We must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration.”


It is now plain to a great many people that humanity has landed itself in a predicament the resolution of which will require profound changes in our way of life, and probably an end to consumer culture as well. Over the last century we have created a vast physical infrastructure of roads, rail lines, airports, homes and businesses powered primarily by fossil fuels the continued use of which portends changes to the climate which could lead to our extinction. Even transitioning away from fossil fuels will require, in the short run at least, increased consumption of the very fuels we must not continue using if we want to avoid further climate changes. Most scenarios that offer a reasonable chance of avoiding catastrophic climate warming (i.e., warming in excess of +1.5 ℃) require a dramatic ‘energy descent,’ a reduction in the overall energy intensity of the human economy, within one generation. Reducing the energy intensity of the economy will entrain corollated reductions in social, technical and economic complexity which will then require a retooling of the entire global economy to operate on renewable (current solar) energy sources amidst inescapable economic contraction (Foss, 2015). Some authorities don’t believe such a transition is even possible (McPherson, 2015) while others argue that the transition can be made but only with difficulty (Anderson, 2013). In almost any imaginable transition scenario, skills and knowledge that were commonplace prior to the widespread use of fossil fuels will once again be highly relevant to fashioning a good life in the coming solar age.

In this connection the philosophy and practice of voluntary simplicity will perforce become the mainstream lifestyle, though involuntarily, and elder knowledge of how to make sufficient provision of household necessities on a more localized, handmade, homemade basis will be essential. We will need excellent tools, but fewer power tools. We will need to use our heads more and powerful machines less.

So accustomed are we to the immense power that fossil fuels give us to travel at high speeds, alter local environments like the inside of our houses to suit our comfort, and to assist with a multitude of other tasks, that it can be difficult to imagine a future in which our personal energy budget is dramatically reduced. Petro-chemicals derived from fossil fuel sources have also made possible the throwaway culture of consumerism and waste as well as a wide range of materials, synthetic fabrics, plastics, and other polymers that have been truly useful in many applications. Many of these products and services will have to change dramatically or will disappear in a ‘renewables only’ powered world.

It has been common for some of those seeking a simpler life to embrace a more rural, agrarian lifestyle, although this cohort of simplicity practitioners accounts for only about 20% of those practicing voluntary simplicity (Pierce, 2000). The majority have settled in small towns or cities. For those living in rural areas, the conservation of knowledge relevant to subsistence production for own consumption will be an invaluable cultural and technical asset in the future. But even urban dwellers can develop considerable knowledge of home production and preservation of food stuffs, repair and maintenance of tools and small machines, construction skills, entertainment and storytelling skills, health care and teaching skills, and so forth. In our role as elders there will be many opportunities to pass this knowledge along whether through formal education programs or informally through family and neighbourhood relationships. Key skills will be lost unless we find ways of creating multi-generational play/work spaces where generations can meet and interact around common interests instead of walling ourselves into ‘retirement centres’ with our own age cohort. The challenge of energy descent and the transition to a solar powered future are inherently intergenerational tasks. We need all hands on deck in meeting our survival challenges. We need now to create spaces and opportunities for this intergenerational transfer of life skills to become possible and enjoyable.

Critical, I think, to the challenge of fostering greater self-reliance is also the elder task of remembering and storytelling but this time in the context of fostering hope. The transition from fossil fuels is not the first challenge that humanity has faced, nor will it be the last. It can be extremely helpful when younger generations hear the first hand stories of their elders who met and overcame the challenges faced by their own generation. These can be great collective challenges such as the Cold War, Civil Rights campaigns, the building of a global environmental movement, various struggles for economic and social equity, or they can be personal stories of individual challenges which thrust our lives out of their familiar orbits and into uncharted parts. But every story of how these challenges were at first perceived and later surpassed may be exactly the grain of sand that tips the balance in our survival—or perhaps can improve even one person’s quality of life.

The Elder Voice in Times of Transformation

For some years the American poet Robert Bly teamed up with Jungian depth psychologist James Hillman to offer retreats and workshops as part of what has been called the ‘mythopoetic’ men’s movement. It was their practice at the beginning of each retreat to ask any of the men present who were over the age of fifty to stand and identify themselves. Younger men would then conduct them to specially reserved seats at the front of the room whereupon they were honoured as elders of the group. Bly and Hillman believed that the sheer fact that these men had thrived for over fifty years in the modern world was itself sufficient to warrant the designation of elder. Moreover, in their temporary society being created for a single weekend, elders should hold an honoured and visible place in the community.

