I was speaking with a woman today, probably in her late 20s, who works for the Public Service in Canada. She is a graduate of one of top colleges and presumably someone the government doesn’t want to lose. She has a both a big vision for change and a seriously self-limiting conversation about what she is and is not able to accomplish in a big bureaucracy at her age. In the absence of a change in her internal conversation about her future, she will probably leave the Public Service early and we’ll lose a potentially very strong leader.
I was struck by how the absence of possibility in her situation looks very much like the same lack of conversation I hear from people my age because we are too old! This phrase is a kind of self-imposed ageism and can occur at any age. It is part of our cultural blindness regarding age and the belief that age is somehow a determining criteria for what we can and cannot accomplish and what is and is not possible.
My view is that a big part of what keeps us stuck in these beliefs is due to the fact that few of us distinguish between the state of our body (at any age) and who we are. Our “mindset” is deeply programmed with the thought/belief that we are our age, even if we intellectually reject this notion. This is the source of ageism—a lack of distinction between the fact of our biological age and the possibility we are as human beings. This perspective is consistent with our culture’s larger worldview (technically known as the Cartesian paradigm) that defines human beings as objects. Once we buy into this notion, we then organize all of our theories and practices to be consistent with this belief. We create ‘human resources’ departments, we create schools of psychology to explain how the person/thing works, and we assess the value of the person/thing in pretty much the way we assess the value of our automobile—most are looking for new and shiny and a few prefer a classic antique.
Ageism (whether of the young or the old) is a cultural ‘reality’ in which our possibilities and practices are organized on assumptions of value based on age.
This interpretation occurs for us both as individuals, as in the example above, and also as a society. For example, the extent that ‘older’ people in an organization are not open to contributions by the young reveals a kind of cultural or institutional ‘blindness’ that perpetuates and limits possibilities based on age.
My argument against ageism isn’t so much because of its impact on the mood or dignity of the individual (although it can often be significant) as it is based on the extraordinary waste of creativity, talent and human energy that is lost to the organization or society. Between the old and the young, we are squandering roughly half of humanity’s potential contribution.
Obviously, there are no simple answers to the fact of ageism any more than there are simple answers to any cultural phenomenon. I do believe, however, in the ‘critical mass’ theory which suggests that when enough people adopt an alternative worldview to conventional wisdom (or a prevailing paradigm), then the whole culture transforms … and what was previously a ‘far out’ idea becomes the mainstream understanding of ‘the way it is’.
Today at the beginning of 2007 we might take a moment to think about where each of us individually stands on the matter of age and its relevance for us personally and in our relationship with others.
My stand is to constantly remind ourselves that ‘who we are is more important than how old we are’.