There is a stigma about growing old(er) in America, This stigma often translates into ageism.
Growing older is not a death sentence. Let me rephrase: The way the young view growing old is that life is over after 30 (or 35 or 40 if you’re lucky), while those who have made it past 30 will tell you that one often doesn’t truly understand what it means to live until after that.
Ageism is exactly what it sounds like: Discriminating against a person as a result of their age. It’s the only negative “-ism” that America not only doesn’t protest or march against, but seems to embrace. We celebrate youth in America as though we’re worried Children of Men will become a reality.
Note: Of course America is not the only place where this happens. But for the purposes of this article, we’re keeping it here.
Growing old is something to be laughed at, poked at, ridiculed and shamed. Even as we’re living longer, and hearing phrases like “30 is the new 20” and “50 is the new 30” (another function of ageism; worshipping youth) people are increasingly worried about growing older.
But like skin color or sexual orientation, it’s not something one can control. Here we take a look at some of the attitudes and mindsets the American culture has about aging; about growing, and being old.
- A World Made for Robots
We treat our elderly the way we treat our electronics. When someone gets too old, they get replaced by something newer, sleeker, sexier, younger. And it’s without shame.
So, act like a robot.
There is routine. Follow the routine: Wake up, go to work, come home. This routine will work for thousands of years. It’s easier this way. We are drones. And drones don’t think about anything else, least of all the rapid passing of finite life.
Program yourself so you don’t have to think or feel or worry. Be cold. Be inhuman. If you don’t think or feel or worry, you don’t have to have the mounting anxieties that come with each year that passes and you’re one step closer to obsolescence. You won’t have to worry about losing your job to someone younger. You won’t have to worry if your wife or husband is cheating on you with a better-looking or more-successful version. You won’t have to worry about that new wrinkle just below your left eye that makes you look a little more like Clint Eastwood.
No feelings, no problem.
Society wants you to be a robot. The upside of this is, if you become a robot you won’t have to worry about growing old as a human.
- The Peter Pan Syndrome
This refers to adults, typically males, who are stuck in youth, ultimately stunted in their refusal to grow up.
When Huffington Post ran an article discussing it in 2014, they described it more as a “manolescent” (from urban dictionary), i.e. adult males who refuse to take responsibility, and whose carefree attitude is both appealing and detrimental to the women (those Wendy Darlings) who take care of them.
But the mentality behind Peter Pan’s rule of “Never grow up” extends far beyond social interactions and becoming a responsible adult, be it in jobs, relationships, etc. The attitude is that growing old is a betrayal of the “live fast, die young” mantra that has been championed in the US, and around much of the world, for as long as anyone can remember.
“If you made it to old age, you didn’t live fast enough.”
You grew up? You’re a sellout. You grew old? Why? Because you didn’t have the type of life that was so enormously bright you burned out long before catheters and catharsis. There’s nothing romantic about living until you’re old. And youth is, if anything, romantic.
Plus, when you’re old you are no longer able to have sex. Or if you are, the idea of it makes people wrinkle their noses and shake their heads trying their hardest not to imagine it, which is impossible because the more you try not to think about something, the more you will.
- No One Loves You
There is a joke, regarding ageism, that goes something like this:
“Why are baby diapers called things like Huggies and Luvs and diapers for the elderly called Depends? Because when you’re a baby and you go to the bathroom on yourself, people will still hug you and love you. But when you’re old, it depends on who is in the Will.”
Take a moment to laugh, or cringe. But there is some truth in that joke –
Silicon Valley won’t hire anyone over the age of 30, and people are losing their jobs to younger employees. Those who lose their job later in life have a much harder time getting back into the workforce and there has been little to no attempt at addressing this.
The real-world implications of ageism extend far beyond constant jokes and memes making fun of the elderly. While there is legislation in place (The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967) to prevent companies from firing, or not hiring in the first place, someone based on age, there has yet to be a major company even slapped with a fine for doing so.
It’s possible that will eventually change. Recently, a veteran brewer for Minnesota’s third largest brewery, Cold Spring Brewing, was let go from his position. Horace Cunningham, 63, is now suing Cold Spring, claiming he and his assistant, Steve Gittens, 52, were fired for being “old and black” after being replaced by white guys in their 30’s.
So far, Cold Spring has done nothing except deny the claims.
And, ironically, those same white guys in their 30’s would probably be considered too old for tech jobs in Silicon Valley.
- Ageism: Insecurity = Profit
And, of course, society has found a way to capitalize on this phenomenon –
The market catering to the “we’re old but not too old – we’re getting older, but we’re still young so we can laugh about it ha ha ha, but not too hard because we still have to recognize that we’re growing older” has been humming along for years.
Millennials in their late 20’s and early 30’s have been inundated with 25 Things to Do Before You Turn 25 and 33 Things to Quit Doing When You Hit Your 30s and the even more clicky articles like Buzzfeed’s 43 Things That Will Actually Make You Feel Old. These sorts of articles show no signs of disappearing.
And the message remains the same:
“Go out and spend money while you can!” they say. “Be young and crazy – pay for this trip, this vacation, this house, this car. We’ve helped foster your insecurities about aging, and then offered you a short term, materialistic solution (courtesy of our sponsors)! Grab life by the horns (TM) as you only live once, after all.”
The result of these articles is the feeling of an even tighter squeeze on your time, and what you’ve accomplished in life so far (or not). The cold fist that grips your gannets from the existential angst that was present already, perpetuated by those endless lists, success stories, and celebrities telling you everything you have to do, visit, see before you die.
Ageism isn’t limited to the internet, of course. There is an entire economy based around our anxieties about aging: A whole series of movies like This is 40, While We’re Young, or A Good Old Fashioned Orgy, et al. have come out that could be classified as a series of new coming-of-age stories for those in-and-approaching middle age. And the endless lines of skincare, haircare products meant to help us look young, the plastic surgery for those who can afford it, the clothing styles, the exercise classes, etc. etc. draining your pocketbook in order to stave off your impending, aging doom.
But, concurrently, we’ve seen a shift in the other direction – too are there an increasing number of posts, articles, and memes calling for a “to each their own” mentality; reaffirming the notion that age need not define you, and that it is okay to stay at home in Friday night and watch Netflix with a bottle of wine instead of a carpe diem approach to nightlife. We’re allowed to decide for ourselves what it is that brings us joy –
And embrace life on our own terms: Go and hike trails in the Boundary Waters. Exercise, or don’t. Listen to music. Make music. Make videos about other people making music. Make music about people making videos about people hiking in the Boundary Waters.
To remember that age, and ageism, like every other construct in society, is based in context: No matter what your age is there will always be someone older, and someone younger, than you are.
And to find whatever it is that satisfies the natural creativity with which we are all born, and to which we all have a right. To live a life not based in mindless work and creating wealth for someone else. A life no longer defined by the standards of a society that would prefer you fade away once you’ve reached your expiration date, no longer viable for creating and spending capital, and nothing more.