I’m convinced that the emergence of an ‘elder voice,’ particularly as part of our response to our civilizational crisis, will arise jointly as a result of elders themselves speaking out, and society at large being at least somewhat open to what we have to say. These matters always call for an iterative process involving both parties. If those of us living the Third Age of our lives believe we never had anything of value to contribute to society apart from our economic function, then surely our contributions will go unheard and uncelebrated. But I would urge anyone who believes this to bring this attitude into their mindfulness practice and hammer the stone until something more life affirming emerges.
Society more generally needs to recognize that the predicament humanity has landed itself in is probably historically unprecedented and that we will need every asset at our disposal to emerge from this transition with our humanity intact. Few are ready to publicly admit the very dark scenarios that are imaginable in the circumstances that await us. Against this darkness every source of light should be summoned including the elder voice. Those who marginalize elders, by whatever means, I suspect do so partly because they view the future from a narrow, technological utopian perspective. They believe, perhaps, that what ails humanity is a failure of engineering and that with better engineering, all our challenges can be resolved. Those who have lived a bit longer, many of whom are engineers themselves, might beg to differ. We realize that in the present crisis, poor engineering of our machines and artifacts is not the central problem, and therefore better engineering can never be sufficient to solve it—though it will certainly play a necessary role. So a society that fails the test of inclusion may fail the test of survival as well. We need all voices in the choir because in truth no one is quite sure from what direction will come all the tones necessary to a solution.

For those of us who have strived over many years to sing the song of simplicity, the call to elder the younger generation is particularly urgent. I probably manifests most clearly in terms of the integrity of our own practice as much as anything we have to say. While the challenges ahead may not have been the guiding vision for our apprenticeship in simple living, our apprenticeship nevertheless prepares us better than the pursuit of affluence ever would have done. Now it is our privilege to offer the lessons of our training for elderhood in service of the task of building a new culture that can promise a good life into the deep future for all beings on this blue marble.


Anderson, Kevin. 2013. The Emissions Case for a Radical Plan. Radical Emissions Conference 2013. Accessed at:

Berry, Wendell, 1981. The Gift of Good Land. San Francisco, CA: North Point Press, p. 281.

Brundtland, Gro Harlem, 1987. Our Common Future: The Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. New York, NY: United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development.

Burch, Mark A., 2000. Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and the Planet. Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers.

Burch, Mark A. 2013. The Hidden Door: Mindful Sufficiency as an Alternative to Extinction, Melbourne, Australia: The Simplicity Institute.

Foss, Nicole. 2015. Nicole Foss Interview on Peak Oil, Financial Crisis, Resilience and More. Happen Films. Accessed at:

Harrabin, Roger, 2014. World wildlife populations halved in 40 years – report. BBC News, Science and Environment. Accessed at: , 30 June 2016.

McPherson, Guy. 2015. Nature Bats Last: Our Days are Numbered, Passionately Pursue a Life of Excellence. Accessed at:

Pierce, Linda Breen, 2000. Choosing Simplicity: Real People Finding Peace and Fulfillment in a Complex World. Carmel, CA: Gallagher Press, p. 104.

Thoreau, Henry David, 1962. Walden and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau. (Ed.) Joseph Wood Krutch, New York, NY: Bantam, p. 155.

Tsunetomo, Yamamoto, c. 1716. Hagakure: The Book of Samurai. (Transl) William Scott Wilson, 1979, Tokyo: Kodansha International, p. 79.

Wegner, Daniel, 1991. Transactive memory in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(6), 923-929.

Wegner, Daniel, 1987. Transactive memory: A contemporary analysis of the group mind. In Brian Mullen and George (1987) Goethals (eds.), Theories of Group Behaviour, New York, NY: Springer-Verlag, pp. 200-201.

©Mark A. Burch, 2016. All rights reserved.

One Response to “The Third Age of Simplicity”

  1. Terry Kinzel says:

    Hi Mark,

    I’m just your age, so have fully embarked on the Third Age. I have not successfully embraced simplicity (can anyone w/ 7 books on simplicity truly be said to have got the idea) but I aspire to it. Your essay is in many ways inspiring (enough so for me to purchase yet another book on simplicity). My doubts come from my sense of the non-concordance of the idea of eldering today relative to traditional societies. It seems to me that our world is changing so fast that what I have of experience is of little use to my juniors and I can sense this when I have the temerity to venture a story and see their eyes glass over.

    This feeling is made more acute by my mental and physical diminishments. If I am to find meaning in my Third Age, it will have to be in some other fashion than by being an elder to an unwilling junior.


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