The United States’ obsession with youth has created a monster where disrespect to olders continues to unfold as a norm. It has bothered me for quite some time. It seems like ageism is not as en vogue as sexism, racism, or homophobia, for riots or marches over the issue have not been a staple in our country’s civil disobedience repertoire. It matters just as much. Recently, I have observed two occurrences of ageism. One intentional and one unintentional. These situations, within a span of a month led me to reflect on the route we are taking with unquestionable ageism. Below I share the two occurrences and a few of my thoughts.
The Retail Villain Strikes
I accompanied my husband to a men’s retailer, and as he was in the dressing room, I waited outside.
As I read an article on my phone, a nearby conversation piqued my interest. Three employees, two women and one man were folding merchandise and preparing to place it throughout the store.
I turned to watch when I perceived the two women stood shocked and disgusted yet exasperated. The man, on the other hand, seemed to get more juiced up by the women’s exasperation.
With earnestness and directness, woman #1 asked, “You think I am old, don’t you?”
A mischievous smirk appeared on the man’s face. Slowly, he leaned over the table to get closer to the woman’s face.
Looking her in her eyes, he smugly retorted, “I don’t think you are old. I know you are old.” He laughed while still maintaining eye contact.
The women gasped.
I thought to myself, “Who is he – the villain of retail?
I chimed, “Oh my!”
The women and man turned to look at me. The women had a sense of relief that someone witnessed his behavior, nodding their heads as if to say, “See, we are not the only ones who think this guy is rude.”
Woman #1 asked the man, “How old are you?”
“I am twenty-two. I am getting ready to be twenty-three. I am getting old.”
“Well, I am three times your age.”
I interjected, “What? You do not look anywhere near your age! You look amazing! What is your secret?”
Seriously, I wanted to know.
The man’s inflated head began to lose air, as he seemed bothered by the attention woman #1 received.
Woman #1 beamed, “I know,” with arms to her side, she gracefully puts both hands in mid air, striking a pose.
I decided to help take this bully down a few more notches to reality. I thought about the scripture about letting my words be seasoned with grace, and said to myself, “Well, this conversation needs some flavor!”
I turned to the man and looked at him like he was a day late and a dollar short. With a cautionary, yet jovial tone, I chuckled, “Umm… Look, you might want to be asking her for her secrets. Ha! Actually, you might want to be nice because you are not getting any younger either, and she looks really good. Ha ha! For real, you might want to watch how you speak to her because when the tables get turned, you better hope you age as well as her. Yes, you need to be asking her for help -for some life lessons or something.”
The man stopped smiling and began to look uneasy with a taste of sobering reality.
The women watched quietly with joy.
The man had nothing more to say.
Woman #2 walked away to place clothes on a shelf.
I made my last comment, ensuring that the man could hear me, “She is aging like fine wine. There are folks out here aging like milk. I’m just saying, he might want to get it together.”
I shook my head, saying, “My husband needs to come out of the dressing room before I get into trouble.”
The woman gives a knowing look and responded, reassuringly, “You are okay. It needed to be said,” as if this moment was long overdue.
I’m Not Your Grandma
A few weeks later I am in an exercise class where we have a substitute instructor. The class seemed to be going smoothly until the instructor, with excitement and encouragement, called out to a participant, “Go Grandma!”
The participant frowned, touched her silver tresses, and turned to me, “I do not like that.” She shook her head, said something else to herself, but I could not hear her above the music.
After class, the woman and I spoke. She elaborated, “I am a grandma, but I do not like for people to call me that because they see my gray hair. It’s not right.” I agreed with her about the ageist stereotype. She waited for more participants to leave, before she approached the instructor to discuss her concern. I decided to leave after she initially brought the concern. The instructor’s initial reaction was that she meant her comment as a form of flattery and respect. The participant tried to help her understand why she did not perceive it as flattery.
I Messed Up
Looking back at the retail store encounter, I realized that I used ageism to fight ageism. In my compliment to woman #1, I reinforced stereotypes and focused on looks and aging. How else is anyone supposed to look at any age? Having more or less wrinkles or platinum tresses does not define a person. Regardless of woman #1’s age, appearance, or my admiration of looks, I could have responded to the man without reinforcing ageist thinking. Therefore, I am challenged to keep growing and expanding my thinking. It was similar to the well-meaning exercise instructor whose ageism took the form of praise. In my book, I commend anyone who prioritizes her/his well-being. These two incidents reminded me to revisit any of my internalized ageist beliefs. It lets me know to continue to watch my language, especially when I talk about myself, as it pertains to my future. There is more to life instead of the 60, 50, 40, 30 is the new 20 mindset.
I think people do not realize that as we grow to be people who embrace a diverse humanity, that even in our best efforts, we can find ways to improve. We make mistakes, and we can use these missteps as a springboard to a better direction.
Everyone Has Something to Offer
Ageism has been around for a while and impacts everyone. It needs to end. The women and man involved in both situations were of European, African, and Asian ancestry. Ageism does not always work in isolation. One can deal with ageism, homophobia, sexism, ableism and racism all at once. When ignored, it is more fuel added to the fires of oppression. At one point, olders where keepers of knowledge, and looked to for their wisdom. With the advent of the printing press, the industrial revolution, people could gain the insight without an older. Today’s digital revolution has made it so that in certain fields, such as technology, an older can be 35 years old. If we do not start intentionally working against ageism, we will create a sad world where we can only live, work, and worship in spaces where we only function with people of our own generation. The same can be said for a variety of differences.
When I was a child, I enjoyed listening to the olders share about their lives and their experiences. When I was in my teens and twenties, I found it annoying that older people would think our age meant we were somehow cooler. I have been called an old soul, so I suppose it is why I connected more to older individuals than those of my same age group. Contrary to the chasing of youth, the lives and perspectives of olders need elevating. I think there is an unhealthy and unbalanced focus on youth. I think overlooked treasure exists all around us because many of us believe the lie that youth equates to smarter, more beautiful, or better. I have come across olders who are innovative, flexible, and critical thinkers who shift and change. I have come across younger people, who are rigid, close-minded, and refuse to shift their thinking. Instead of writing off olders based on age, we can do more to examine the kind of people we choose to be and the lives we create. As a matter of fact, it would help the world if we did not rely on stereotypes to understand anyone.
Diversity for the sake of diversity serves as a futile endeavor, particularly if the prevailing culture, beliefs, and biases of an organization, a business, or a society remain unaddressed. I felt happy to see the gender, age, and racial diversity at the men’s retail store. However, throwing people together without any intentional training and support to build a place where people enjoy work is a recipe for transiency and misery.
All of us carry a host of beliefs and perspectives. Couple that with our personality differences and employers cannot afford to just think good people with good intentions will know how to work well together. More importantly, is how to have grace for each other throughout the stumbles and falls that come with growth.
I believe everyone has something to offer. As long as we are alive, we have purpose. This purpose does not go away because of age. Forgoing some cliquish -ism club, the more we elevate our consciousness to see and live beyond stereotypes, the more we can draw from and build together with all of humanity. I liken it to treating others how we want to be treated.
There is no sweet spot in age for respect and for value.
What would this golden rule look like?
Drawing from my exercise class, I believe if people do not want to be dismissed because of their youth and called “child, kid, son, daughter, etc.” on the job, then they might want to think twice before calling people, “Auntie, Uncle, Dad, Grandma, Mom, etc.” Sure, it might be out of honor or respect. However it is worthwhile to get permission before labeling someone.
God willing, everyone grows older and older. When we have a peace with life, we then reflect it in how we think and engage people of all ages.