“Get angry about ageism – and take action to combat it.” That’s a resolution for 2014 from one of the world’s most powerful lobbies for older people.*
Of course My New Old Self decries age-based discrimination. Older people everywhere have been hard hit in this troubled economy and have less hope than younger people of finding new jobs. But it seems hypocritical to condemn ageism when we’ve all been guilty of it. Not recently, of course. Awhile back. Or are you going to claim that your youthful self never referred to anyone as an “old fart” or “little old lady”? That you didn’t steer clear of grey-haired people in favour of those your own age?
We all did, that’s what we were like back then. Before we started getting old. Even now we tend to relate better to those our own age. Others over 50 understand what we’re going through because they’re experiencing the same aches and memory lapses. It’s like the architect who didn’t get it about disabled-friendly design – until he had an accident and had to do site visits in a wheelchair.
Ageism is not like racism or sexism or homophobia, in that you probably won’t change into the race or gender, or adopt the sexual preference, of the victims of discrimination. Not the way that today’s youth will someday know and feel what it’s like to get old.
Motivation to campaign against the unfair ways that others are treated usually comes from actually experiencing discrimination. It is then that we comprehend, and resent, what has long been happening to others – in our case, to our elders.
However, even as we experience life without youth in this youth-loving world, we may find it hard to reach out to the oldest of the old AKA the Old-Old – not out of duty or guilt, but to build solidarity and support.
We should, because octogenarians are the fastest-growing age group in developed countries, with developing countries soon to experience a similar senior boom. And older people are now fastest in joining social media.
With ever greater chances that we will be “lucky enough” to live that long, does seeing Old-Old people make us worry that this is what we too will be like one day? Often it ain’t a pretty sight – but how could it be when we’re convinced that our days of looking pretty or handsome are already long gone?
From as early as our 40s, we aim only to look good “for our age”. Even the ageism activists are still desperately trying to look younger. While Gay Pride means reveling in your own look and style, it’s not the same with whatever passes for Grey Pride. Not when it comes to our aging appearance. For all the exhortations to “embrace aging”, it can be scary to know that we are entering the last chapter of our lives.
Interestingly, the angry response to ageism is counter to most advice on dealing with racial discrimination, which cautions against an emotional reaction, suggesting that one’s anger be controlled.
How to deal with racist people. Read techniques and tips that help you when someone utters racist remarks or behaves in a racist way. Don’t follow your initial emotional response.
• Control your anger. If you’re getting worked up you only suffer high blood pressure and stress.
• Consider them “learners”. Remember that they might be less enlightened and tolerant than you are. They might not even know that their comment or action is racist.
• Remain calm. Anger is a weapon only to one’s opponent.
• Expect ignorance. People’s ability to convince themselves they’re not racist is astounding (”I’m not racist, but…”).
– anti-racism tips from Australian aborigines
The director of the historical feature film The Butler says he learned tips like these when he researched the racism endured by the White House servant played by Forest Whitaker.
I became very angry at white people. . . The lesson I learned when I did The Butler was that Forest told me to keep my anger in, to not be a stereotypical angry black man. Because if I were angry and I saw racism, then it became real. I had to step above it and pretend it wasn’t there.
– Lee Daniels, director, The Butler
So what’s the point of us, at our age, getting angry about ageism and arming ourselves to combat it? Why this fighting talk? Instead of joining only with angry age mates, wouldn’t it be a better strategy to adopt a more peaceful approach by seeking allies among the youth? Remember, it wasn’t only blacks who fought apartheid or Jews who opposed Nazism. Support came from whites and gentiles who had not personally experienced such oppression. Motivated by moral outrage, alliances forged across racial and ethnic lines helped end discrimination based on race and religion.
More recently, discrimination against same-sex marriage has decreased in part because straight relatives and friends of gay people joined the campaign against homophobia. So wouldn’t it make more sense to encourage all people, from young to old, to join together to protest ageism?
Sadly, pressure to work until you drop, without enjoying the benefits of retirement, is no longer only an issue for older people. It’s a crisis that will get even worse in decades to come, when today’s youth eventually want to quit working. So developing multi-generational approaches to issues around aging makes a lot of sense, for everyone, of all ages.
*Originally called the American Association for Retired Persons, since opening its membership to all those over 50, still working or not, this advocate for older people was renamed AARP.