By RA Monaco
“Middle-ageism” has become a stereotype that threatens to diminish the value of a whole—even younger—age class.
A person known to me as a director of a large corporation headquartered here in Chicago casually mentioned that since the nation’s claimed financial recovery in 2009, they had no one over fifty left on their board of directors. “What a loss of experience” was his comment shaking his head in disapproval—clearly he was anxiously concerned about nearing this unacknowledged age related chopping block.
Though I didn’t attempt to drill beyond what he was willing to volunteer—it was a social occasion—his comment stuck in my mind. In the three years since that conversation, I’ve made a point to take a mental note of the generational mix of employed people almost everywhere I’ve gone.
While I wouldn’t suggest my observations are in anyway definitive or without exception, I rarely found more than a token Baby Boomer employed at most of the businesses I’ve since visited. Did all those Baby Boomers make bank and retire to Florida or Arizona maybe? Probably not.
Stereotypes Are One of the Biggest Hurdles Faced By Older Workers
Clicking through my spam folder, a resume writing service questioned, “What thirty-eight year old manager of anything wants to supervise a Baby Boomer old enough to be their parent with 20 more years of experience?” The question apparently related to listing dates on my resume and how I could get it past the digital filters used by human resource departments—a selling feature of their service.
Human resource consultant Michelle Love acknowledged in a Sunday Tribune piece “Office dinosaur?” that stereotypes are one of the biggest hurdles faced by older workers, but not just the labels assigned to them by younger workers; the bigger danger, according to Love, is that older workers will buy into the typecasting and that it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The bigger danger, really?
These days, I make it my practice to look at the “About Us” page on company websites just to see if they’ve post pictures of their staff. This less than sophisticated methodology suggests to me that even the number of mid-life workers has diminished.
Yet, predictions according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics are that the number of fulltime employees 60 and older will continue to rise as the Baby Boom generation nears what used to be retirement age.
There Is a Paradox in What Has Become Blatant Stigmatizing
“It’s all about adding value at any age” claimed Michelle Love projecting her inner cheerleader. In the real world, for older workers adding value has meant working longer hours—sometimes two part-time jobs—for less money and no benefits.
When we stop to think about the improved health and longevity that the average person might enjoy—which has been stretched to nearly 80 today—there is a paradox in what has become blatant stigmatizing and marginalization of older people.
Consider the TV character Arthur Spooner, on the show King of Queens as an example. Living with his daughter Carrie and her husband Doug in their basement—he’s portrayed as dependent, incompetent and a burden. They pay a dog walker to take him out and entertain him—generous or belittling? You decide. Frequently, in their confrontations, Doug calls Arthur an “old man” to his face. Do you laugh?
It’s difficult to imagine a life-concern more at the front of society’s collective mind than becoming a burden to our children—now its comedy.
The portrayal of older people has changed since the classic 1993 romantic comedy “Grumpy Old Men” that featured Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau in their rivalry for the affections of Ann-Margaret. These active later life characters embraced a mutual love of the Minnesota winter pastime of ice fishing. They were portrayed as competing, arguing, insulting and cleverly playing cruel practical jokes on one another—not incompetent, cognitively stumbling dependents.
These days’ older people are overtly stigmatized with no fear of reprisal—would you purchase anything from a business that just disrespected your parents in front of you? Ask yourself that question the next time the sponsors of King of Queens hawk their products in your living room during the now endless loop of elder stigmatizing programming.
Displaying Negative Attitudes toward Older People
Americans have little tolerance for older people and we are being bombarded with programs like King of Queens—just one example—that not only perpetuates intolerance but fosters its social acceptability. It’s common these days for older people to be portrayed on television as slow, confused, bent, and dowdy and now it’s become comedy. Would Americans accept the substitution of race or gender in place of age? If not, ask yourself why?
Americans have very few reservations about displaying negative attitudes toward older people. It has become the most socially condoned and institutionalized form of prejudice in the Western World—the term for this social phenomenon is called, “ageism.”
It is in fact, an “ism.” Like racism and sexism, ageism has become a recognized social construct. It’s a stereotype with a purpose that is not immediately visible and yet the dangers of unchecked ageism are far reaching and pervasive for society, though seldom discussed.
