Like most people paying attention, I’ve noticed a lot of discussion these days about age vs. youth, particularly as it relates to people in positions of power, what “generation” one is born to, or, here in the States, our particular field of Democratic candidates. The debate on both (all) sides has become an interesting litmus test, a revealing glimpse into the worldview of the debaters; a statement about how humans gauge and judge each other from their various placements on the lifespan timeline. And it’s a mess.
As I’ve lived longer, making my way into and through various decades deemed as “older,” it’s becomes evermore clear to me how strange, misguided, and uninformed the folly of ageism really is. Much like other aspects of life—where judgment about something one hasn’t experienced changes dramatically when one does—growing past what is considered “youthful” is not only enlightening, but surprising.
First of all, it informs you that youth has no franchise on vibrance, relevance, or innovation. No particular in into wisdom, ability, and value. Despite society’s aggrandizement of it, youth is not a meritorious state in and of itself. It’s just a point on the lifespan trajectory that’s usually thinner, prettier, with more hair, and an uncanny ability to embrace new technology. But, as with those who are older, it’s just a demographic moment that’s either spent doing good and contributing things of value, or wasting time denigrating and diminishing others outside the age group.
And, yes, it’s done on both sides. How many sneering articles have I read about Millennials and their love of avocados and lack of real estate? How many older folks insist “there’s been no good music since the 70s”? And lots of dialogue is happening right now, in fact, about the lack of “youth vote” so hoped for in the Sanders campaign.
But beyond any urge toward “bothsidesim,” let’s be clear: ageism is most definitely, and most often, directed at the more aged… which, depending on how young you are, could be anyone from forty to ninety-five.
It’s triggered by many factors—fear of one’s own aging with its closer proximity to death, an unwillingness to accept the physical changes of getting older, a sense of entitlement based on society’s aggrandizement of youth. But one thing it most certainly is is prejudice. Pre-judgment. Perception based on lack of knowledge.
While older people can well remember youth and their particular experience of it, younger people have no personal knowledge of what the process of being older entails. They watch the society they live in denigrate and dismiss based on age, they see opportunities denied, respect withheld, and insults applied to older people, and so the state of actually being older must seem horrifying to them. I mean, who wants to be in a group that is constantly pilloried for being dense, incapable, inept, undesirable, and utterly irrelevant?
We are currently in the midst of a presidential primary that is immersed in this debate, and the constant chatter about how old the Democratic primary candidates are would leave anyone to believe that simply being older is disqualifying. Yet, look at the amount of travel these people do; the speeches, the driving, the day-to-day demands of a campaign, and you can’t tell me they “don’t have energy” or “couldn’t handle being president.” I know plenty of younger people who couldn’t hold a candle to the energy of these guys (the women candidates being on the younger end), some who can barely get out of bed before noon, others who deal with health problems that limit their own abilities (just like older people). Yet somehow having white hair, needing a stent, or occasionally flubbing a sentence sends the ageists into caterwauls of “THEY’RE TOO OLD!”
Meanwhile, the youthful gaffes, preening arrogance, or lack of true wisdom, foresight, or experiential knowledge of younger people is allowed, accepted; even excused with,”they’re young, they’ll learn,” perpetuating the notion that only younger people learn, only younger people evolve, grow, have brilliant ideas or are worthy of our applause and appreciation.
If we still lived at a time when being sixty-something was the end of life, I’d perhaps be more willing to accept the “planned obsolescence theory of ageism.” But when vibrant, meaningful lives are often lived well into a person’s nineties, sometimes even beyond; when people like Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, Warren Buffet, Ralph Lauren, Martin Scorsese, Nancy Pelosi, and so many others continue to live vigorous lives of contribution, innovation, progress, and creativity, how dare we deem them “too old” to continue being relevant?
Every single person who trafficks in ageism will, one day—assuming they live long enough—become the very ages they now deem as “too old.” And I guarantee, barring any life-altering health problems, they will get there, look around, and suddenly think, “Damn, I don’t feel any different than I did at thirty, forty, fifty!” They’ll realize that they—just like the people they’re currently dismissing—still feel attached to their ambitions, their drive, their urge to create and contribute, and they will shake their heads at the stupidity and arrogance they wielded as younger people.
They’ll acknowledge their white hair, their lined faces, their perhaps paunchier waistlines and higher blood pressure, while still recognizing their spirited humor and wit, their depth of knowledge and experience, and their thriving energy to still BE WHO THEY ARE.
In the case of, say, Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, who they are is who they’re being: two men running for office. If they drop dead while being who they are, so be it. Younger people die too, sometimes most unexpectedly and tragically, yet we still grant them the right to fully exercise their right to be. Why would we deny that to anyone, of any age?
We shouldn’t. We can’t. Because if we get to live long lives, as we all hope we do, we’re all going to want to BE WHO WE ARE at every age on the spectrum of that journey. And we’ll deserve that right. Just as Bernie, Joe, Mike, Nancy, and Betty White do. As you do. As I do.
I mean, don’t even think of telling me I’m too old to have long hair or sing rock & roll. I swear, I’ll “Jill Biden” you without a second thought.
Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.