The ‘ism’ that’s rife and no, it’s not okay

Ageism, like all ‘isms’, creates a social hierarchy and disadvantages people based on an aspect of their diversity. Compared to all isms, ageism is unique in that, given a person lives long enough, they will experience the whole gamut of the ageism spectrum: “Kids these days … tsk, tsk”, “Okay boomer!” Ageism could come in the guise of a seemingly harmless roll of the eyes or be as devastating as constant job application rejections.

The expressions ‘upstart’ and ‘old fart’ reveal the underlying and damaging stereotypes. An upstart sounds like someone impatient, undeserving and brimming with energy. An old fart, on the other hand, had a bit of puff once but is now stale and lingering.

Ageism is the latest ism to join our federal anti-discrimination legislation. Since the 1975 Race Discrimination Act, people have been acutely sensitive to racist comments, attitudes and actions. The 1984 Sex Discrimination Act and 1992 Disability Discrimination Act ensured we guarded against sexism and ableism. Ageism, addressed by the 2006 Age Discrimination Act, looks like a new kid on the block (is that an ageist expression?). Facebook officially bans hate speech based on race, nationality, religion and gender – but not on age. 

In fact, ageism is as old as Methuselah (is that ageist too?). Two-and-a-half thousand years ago, Socrates opined, “Children … have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect for elders …” I don’t know what young Athenians were singing in 470BC but perhaps it sounded like the young baby boomers’ defiant “I hope I die before I get old” or gen X dancing to Blondie’s Die Young Stay Pretty. Was Socrates complaining about ‘youth culture’ and youth’s irrepressible urge to march to their own beat?

Gen X icon Madonna, herself age-defying (now that is ageist – let’s address that later), says, “We’ve made so many advances in other areas – civil rights, gay rights – but ageism is still an area that’s taboo”. I agree. As a diversity specialist, I am often invited to discuss gender, cultural differences, unconscious bias and disability in workplaces but very rarely age discrimination. It is very real, especially for young people entering the workplace and for workers over 50.

There is little data on prejudice toward our youngest job applicants. Most of it is anecdotal. One of my daughters was ecstatic after successfully interviewing for a receptionist role. Two days later, she was recalled for several other interviews because a senior manager refused to sign off on someone so young. What an upstart! Fortunately, she cleared these further hurdles and happily continues to work with the organisation seven years later.

So, are young people upstarts? Do they have bad manners, contempt for authority? Show disrespect for elders? The difference between generational attitudes is highly exaggerated.

Studies reveal a 27-year-old millennial is remarkably similar to a baby boomer when they were 27. Stereotypes about generations and meta-stereotypes (how you believe you are stereotyped) have a far greater impact.

An Australian study found that of 774 workers only 4 per cent of gen Y and gen Xers enjoy working with older counterparts. Older workers are often stereotyped as technologically inept, inflexible and set in their ways. Actually, older workers are the fastest growing user group of technology. They also bring stickability and resilience. They are less likely to resign, take sick leave and have fewer workplace injuries.

Employers hold these ageist stereotypes too. An Australian Human Rights Commission report found that one-third of Australian employers specify an age limit for job applicants despite this being illegal. One-third of managers factor age into decision-making and one-third of employers will not employ people over 50 years of age. It’s not surprising that one-quarter of Australians over the age of 50 report age discrimination, and ageism is identified as Europe’s and the UK’s most common form of discrimination.

Many of these studies do not disclose the full picture. First, even in a study, people are reluctant to divulge their prejudice and, second, often we are not aware of our own prejudice. Harvard University and the University of Washington and West Virginia collaborated to create a global online tool to help people identify their implicit (unconscious or hidden) biases. These tests reveal about 80 per cent of participants, young and old, have a preference for younger people.

Is implicit bias due to the many pro-youth/anti-age messages we’ve absorbed from our culture? After all, we buy anti-ageing cream not anti-youth cream. People are heroically described as age-defying. Birthday cards tease older people for their advancing years. Would we accept cards that teased us for our race? We apologise for our age. You don’t hear young people admonish themselves for their youth but how often do you hear, ‘Sorry! Just having a senior moment’? 

‘Okay boomer’ is the most recent generational slur. It’s designed to silence baby boomers when they speak their mind. Perhaps it’s time to turn this expression on its head. Yes, actually boomers are okay and they made the world a much more okay place. Boomer Civil Rights activism was the bedrock of our anti-discrimination laws. Many of our ecology protection movements began in the 1960s and `70s. They were the original ‘upstarts’ and many, many boomers still revel and rebel in their upstart status.  

Perhaps this generation of firebrands needs to rebrand. We can still conduct online campaigns with a cuppa in hand or front the barricades with a zimmer frame. Personally, as a tailender boomer (yes, by four months), I’m clasping the boomer coat tails as they hopefully take their indomitable verve to the aged care system and redefine ‘old age’.  

We are well overdue for a genuine ‘senior’s moment’. A greater representation of age diversity in the media helps build bridges between generations and allows older people to be recognised and respected for their life’s journey and contributions. Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Judy Dench are widely admired as brilliants actors. And surely the most revered activist grandpa in the world is 94-year-old David Attenborough. They’re not patronisingly ‘age-defying’. They’re wonderfully aged.

And yet again, forging the way forward, David Attenborough’s collaboration with that young upstart 18-year-old Greta Thunberg, highlights what we have in common regardless of our age. They provide the greatest anti-ageism inspiration of all.

Listen to Fiona on YourLifeChoices’ podcast here.

Should there be legislation to ban ageism? Do you put up with ageist attitudes? Should you? Are you ageist?

Fiona Jewell, director of Diversity by Design, has worked in the diversity field for more than 25 years. She is focused on providing research, development and programs to corporations and agencies around the world and online.

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