We were all young and we will all age (if we live long enough). Age is more than just a sum of years, spent on this planet, it is a social construct that allows people to unjustly categorize other people. Falling into a certain age group is never neutral; it has social consequences on a smaller (i.e. individual) and larger (i.e. systematic) scale. Those consequences are sometimes manifested negatively – as age discrimination or ageism. Ageism refers to attitudes and beliefs, feelings and behaviour towards people based on their age, where the normal or “right” age is from 25 to 55 years old. Right-aged people represent the economic, cultural and social motor of the society and by this, they possess the symbolic power; power that allows them to define Others according to their beliefs on what is right (good) and what is wrong (bad).
Age is a tool for primitive categorization (i.e. categorization that is made almost automatically, under one second – race, gender and age, Nelson 2005), so it is not surprising that ageist language, behaviour and age prejudices in general are so common that even such “harmless” creative outlets, as are jokes and humour, carry covert societal messages about age: getting old is not OK, children are clueless and youngsters are naïve.
Ageism is Othering that is based on the person’s age and it draws lines between “us” (currently right-aged group) and “them” (or Other). Children, youngsters and old people constitute the category of Other-aged.
Children are primarily subjected to the juvenile ageism that is manifested in an adult’s comprehension of children as helpless, mindless, dependable upon adults and unreliable. Youth has been vilified ever since the idea of a teenager emerged in the post-war era. American 1950s introduced us with juvenile delinquents, 1960s had hippies, 1980s punks, 1990s Generation X and 2000s Millennials.
Ageism against old people is the most damaging one. The general stereotype of old people in the contemporary Western societies portrays them as dependent, lonely, disagreeable persons, who have various physical and mental limitations. They tend to be marginalized, stripped of responsibility, power and their dignity. Older adults are still regarded as non-contributing burdens on society, treated as second-class citizens with nothing to offer. The most harmful aspect of ageism is how it affects older people in the workplace (i.e. economic sphere). They are perceived as less motivated and competent at work, as harder to train or retrain and as more expensive for employers, because they have higher salaries and, due to declining health, use more health care benefits.
Ageism against older people can even evolve into gerontophobia, an irrational fear or hostility against older people. Elderly people represent our future selves and are a reminder of our own aging and death, as youngsters represent our past selves. So, the ageist language that is directed to both of those Othered age groups is just fear. We are not young anymore; we have made our life choices and must live with them. Time is known for its irreversibility – when it passes, it passes.
Currently right-aged group is now being “concerned” about Millennials; they are described as self-involved, shallow, selfie-obsessed, vain, spoilt etc., the predictions about future are pessimistic because nothing good will happen by the time Millennials grow up. When the right-aged group is “morally condemning” youngsters for being young (i.e. different from them), they are (un)consciously using ageist language. Ageist language (e.g. old people are incompetent, children are helpless, and youngsters are shallow) is generally very patronising language; it positions Other as a voiceless and powerless subject. And this is exactly what is being done to youngsters – they are defined by those who possess the power to construct “truths” about Other-aged groups. Nobody knows how responsible, reliable or sociable youngsters will be as adults in the future.
This ageist narrative about contemporary youngsters has become so populistic and accepted that it is hard not to remember that every right-aged group had the same fearful prejudice about their youths; 1950s parents were terrified of juvenile delinquents and their power to disrupt the illusion of the perfect nuclear family, to parents of Gen X everybody was lost and confused, 1980s punks were prone to destroy the society with their anarchistic political views … But none of that has happened. Not on a larger scale.
Ageism segregates different-aged people into “us” and “them”, so any cross-generational connection (except the familial one) is absent and by that, any enrichment from one age group to the other is unavailable.
Except in films, or at least, in one film – an anti-ageist love story Harold and Maude (1971, d.: Hal Ashby). Here’s to love and death (of ageism).<<< Back