Ageism Is Wasted on the Young and Old

Ageism is a funny form of marginalization. Not funny “ha ha”; funny peculiar. It’s the only form of marginalization I can think of that works in both directions.

Young people are dismissed as irresponsible and impulsive; old people as absurdly over-cautious. Young people are assumed to be inexperienced; old people as stuck in their ways. Young people’s opinions are dismissed for their perceived inexperience; old people’s are dismissed for being out of touch. Young people (especially young women) are hyper-sexualized; older people have our sexualities ignored, mocked, or treated as disgusting. Unless you’re in the sweet spot—around thirty to forty-five for men in most arenas, literally never for women—you can expected to be pushed to the margins of society because of your age.

This shows up at the workplace, where it’s illegal to discriminate based on all kinds of things, but it still happens and can be hard to prove. Young people are assumed to be inexperienced and ignorant, even if they have more experience than their colleagues. Old people are treated as out of touch, unwilling to work long hours, and unable to learn new things. (Tech industries are especially notorious for this.) It can result in mistreatment by customers, disrespect by colleagues, getting shut out of promotions, or not being considered for jobs in the first place.

Ageism shows up in medicine and healthcare. Medical providers often make assumptions about what old people do and don’t want—including the pernicious assumption that our sex lives are behind us. And it’s assumed that young people can’t possibly know what they want or make big decisions for themselves. Young people who don’t want kids and want tubal ligations or vasectomies, for example, or young transgender people who want to transition are patronized as short-sighted fools who haven’t thought carefully about their lives. Literally any older person is considered more of an authority on their lives than they are. (Ironically, young adults are seen as old enough to handle having children if a young woman gets pregnant, but not old enough to know they don’t want them.)

Ageism shows up in public life and public debate. Young people who express opinions, no matter how thoughtful or well informed, will commonly have those opinions ignored or dismissed, explicitly because of their age. And when old people in the public sphere say terrible, bigoted things, they’re often excused. “Oh, what’d you expect? He’s seventy-nine, he doesn’t know any better.” It excuses that individual—but it perpetuates the idea that old people are bigots who can’t adapt to changing social mores.

And ageism shows up in our personal lives, our relationships with friends and neighbors and family. Young people are ignored, talked down to, pressured to have kids, treated like they don’t know what they want, expected to put up with bigotry from older relatives, and have their passions treated with condescension. Old people are ignored, ridiculed, warehoused, forgotten, and treated as inconveniences.

I’ve seen this play out too often in humanist and other nonbelieving communities. Young people who try to join often hear their ideas shot down: existing communities say they want young people’s energy and enthusiasm, but don’t include them in decisions about where that energy should be applied. And many young women in secular communities report being treated as eye candy and invasively hit on. At the same time, communities made up of mostly old people are met with eye-rolling and dismissal. “Oh, it’s one of those groups. You know. A bunch of old guys.”

Women get caught in ageism in a particularly ugly way. There’s literally no acceptable age for women to be. Men at least have that sweet spot, a few prime years between being dismissed as irresponsible flakes and as doddering old fools (although that sweet spot varies in different arenas). Women go from “ditzy and irresponsible” to “frumpy and unfuckable” seemingly in the blink of an eye.

And ageism can have some nasty intersections with ableism. Youth is routinely identified with health and vigor; age with physical and mental decay. So old people are often assumed to be disabled in body and mind, regardless of their actual health—while young people who do have physical disabilities or mental illness are met with disbelief, treated with incredulity at best and as fakers at worst. “You’re too young to be disabled/ chronically ill/ depressed!”

Ageism works both ways. Which is sad—because it can turn young and old people against each other.

At the risk of sounding like a camp counselor trying to get everyone to sing Kumbaya: we’re stronger together. Our experiences and strengths are sometimes different, at least in an “overlapping bell curves/ on average/ with lots of exceptions” way. But if our experiences and strengths are different, we’re stronger when we share them. The LGBT movement, for instance, is stronger with people who remember Stonewall and the horror days of the AIDS epidemic—and people who came out into the community when the importance of diversity was better understood and more widely accepted. It’s stronger when all these folks talk, debate, and share experiences, perceptions, and know-how. And the same is true for humanism. Our movement will be stronger with people who’ve been building communities for decades—and people with first-hand experience of how rapidly our communities are changing, and how badly they need to change.

And we’re not just stronger together. Life is just more interesting together. There was a time when most of my social circle was made up of people with roughly my education levels, my politics, my race, my age. For all the fights we have in our movement about diversity—and those fights are valuable and important, we should be having them—organized humanism and atheism is a larger, broader, more varied world than I’ve ever lived in before. I’m fifty-four, and I have friends and colleagues in their teens and twenties, and in their seventies and eighties, and everywhere in between. And it’s a more interesting world. Community meetups, social media discussions, and the after-conference conversations that are my favorite part of the conference are so much more interesting with people who’ve seen different things. I’ve seen things people younger than me haven’t; they’ve seen things I haven’t. Ditto for people older than me. It makes my world bigger. It makes all our worlds bigger. Kumba-fucking-ya.