Ageism Runs Both Ways

Reducing ageism is a two-way street to avoid a dead end.

Posted May 17, 2020

Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash
Source: Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash

“I think my job is to leave some evidence for future generations that there was somebody who cared while we were destroying everything.” —Hope Jahren, scientist

The above quote implies a perception that contemporary older folks are increasingly up against. Lots of younger people resent us and lump us into one group. Although conflict between generations is not unusual, the issues dividing boomers and younger generations have been exacerbated by environmental concerns, the huge wealth gap, and the current horrors of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are not just combating classic ageism; we’re combating generationism.

One thing we know for sure: We can’t counter ageism with more ageism. If we boomers are criticized by younger people, or even by our contemporaries, we are better off considering if the criticism is warranted. Admitting when we’re wrong is healthy and opens up the door for conversation and mutual understanding. All generations deserve our respect just because they’re people, but also because they possess a type of wisdom that is tied to their direct experience, just like ours is tied to our experiences.

However, when we are unjustly blamed for the conditions of society, or younger people overgeneralize about us, we should be prepared to defend ourselves and reach out to them and use the opportunity to build bridges. The snarky “OK Boomer” can be replaced with a sincere, “This boomer is OK.” 

Older people and aging itself are often the butt of jokes. Some of these are just humorous commentary on the phenomena of aging shared among the elderly, some underscore the advantages of maturity, but others carry a more dismissive tone that reminds us of the diminishing capacities of some older folks. Here is a joke that shows an older man going toe-to-toe with a younger man:

An old man, a retired farmer became very bored and decided to open a medical clinic. He put a sign up outside that said: “Get your treatment for $500—if not cured, get back $1,000.” 

A young man who saw the sign and was sure that this old man didn’t know beans about medicine, thought this would be a great opportunity to get $1,000. He went to the clinic and this is what happened. 

Young Man: “Doctor, I have lost all taste in my mouth. Can you please help me? Old man: “Nurse, please bring medicine from box 22 and put 3 drops in his mouth.” 

Young Man: “Aaagh! This is gasoline!” 

Old Man: “Congratulations! You’ve got your taste back. That will be $500.” 

The Young Man gets annoyed and goes back after a couple of days figuring to recover his money. 

Young Man: “I have lost my memory, I cannot remember anything.” 

Old Man: “Nurse, please bring medicine from box 22 and put 3 drops in the patient’s mouth.” 

Young Man: “Oh no you don’t, that’s gasoline!” 

Old Man: “Congratulations! You’ve got your memory back. That will be $500.” 

The Young Man (after having lost $1,000) leaves angrily and comes back after several more days. 

Young Man: “My eyesight has become weak I can hardly see!” 

Old Man: “Well, I don’t have any medicine for that, so here’s your $1,000 back.” 

Young Man: “But this is only $500.” 

Old Man: “Congratulations! You got your vision back! That will be $500.” 

The joke is overtly reverse-ageist but we can see that it contrasts the “cockiness” of youth with the cunning that comes with maturity. In this case, it highlights the advantages of the older man. In contrast, other jokes can be more ageist against the elderly, and contain hidden “microaggressions.” The following joke separates the elderly from others and the aggression is camouflaged in the “cuteness” of the joke:

Three seniors are out for a stroll.

One of them remarks, “It’s windy.”

Another replies, “No way. It’s Thursday.”

The last one says, “Me too. Let’s have a soda.”

The latter joke is ageist because it implies that all seniors are hearing impaired and ignores the fact that some are not. It also points to a condition that could affect opportunities for older people in that it refers to something that is generally considered to be a disability.

Other microaggressions would include things like calling videos of older people “adorable,” or describing older people as “old man,” “gramps or grannie" (when they're not yours), “geezer,” and “old bag.”

Respect Each Other

Microaggressions are perpetrated on younger people too. Derogatory terms like "whippersnapper" and "wet behind the ears" are common. Young people ought to be eligible for credit to obtain credit cards (at least with small limits) since they have no record of bad credit.

Inter-generational respect is more than a mere nicety, the fate of our society depends on it. Let's face it, boomers have the material resources, and largely still hold political power, but younger generations are on-boarding the ship of state and they are poised to take the helm. The key is creating a navigational language that can bridge the generation gap, so we can right the ship together.

In a world that’s constantly and rapidly changing and becoming hyper-technological, some adults (especially older adults) can’t cognitively integrate technical and social mutations fast enough? If so—advantage young people. While some of the landscape remains the same between generations, as the ground shifts beneath us, we need to re-calibrate to offset generational bias and overcome our resistance to new technology. As Marshall McLuhan profoundly warned a half-century ago in his book, The Medium is the Massage: “All media are extensions of some human faculty—psychic or physical.” Human functions are being replaced by high tech tools virtually overnight. This means, among other things, that technology is changing the roles of men, women, young, and old.

Physical strength is one example of an ability that will soon be much less in demand. With advances in robotics, machines will be doing most of the heavy lifting. Some workers are already using electro-mechanical exoskeletons for heavy and repetitive lifting. It doesn’t matter if you’re big or small, older, or younger since your clothing does the work for you.

The internet is a great equalizer, too, since it is replacing human memory. The advantage that older people had in their reservoir of knowledge has evaporated. The good news is that older people have access to the internet too, and if they keep up with technology, they still have much to contribute.

The experience card can still be played, but with the amazing tools of the information age, we can shuffle the deck more easily to integrate new knowledge. We can help younger people embed their knowledge into an integrated panorama instead of a random collage of confusion. We can be inspired by their talent while they benefit from our experience. Besides, as someone who frequently works with younger people, it's incredibly fun and invigorating!