Ageism is lamentably, perhaps the last socially acceptable taboo. It is still fine to belittle people for their age in a way some have around race, gender, or sexual orientation, causing them to be socially shunned? Why is this? Ageism is complex. Age is progressively changeable. I will never change my race whereas my age, and how I feel about my age, is constantly changing.
It is also 100% personal. What I mean by that is the crux of all “isms” is the idea of the other, someone different from us, whereas with ageism it is us at a future time. Then there are the biological pulls. If we accept, as Andrew Steele does in his excellent book Ageless, that the prime driver of species is not survival of the fittest, but the survival of the most procreative, that would lend a bias toward hormone-saturated youth. There is also a certain cross-species tendency to avoid the sick. The oldest of age is often associated with disease and there may be an element of herd avoidance. Sick people can be scary.
Then we have the huge impact of marketing, the idolization of youth, and the infantilizing effect of medicalizing any age post-youth, be it in entertainment, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, or any of a thousand subtle messages we are bombarded with in our lives all day, every day.
Ageism is within us and our awareness of our mortality
Perhaps the biggest factor in ageism is within ourselves and our awareness of our mortality. We may not enjoy being reminded that there is an end out there. However, and this is a big one, these biases are not universal in cultures, history, or even careers. You probably would not want a national leader that is 25, or an architect, or a surgeon. You want someone with experience that gives them the ability to do wide-screen pattern recognition that a younger person can’t do.
Is saying an 8-year-old is brilliant for their age an ageist comment? In a way, it is, in another way it is merely pointing out their notable exceptionalism. This is no different from noting that someone, like the former NBA player Spud Webb at 5’ 6” could dunk. It is exceptional. Here is where it gets tricky though. We don’t want to censor everything we say — that gets awfully boring. Stereotypes always have a smidgen of truth to them that then gets dangerously universalized. Some people our age are indeed grouchy, difficult, closed-minded, and not much fun. I know more than a few people in their 20s that would also fit that description. It is not that examples can’t be found, it is that these elements are then applied to everyone in the group. This is the same for any of the “isms.”
Stereotypes and Fear
What do we do? First of all, acknowledge that you and all those around you are not saints. We humans like to make systems and categories of the world around us; sometimes we get it wrong, and we especially get it wrong when we are scared. This is key. If the person you are dealing with is feeling fear, be it fear of their future self or of you, then their primitive system’s default comes into play. Boom, ageism. But give them a break, especially if they are younger. And not all ageism comes from younger people either. We in the older cohort have the same capacity to stereotype our own people.
As Dr. Jeff Spencer has described, each decade of life has a driver and a motive. Each decade we progress to further levels, but we keep the experience and drivers of the early ages with us. Thus we can understand what motivates a younger person, and in fact still have those motivations within us, whereas the younger person has only an academic idea of what is motivating us. This gives us a great advantage. We can understand quite well anyone younger than us. But no matter how many people I talk with, I will not have personal experience of what it feels like to be 80 or 90. Sure, I could put on a heavy suit and foggy glasses, but that does not inform me about how I will see my purpose in life at that age.
Changing biological drivers may actually come via advances in medical science so, when 90 really is the new 40, we may view age dramatically differently than we do now. Who knows. Here are some simple face-to-face solutions that may work for you:
- Smile. In fact, smile a lot. People like to be around happy people no matter what their age. Enjoy your moment and others will want to be there with you.
- Be fearless. Try new experiences constantly.
- Hold your space. Don’t use age as your excuse, ever. You can learn and achieve as well as everyone else. You are not a victim and you are not mentally incapacitated.
- Say yes. If you are in a yes mindset, you are in a transformative mindset.
- Be curious about the other person. Ask all sorts of questions. Care about them.
- Understand that you may be scaring the others. This is particularly true in work situations. Be very careful of playing the experience card.
- Elevate and cheer all those around you. Focus on helping, not taking.
- Just because you are of a certain age, it does not give you an expected right to “take your comfort.” That is called being lazy.
- Pay attention to the world around you. It is not 1970, or 80, or 90 anymore. Engage with today.
- Be confident that your time has not passed. In fact, you may even have a considerable runway in front of you.