The Age of Ageism

The Age of Ageism

Photo by ariya j on Adobe Stock

I despise “isms” — racism, sexism, anti-Semitism. There are too many to count, unfortunately. I have never understood them, have never understood bigotry. But the one I guess that confuses and confounds me the most is ageism because it is the only one that touches us all — everyone ages. I heard ageism described once as “prejudice against your future self” (Todd Nelson), and I thought that was pretty accurate. It should be the great equalizer. And yet, out of all the “isms” there are, ageism remains the one that is still socially acceptable. My God! The things I heard said after attending the Rolling Stones concert in Seattle this past Wednesday. Geritol rock, skeletons, Geezers, walking dead, dried-up California Raisins and AARP haha, and on and on, and worse. These slurs — because that's what they are — were slung freely by radio personalities, writers, critics, and even my own friends. Can you imagine if we so openly dehumanized and denigrated another group in this way? Where are the riots against ageism?

I don’t go for any of that trope and find it shockingly offensive that nobody seems to be calling it out. Are the Rolling Stones not allowed to make music because of their age? What I saw on stage were true craftsmen at the pinnacle of their wildly illustrious careers. The Stones were having the time of their life, playing the classics (and the solid new stuff too), goofing, creating, doing what they loved and with the people they loved. Their joy was infectious. The band didn’t take themselves too seriously either, they laughed when they hit an off note or walked the wrong way on the stage. Keith Richards played “Little T&A” a bit sheepishly as if he was somewhat embarrassed by his younger, more randy self.  And they laid down a legendary set. It started as a rambling, bluesy honky-tonk mess and warmed and tightened into the most rock and rolling and soulful show I think I have ever seen. The backup singer sung the paint off the walls, Keith Richards’ licks were all attitude and funk, and Mick Jagger delighted the audience with the fluid dance moves of a 17 year old, strutting his signature strut and even throwing in a moonwalk for good measure. I thought, what an example of fully expressed divine gifts, what a beautiful masterpiece these human lives are, what an inspiration for how it can be done.

People say oh, yeah, but they have the money for personal trainers, etc. Yes, sure, whatever. But I guarantee you what is keeping them so vital is what I just wrote above. Doing what they love, with the people they love. That just might be the best formula there is for aging well. And the audience turned out for it. I saw in some cases, four generations of families enjoying the concert together. How often do you get to see that? A comment on our modern society cropped up however when Mick had to tell people to put their phones down. Can you imagine how bizarre it must be for the Stones to look out from the stage, something that they’ve done for five decades now, with all the many amazing and crazy things they’ve seen out there over the years, and today what they see looking back at them is just a sea of little iPhone lights? The intimate power of the connection between performer and audience is forever lost now to Steve Jobs’ little toy, as my friend said. Concerts will never be what they once were. And listen, when Mick Jagger tells you to put your phone down, you put it down.

Those who think the Stones are just doing it for greed, for the money, could not be more wrong. It is clearly about passion. Mick Jagger has stated that he likely plans to give all his money to charity when he dies because, as he said, “my kids have plenty.”

So, show some mother f--- respect.

Ugly ageism is on full display as we ramp up to our next presidential election as well. If you dislike a candidate based on his or her actions, track record, experience (or lack of it), policy position, fair enough. But stop making it about age. People age and decline really, because that’s what we’re talking about in this context, at very different rates. Also, I know twenty-somethings who should never get behind the wheel of a car, and sharp-as-a-tack ninety-year-olds I’d trust with my life. The idea that there should be age limits on public office? That is completely arbitrary and ridiculous. Term limits I can understand. But what the “age limit” fails to even acknowledge is the immense amount of gravitas, wisdom, diplomacy and life experience that someone at an advanced age brings to the table. Those traits can be kind of useful in that role. And despite my issues with him, I'm talking about Biden here. There’s no shortage of things I dislike about Trump, and I promise you his age is the least of them. Furthermore, whose place is it to tell someone else when they should retire, like putting them out to pasture? Some people find such fulfilling purpose in their life’s work that in fact, they never do. I have also heard the “but he/she might die in office” argument. Anyone could die in office. You know who actually did die in office? Our youngest president, sadly.

I think the reason we do this “othering” of older adults is to put some distance between us and them — see, we’re not old like they are! Ewww. The thing is, ageism actually ages you. It’s an old, outdated way of thinking. I’m surrounded by a lot of Gen Z in my life, and I asked them the other day for some ageist examples from their generation for an article I was writing. They didn’t understand, so I had to explain it and give examples. “Oh,” one of them finally said. “I don’t think we have any.” How refreshing to hear. This generation is radically inclusive. Let’s not forget it was also the youngest generation who most turned out for Bernie Sanders — his age was a nonissue. In fact, Gen Z tell me, they are so glad that this mode of thinking is on its way out. So, there’s the great irony. It backfires. Being ageist just makes us look and seem “old.”

I am fortunate to have friends in their seventies, eighties and nineties, and I lean on them for their mental toughness, their sense of humor, their resilience and their insight. They light the path ahead of me. (I hope you have these friends too, and if you don’t, please make some. Get past the superficial — the wrinkles and the grays and the walkers and wheelchairs. You can do it). The sad thing is that, for the most part, my older friends remain silent on this issue because there is no greater shame in our obscenely youth-obsessed society, no greater crime, than to simply be growing older. But make no mistake. These attitudes are hurtful, this talk is hurting people. So, shame on us.

Life is a magical, mysterious, wild ride. Yes, it can be terrible and painful at times, too, but the human experience is a gift like none other. No matter where your foot may fall on the journey, each stage, every step of it, for all of us, is miraculous. Every stage has meaning and purpose and lessons to learn and growth to be had. Let’s embrace the beauty of that at every turn and in every season, for everyone.

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Amy Claire Massingale

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