Identity Politics: How Ageism Became An Accepted Form of Discrimination

Is it fear of death, of our inexorable mortal demise? A whistling past the graveyard of diminished youthful appeal? An irrational aversion to oldness akin to the indefensible mechanics of race hate? What is it, exactly, that makes the process and consequence of aging so terrifying to the bulk of society that they’d malign, dismiss, and denigrate a person just for the fact of being older?

I was forced to ponder this (again) after reading the onslaught of ugly, sexist, ageist pejoratives flung in response to the California Democrats’ refusal to endorse Sen. Dianne Feinstein this past week. While that happenstance deserves its own weighty conversation, the issue at hand is the undeniable playing of the “age card” as people spouted their glee at her rejection.

Original photo by Hubert Chaland on Unsplash

Regardless of any tangible, defensible arguments against her politics, her votes; her views on salient topics, the prevailing strain of trollery showered over this longtime public servant was the simple fact of her age: 84-years-old. 84-freakin’-years-old, dammit! How dare she.

Snarling denunciations of, “this tired, old hag,” came with shouts of, “TimesUP,” and insults to her longevity, her dyed hair, and her aging face. You’d have thought the woman ate small children instead of devoted her life in service to the welfare of Americans, including pushing her resistant colleagues to release the Fusion GPS transcripts, and, just this week, introducing legislation to “bring the rules for AR-15 sales in line with handguns,” an addendum to the Federal Assault Weapons Ban she wrote in 1994. Nothing irrelevant about any of that.

But, while she’s had an astonishing career that demands far better than the ignorance of internet trolls, I’m not here to argue the merits of Sen. Feinstein’s tenure. I’m here to use her recent trollery as a launchpad to discuss why we think, why we’ve accepted, and why we behave as if age is a worthy weapon to devalue, determine relevance, or disallow continuing contribution. Why it’s become an accepted form of discrimination. Why we choose to prioritize age over the wisdom of good ideas, the depth of experience, or the courage of actions taken.

In the political arena (let’s face it, all arenas), society too often gives in to its crass impulse to judge participants, particularly women, on the basis of the year they were born, or cruel assessments of their physical attributes… that ugly nexus of sexism and ageism. You don’t typically hear trolls bark about Bernie Sander’s grumpy face or advanced age (76), Donald Trump’s septuagenarian bloat and blunder (he’s 71), or Ronald Reagan’s descent into dementia before his second term ended at 77-years-old. Democrats applaud the prospect of Joe Biden (75) or John Kerry (74) throwing in for 2020, yet there was endless carping about Hillary Clinton’s advanced age (jeez, only 70!). Effective leaders around the world operate vibrantly and vigorously at ages far older than Ms. Feinstein—the Queen is 91, the Pope 90—and their constituents love them still.

But here in America, land of the free, home of the brave, bubbling cauldron of isms of every kind, the population likes its leaders, its celebrities, its artists, its influencers, particularly its women, young and pretty, evidenced by some of the comments during this recent Feinstein imbroglio:

• “She’s had her chance. Now it’s time for younger people to have theirs. Buh bye!”
• “People get stale when they’ve been somewhere too long. Get rid of them all.”
• “Their time is up and their season is over.”
• “No one cares what old people think. They’re done. Young minds are what’s happening.”
• “They need to get off the stage and let younger people take over.”
• “Old people are clueless. Too much change has happened for them to be relevant.”
• “People want hip. People want now. Old people are then and they’re definitely not hip.”
• “What’s with her picture? Bad dye job and she hasn’t looked that young in decades.”

And on and on. Sigh.

But here’s the strange and self-sabotaging fact that younger people maligning older people either ignore or refuse to consider: THEY will be old some day… and sooner than they think. And when they get there; when they look in the mirror and see a version of themselves they can’t possibly imagine at this moment, it will suddenly dawn on them that they don’t feel irrelevant; they don’t feel useless and used up; they, instead, feel as potent, effective, and purposeful as they do now.

And they will suddenly face that era’s sneering trolls echoing their own words of today. They’ll feel the sting of the same age discrimination they’re wielding so blithely at this moment. It will hurt and they will be inherently responsible for it all.

Because, as they currently dismiss older people as obsolete and expendable across systems, professions, social demographics, and cultural paradigms, they are setting up their own futures. They are building—brick by brick, word by word, tweet by tweet, insult by insult—a world in which they too will become obsolete. In which their accomplishments, experience, wisdom, and capabilities will be dismissed, devalued, and ignored. And what they will discover at that pivotal point, as Dianne Feinstein knows, as Jane Goodall knows, as the damn Queen knows, is that age has NOTHING to do with any of it.

What does?

A mind, heart, and soul still creating, exploring, learning, and contributing; a person willing to innovate, experiment, and share their knowledge. That happens—or doesn’t happen—at any age.

Making age, without a doubt, a most unworthy arbiter.

Here’s the point I’d like younger people to take away: If right now, today, while you’re young and on the cusp of your youthful bloom, you build a world in which every person, regardless of age, is judged, chosen, elected, or rewarded commensurate with their accomplishments and their contemporary willingness to evolve, you will have that world waiting for you when you are that older person. Think of it as an investment in your future.

