Ageism . . . Not Just for Grown-ups
Sitting in a local coffee shop, I recently overheard a couple of women talking about ageism and the havoc it wreaks on older people. Working for The Eden Alternative, I was clearly high-fiving them on the inside, happy to hear this topic popping up during casual coffee talk. But then, almost in the same breath, the focus of the conversation shifted to teenagers today. The tone became scornful, and the words “lazy” and “entitled” and “aimless” were peppered throughout the banter.
The scene took me back to a moment during the 2010 Eden Alternative International Conference in Denver, where seven young people between the ages of 11 and 15 participated in our intergenerational experience called Building Bridges. During Day 1 of the track, my co-facilitator and I overheard some conference goers annoyed by the presence of the children there, questioning whether it was appropriate for them to be there at all. Oh, the irony. Kids interested in eradicating ageism at a culture change conference? What were we thinking?
Even well-meaning culture changers seem to get confused about ageism, thinking it is just judgment against older people. But this take on the issue is only one side of the story. To fight ageism, we have to be fully invested in the fight. This means combatting all ageism – ageist behavior aimed at youth and Elders alike. Here’s the Catch 22. When we advocate for ending ageism against Elders – while simultaneously writing off youth – we actually exacerbate ageism toward Elders. How can we expect youth to appreciate the contributions of older people, when we turn around and disrespect theirs? It only deepens the gulf between the two.
Of all the “isms” out there, ageism is the one that we can all relate to. We’ve all been young once, and hopefully, we will all know what it is like to grow old. Yet, despite this fact, ageism is one of the most pervasive and ingrained social patterns in our culture.
The bottom line is that no matter how old we are, we all need to know we have something to offer, that we are valued and appreciated, that our voices count. The Three Plagues of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom exist, in part, due to ageism in our society. When people resort to snap judgments, don’t take the time to know us well as individuals, and write us off as either “too young” or “too old,” we never have the opportunity to share our talents, our gifts, or our generosity. Pigeon-holed by our age, we become ripe for boredom. Take the recent tragedy involving the random shooting in Oklahoma of an Australian baseball player by youth claiming to be “bored.” While an extreme example, it’s a painful reminder that the Three Plagues, gone unchecked, are indeed deadly. When youth aren’t invited to give back, or to contribute somehow, some way, they are going to give up… just like an Elder, who gives up talking, walking, or eating in an impersonal care environment.
I was recently part of an event where youth and adults came together to talk about activism. At one point, we adults formed a circle around the teens. We sang their praises, told them how inspired we were by their brilliance, creativity, and passion. They all sort of glowed afterward. Somehow, they seemed taller; their eyes seem to sparkle more. It was a simple gesture, but the impact was palpable. I couldn’t help but wonder, what the world would be like, if moments like this happened more often.
If nothing else, this is clear: For every step we take to fight ageism against Elders, we need to take an equivalent one for youth. For every Elder’s story that you listen to, take some time to get to know a young person. Ageism against any age group will never truly be defeated, unless we simultaneously deal with how it affects young and old alike. Doing so also builds a much-needed bridge between Elders and young people. As natural allies, they need each other, perhaps now more than ever.