Conclusions Are Being Driven By the Crisis of Capitalism
Baby Boomers became the first generation in the history of this planet to care for their parents longer than their children—consider the recent HuffPost piece: Hospice Inc., in support of the invisible economic forces lurking to influence our public policy and poised to exploit 78 million Americans.
Focus in the Medicare debates have been on cost savings rather than meeting critical needs and the idea of rationing healthcare—even for politicians claiming to love their mothers—is becoming an acceptable idea.
Without social responsibility, using only narrow goal oriented research; economic conclusions are being driven by the crisis of capitalism while seniors are increasingly marginalized for economic gain.
Since 2000, dying has become a multibillion-dollar industry with the U.S. hospice industry having quadrupled in size. Recruiting and sales practices have become an industry wide concern for the justice department. Not surprising, our government has accused nearly every major for-profit hospice company of billing fraud.
But overreaching of the hospice industry is really just the tip of the ageism iceberg. With capitalism in crisis, economic forces quickly seized on the 2008 recession to purge a healthy work force 45 years and up from their payrolls. An entire mid-life age class has conveniently become surplus labor and an opportunity for abandonment. They not only lost their jobs, but far too many lost their retirements, homes, healthcare and most importantly, their sense of usefulness and purpose.
Keep Them Out Of the Workplace
In another historic milestone, we have become the first society ever, to take its most productive people, at their prime, at the peak of their powers, and toss them overboard. Now, “middle-ageism” has become a stereotype that threatens to diminish the value of a whole—even younger—age class. How long before Big PhRMA advertizes “steroids for the brain” to medicate anxious workers like the corporate director who observed the loss of his over fifty colleagues on their board.
Age discrimination is one of the most clearly documented and economically and socially harmful consequences of ageism. Competition for jobs and material resources aren’t the only concerns posed by older people, there’s the threat to the self esteem of everyone who, unless met by misfortune, will eventually join this segment of our society.
One of the most direct ways to protect one’s self-esteem is avoiding older people—physical distancing. Staying away from bingo parlors, nursing homes, golf courses, Florida and Rolling Stones concerts are all ways of avoiding older people.
Another way to avoid older people is to keep them out of the workplace—simply not having all that gray hair around to remind other employees of their own fate.
Americans have begun to accept a new stereotype that cognitive functioning falls off at mid-life diminishing the value of an entire age class. Hyper-cognition might as well be a job qualification, especially for people over forty where job insecurity is being derived from high unemployment rates, deskilling, job turnover, downward mobility and de-professionalization.
Retirement has become institutionalized. In the workplace older people no longer hold prestigious jobs or possess the financial muscle they once did. They are perceived as less competent in their job performance when in fact researchers have failed to demonstrate any actual relationship between age and job performance (for a review, see Salthouse and Maurer 1996).
Stereotyping Of Older People in the Media
With the 2016 presidential elections on the horizon, political opponents have already begun to explore age related attacks on Hillary Clinton’s yet to be declared candidacy. That probability, invites review of the reckless media coverage surrounding the 2000 presidential election vote-counting debacle of older Palm Beach County voters, who were labeled incompetent and harebrained because they inadvertently voted for the wrong candidate.
The nightly news showed one Florida demonstrator carrying a sign that read, “Stupid people shouldn’t vote.” Citing demographics, a political science professor suggested age as the culprit saying, “If there’s a county in the world that would have a population that would struggle with the ballot, it would be that one.”
Attributing the errors of older Palm Beach voters to intellectual incompetence perpetuates the worst of our cultural stereotypes. The disgraceful stereotyping of older people in the media, too often goes unnoticed and, for the most part, unchallenged. People don’t become incompetent and incontinent at age 60 overnight!
Altering the Social Norms
Never before has a society had so much capacity to do something significant to collect on the life experience dividend of our society. Maybe our age discrimination laws need some teeth or over 45 made a preferred class for a new type of civic affirmative action. Creating a culture of interdependence across age groups could undercut all these misleading stereotypes.
Creating an intergenerational dialogue to help people—young, midlife and old—to cope with their fears about older people and the aging processes is an obvious first step to altering the social norms that view older people as contributing individuals instead of the stereotypes that have been recklessly fostered by the media, Big PhRMA and policy wonks working to help make every aspect of our society a for-profit commodity.
Watching the inspiringly active Doc Severinsen (87) perform recently brought home a realization—that for most of us, there is a never ending need to be productive and that our being useful, productive and independent brings meaning to life—a win, win, for society.