And however you judge Dianne Feinstein, refuse to let age, gender, or the color of her hair be part of the equation. If anything’s irrelevant, it’s all that.

Original Photo by Hubert Chaland on Unsplash

Related posts:

Age Is Not The Arbiter Of Relevance. See ‘Sneaky’ Dianne Feinstein

The Geeze and Me: Honoring and Illuminating Age Through the Wit and Wisdom of Musical Theater

What Young People Get Wrong About Aging and How It’s Going To Hurt Them

Pass the Mantle? Thanks, But I’m Still Wearing Mine

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

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Dear Book Promotion Site: Nope, No Reason At All To Ask Me My Age

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I was on a book promotional site recently, cheerfully filling out the required information, when I got to a section that stopped me cold: they wanted to know my birthday. Not just the day and month, but even the year. And this was not something you had the option to keep private, as Facebook and other social media sites allow; they were going to post this information, big, bold and all “happy birthday to you,” as a requisite feature of your page.

My first thought was: What, are we in third grade? Do we get cupcakes? Are we sent coupons? My second thought was (and I realize that “first thought” was more than one): Really? In this day and age of rampant ageism and privacy invasion you’re going to require writers to share their birthdays on a public page?

It was an odd request all around, given that age has no relevance to the mission statement of the site, but, for whatever reasons (demographic research? marketing focus? nosy?), it was required and so I opted out. Beyond the reality that there are so many other similar sites of which to avail oneself, the more salient issue is that when even job applications are legally prohibited from asking age in the effort to preempt age discrimination, why would a book site make that clumsy request a requirement?

That I’m compelled to discuss this is actually kind of sad. Because, in a perfect world, we, particularly we women, would proudly state our age without a thought beyond its being an indication of our wisdom, our knowledge, our accrued years of experience. We would “come out,” so to speak, as vibrant, vital examples of whatever age we are, successfully debunking archaic, antiquated models of the same. In a perfect world, we would judge people – again, particularly women – based not on their youthfulness, weight, beauty, body shape, number of selfies, sexual allure, or the size of their upper or lower halves, but by the value of their work, their creativity, their contribution to society, their general excellence as members of the human race. In a perfect world we wouldn’t give one good f**k how old someone is.

We don’t live in a perfect world.

In the world in which we do live, people lose jobs, are refused opportunities, are downsized, or led firmly out the door of many a business simply because they’ve “aged out,” regardless of skill set or ability to do the job well. Professionals in any number of fields are dismissed or ignored, find they’re getting fewer auditions, even fewer jobs; perceived as “dated” simply because they’ve lived beyond the “desirable demographic,” rather than because their talent has diminished (in fact, talent typically deepens with age). Resumes are tossed because the human resources department can ascertain age-range from someone’s work experience and, well, too old is just not good for the company’s brand image.

Incorrect and clichéd presumptions are made about what learning skills a more mature person can handle and develop, the most prevalent being that those older than “fill in the blank” won’t/can’t keep up with changing technology. And women in positions of power are regularly denigrated, insulted, and attacked simply for moving out of their youthful, sexually attractive prime and into their more mature, matron years.

In a perfect world, this sort of age intolerance, discrimination, and bigotry would be unthinkable. Elders would be revered, as they once were, viewed as powerful sages to whom younger generations would look for guidance, wisdom, experience, and perspective. But in our very imperfect world, in our age-obsessed, terrified, fixated, panicked, confused world, ageism is so knee-jerk as to be the norm.

Which is ridiculous, particularly for those of ages considered “too old” who are there out climbing mountains, traveling the world, inventing innovative products, competing in marathons, negotiating peace treaties, writing bestsellers, and breaking barriers of every kind in every field. Humans live much longer than they used to; the smart people widen their perspective of “perceived value” to include those of any age offering skills, smarts, savvy, wisdom, and creativity of value to the culture, age be damned!

Until then… well, that brings us back to that book promotion site and my birthday.

It’s not vanity, it’s not shame; it’s about perception that can impact one’s ability to move forward unencumbered by stereotypes and limitations. Ideally, given what everyone in this day and age knows about the pervasiveness of age discrimination, the question shouldn’t be asked. It’s irrelevant. Or should be. And if it is relevant to whomever is asking, one can only question why. But regardless of who’s asking or their reason, you don’t have to give it to them.

Or if you have to, or choose to, pick a number that fits your soul, not the years of your body. Then again, if you are so moved to make a political stand for cultural disobedience, tell them your damn age and let the chips fall where they may. If you lose jobs, opportunities, or shots at career advancement because that number is used against you, write a bestseller about it…. and then run – without a damn walker – all the way to the bank!

But whatever the choice, how about we all just avail ourselves of work and art we like, vote for people we trust; hire those who seem best fit for the job, and judge anything we come upon based solely on merit, not the age of the person who created, invented, shared, or inspired it?

Because, really, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” seems apt not only for the book, but for the person who wrote it.

Photo by Anna Vander Stel @ Unsplash

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.