Ageism 2009

By Jim Selman | Bio

There is nothing new about ageism, other than the fact that there are increasing numbers of people growing older (which means increasing numbers of examples of age discrimination against older people). The latest statistics from AARP show formal anti-discrimination complaints are up roughly 30% in the workplace. I had some fun with this in my recent blog, proposing we create the National Organization of Pissed-Off Elders (N.O.P.E.). However, it isn’t a laughing matter when we see a potentially tragic problem growing in our society that can be prevented.

I say tragic because ageism, whether institutionalized, culturally embedded or motivated by fear or greed, is a wedge being driven between parents and children and between grandparents and grandchildren. If we don’t address ageism, we will all continue this ‘circumstantial drift’ toward making age a political constituency that has older people competing with younger people over scarce resources (or whatever the coin of the realm might be on a given topic). At a time when we need family and community solidarity more than ever, we are witnessing a growing wave of age-based debate and controversy. This is one of the factors that can undermine our capacity to deal with many other problems that require younger and older people to work together.

In an article for magazine entitled “Is Ageism Undermining Your Career?”, Elizabeth Rogers presents a solid overview of the problem and debunks most of the myths that surround the subject of growing older and our relative value in the workplace. Ageism, like most (if not all) ‘isms’, has at its core some sort of fear-based construct, such as ‘us versus them’. Once we begin to see the world through this kind of a filter, then we begin to find more and more examples of what we are looking for and quickly succumb to a self-referential worldview that becomes ‘the way it is’, until at some moment we become resigned and give up even trying to challenge or change it.

Ageism is not just about ‘older people’. There are lots of examples of discrimination against the young as well. The young person who is struggling to get their first job because employers want experience can testify that those in authority often don’t listen because they assume the young have little to say. Age cuts both ways.

In my view, stopping ageism isn’t going to happen by protests and marches on Washington. The laws that make it illegal are already in place. Moreover, it has been shown over and over that when we resist and fight against something, we inevitably give power to whatever we are resisting. We get what we resist. And even if we prevail, we often re-create the very problem we were trying to solve.  The resolution of these kinds of mostly unconscious and institutionalized conditions begins when enough people are standing FOR a possibility larger than whatever the problem may be. Martin Luther was FOR equality more than he was AGAINST discrimination. In the case of ageism, we must stand for older and younger people as being essential to the wellbeing and success of each other.

Last year, a friend of mine who owns an international headhunting business talked about creating a “Temporary Worker” company specializing in older workers. His theory was that older workers often don’t need benefits as they are already retired and have ongoing benefit plans from their previous employer. Besides that, they are trained and experienced and can, with a bit of guidance, become natural mentors to the next generation.

Perhaps because of the rate of change and emerging technologies there has never been a time when we needed the wisdom of the old to unite with the vision of youth more. I don’t think any person—young or old—knows what the next few generations of human beings will need to know to survive, prosper and succeed. The notion that the ‘old’ can ‘teach’ the young how to navigate in today’s world is nonsense. On the other hand, it is equally naïve to think that the young can deal with all of the world’s problems without the wisdom, judgment and experience of their elders. How else can they learn from mankind’s past mistakes, retain the best and grow and mature?

Most surveys I have seen suggest that the younger generations desperately want mentoring and guidance, but are careful to distinguish between those older people who fall into patterns of preaching and those who listen and are clear that they have as much to learn from the young as they have to contribute. While we are facing unprecedented and mostly intractable problems, we need creative solutions that cannot be found in the experience-base of either generation. Fortunately, we have different worldviews (we live in literally different worlds). This is good news when neither party has the answer, because breakthroughs can happen at the intersection of differing worldviews.

If we can stop and listen to one another, ageism (or any ‘ism’ we are encountering) will disappear and we are simply left with different views. We don’t need to agree. (In fact, let us hope we never fully agree.) But we can learn to respect and appreciate that it is by coordinating our differences that we can find truly new and innovative approaches to building a future that works for all of us.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.

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