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The bigotry of ageism

Dec 04 2017 06:01
Mandi Smallhorne

JACK Weinberg will turn 78 on April 4 next year, and no doubt his three grandchildren will wish him a Very Happy Birthday.

Poor Jack. Despite his solid track record as a union activist and environmentalist, what most people remember him for is a remark he made in a 1960s interview, when he was 24 (that’s if they remember his name at all, and don’t attribute this quote to John Lennon, Jerry Rubin or some other sixties icon): “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”

Ageing is inexorable and will come to all of us who don’t die young. That knowledge comforts me when the low-riders in their pimped-up VWs drive past my home office pumping bass so loudly my windows quiver in response.

South Africa may have a so-called youth bulge, but more and more of us should plan on reaching a decent age: “South Africans’ life expectancy is now 64 years, up from 53 years in 2006 and putting the country on track to achieve the National Development Plan goal of a 70-year life expectancy by 2030”.

Is that a hopeful stat? It depends. What will old age be like for you – realistically? Put not your trust in the wonderful glowing ads that show slightly wrinkled women with thick silver hair, cut in a mid-length bob, leaning against white-haired but built men, whose tans contrast beautifully with their crisp pastel blue shirts and cream chinos, linked hands resting lightly on a ship’s wheel as they gaze joyfully into an Indian Ocean sunset. This is NOT how most of us will end our lives.

My mother says that the healthcare system is “hell-bent on keeping people alive for much longer, but they haven’t thought about what to do with us when we’re old”.

Getting old is a disappearing act

Intimate engagement with ageing through my parents’ eyes tells me that even for the economically advantaged, it’s a disappearing act. First, you become invisible to other people – this happens first to women, then to men, reflecting our societal valuation of women by looks. People in their teens, twenties, thirties simply walk through you in the shopping malls, their eyes glazing over before they focus on you.

Then, if you’re lucky enough to be able to retire, you disappear from the social space; colleagues soon have little in common with you, friends retire to the coast or to family homes, people die.

Eventually you disappear into an institution, nice or nasty.

It is much, much harder if you’ve less money.

I protest.

Part of this disappearing act is because ads, TV series, films and even serious journalism stereotype older people as dismissible: senile, feeble, forgetful, grumpy, crotchety, bewildered by modern life and sexless (at Mamma Mia’s first screening, younger people round me stiffened with shock as Pierce Brosnan sang, “Slightly worn but dignified, and not too old for sex”).

And of course most of those stereotypes, whether in the Simpsons or an ad for retirement annuities, are created by young copywriters, creatives and even young literary greats, who by definition don’t know what the capabilities or desires of older people are. The average age of a creative is 28, while the average new car buyer is 56, a media commentator writes, which means that the creative really has no idea how to talk to the fifty-plus person, who often has far more discretionary spend than they do (within their economic class, of course).

And part of it is due to a false privileging of youth’s mental abilities over those of age, one that dismisses older brains and their skills as valueless.

Youth’s mental talents are wonderful, of course; young brains dance and spin, and obsessive focus on a task is possible, abilities which society badly needs. But that shifts slowly over time as knowledge and experience accumulate. Age’s style of intelligence is as necessary to society as that of youth.

“When people have high cognitive control [characteristic of youth], they are able to maintain their focused attention and ignore distractions to get things done. But [older people] had an easier time thinking of creative solutions to problems, and they were better at noticing patterns in the world around them. These findings also indicated that older adults could outperform their younger counterparts on certain problem-solving tasks, as they were able to broaden their attention more easily.”

Plus years of experience give even the most socially ham-handed of us a little emotional intelligence – this differential has been turbo-charged by the circumstances under which the young are learning social skills these days. “Many young people can read the face of their iPhone better than the face of the person sitting next to them,” quotes Tad Friend in an interesting long read in the New Yorker.

The disappearing act we’ve forced on ‘old age’ takes with it, therefore, some very useful and necessary skills. So let’s stop a few things: no more worship of the young; no more dissing of the older person (and older people, you don’t need to diss the young either); no more assumptions based on age, either mental assumptions (I’ve known incompetent, muddled youngsters – and one of the sharpest IT minds I’ve met was over 70) or physical: go look at Alex Rotas’ pictures to see what senior athletes can do.

Let’s recognise that ageism is bigotry, too. And like all bigotries, it damages society and costs us talent and skill.

  • Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

Follow Fin24 on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and Pinterest. 24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

mandi smallhorne  |  opinion

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