Once, living to an old age was an accomplishment of sorts. It meant you had survived the various illnesses that plagued our kind before modern medicine. It meant you had survived work-related accidents, and/or wars, and/or childbirth. In an era when horseback was the most common means of transportation, surviving to an old age meant surviving the various dangers of merely traveling from point A to point B. Once, the elderly were rare enough that their mere existence, replete with hard-won experience of decades, was worthy of enhanced respect.
That view has largely gone to the wayside. Nowadays, old people are everywhere. Sometimes they’re amazing and awe-inspiring, with ongoing contributions that effect the world we live in transformative ways–Stephanie Coontz, George R.R. Martin, and Margaret Atwood come to mind.
Other times, they’re maybe not famous-levels of amazing, but they’re beloved and treasured within their own family and social circle, and they continue to share the wisdom of their experience within the family.
And then there are the other old people.
Crotchety. Racist. Bigoted. They expect a pass on their awful, racist, sexist, homophobic statements because things were “different” when they were young, and people actually indulge them.
They demand to be let to the front of the line because they’ve managed to survive 7+ decades.
They slowly drive their vehicles down crowded freeways, squinting at the signage and shaking trembling fists at anyone who dares honk because they’re driving too damn slow and half outta their lane.
We’ve all heard of them, or seen videos, or even observed one or two incidents in person. They’re not the majority of the elderly population, but they’re foul and loud enough that they’re the ones who snag our attention and capture our memory. These are the examples I think of when I think of ageism and judging the elderly.
I suppose another spin on the “ageism” prompt could be for labor discrimination against employees of or over a certain age range. That would make sense, too. But I already started picking apart the social dynamics of ageism, so I’ll just roll with it.
The thing is, ageism is weird.
It’s obviously wrong to dislike someone on the basis of something they have no control over–skin color, gender, sexual orientation, whether they were born into rags or riches, the religion they were indoctrinated/ raised into, their age–but by the very dint of a lifetime lived, a lot of those factors appear to be mitigated by the element of choice and effort.
Sure, social sciences tells us that if you’re born a poor Christian, you’re likely going to die a poor Christian; and if you’re born a wealthy Muslim, you’re likely going to die a wealthy Muslim. People generally stay within the range of the wealth bracket they were born into, and steps up the economic ladder are accumulative and generational (the linked article discusses some of the historical circumstances that specifically targeted communities of color and prevented them from building up wealth and passing it down to their children over the past century, leading such communities to have lower savings and financial resources overall).
Almost two-thirds of people stay in the religion they were raised in. Even if they leave, I would argue from my own experience that the specific religious teachings a child is taught becomes the template for their adult perspective of the world, whether as a lens through which they choose to accept/ believe said teachings, or reject/ negate said teachings.
Supported though these statements are by data and research, they do not fit a narrative particular to the time and place in which I live: The myth of the self-made-man, the quintessential American hero. Here, it is said that no matter what the data indicates, a person born into poverty can die wealthy and respected.
Here, choice reigns supreme, and many people value their perceived rights above all–their “right” to own guns, regardless of the statistical danger to themselves and the population. Their “right” to free speech, which they think has no restrictions (but actually does).
Their “right” to religious freedom, which is often interpreted as being allowed to live their lives both openly and in private according to the morals and values they hold dear even if it means restricting (both openly and in private) the movements, freedoms, and speech of those whose morals and values they disapprove of.
Although I disagree, strongly, with these narratives, I’ve been raised in a culture steeped with them. In many ways, often unconsciously or semi-consciously, such attitudes still obscure the lens through which I view the world and affect my attitudes.
~*~ Respect Your Elders! ~*~
I think such American attitudes are where my irritation this segment of the elderly comes from. Like, the other day I was in line at the store and this older woman in front of me got upset because the checkout clerk didn’t call her ma’am. Then she couldn’t hear a question he asked her about check or charge, so she began yelling at him when he had to repeat it.
I mean, who rants at the checkout clerk for that? Seriously? She actually accused him of, “not showing his elders enough respect.” What kind of shit is that? What exactly had she done to earn any respect up to that point? Was she polite, compassionate, or respectful? Did she treat him with dignity and kindness another human being deserves?
No. No, she did not. She screamed at a guy doing his job, and went on a power-trip based on nothing more than her age and the fact she was a customer. Who cares that you’ve lived seven decades, lady? Maybe your family, but a random clerk in a grocery store couldn’t give two shits. You’re just a stranger and a bad day to him.
Mind you, I personally think respect is earned on an individual basis for everyone. So, for example, if Bill Gates or Beyonce or someone walked into a store and got upset about misunderstanding a checkout clerk, then went off on a power trip about, “Do you know who I am? You better show me some respect!” … I’d be disgusted with them, too.
I don’t think having more money, or more diplomas, or more years, or a different skin color or gender or religion, makes one person more valuable or worthwhile than another. None of that matters when its people, face to face. Just people.
So when an old person says something awful and expects to get a pass because they’re old, I’m just like, nah.
~*~ Heed the Wisdom of Your Elders! ~*~
~ On Race! ~
Speaking of awful shit some old people say–the ones who are the subject of this entry–what is with the thing of a 70+ person saying something completely racist/ misogynistic/ homophobic getting a pass because they’re old and grew up in a “different era”?
News flash: Today’s 70 year old was born in the 1940s, at the tail end of WWII. An 80 year old would have been a teen in the 1940s, a young adult in the 50’s. Someone in their 90s would’ve been in their 20s in the 1940s, which means they probably would have fought alongside black soldiers in WWII (then come home and watched them get shafted by the GI Bill), in their 30s through the 1950s (for reference, today’s Millennial Generation encompasses those in their 30s), and in their 40s through the 1960s.
Let’s break that down, context-wise.
These people would have had front-row seats as Emmett Till‘s murder gripped and horrified a nation. They witnessed the school desegregation debates. They grew up steeped in the Civil Rights Movement, as Martin Luther King, Jr. preached nonviolence and lunch-counter-sit-ins made headlines and the Freedom Riders were beaten and imprisoned.
This means one of three things. One, they were on the right side of history back then, which means they are not saying racist shit today. Two, they were neutral/ tried to stay out of it, which (especially if they’re saying racist shit now) puts them on the wrong side of history. Or three, they were one of the pro-segregationist assholes throwing firebombs and screaming slurs and beating up kids trying to go to school and eat lunch and ride buses.
If some old person is saying racist-ass shit today, do you know what that means? It means they were probably just like these racist-ass kids from Tennessee, standing all proud on the wrong side of history:
These are not people who somehow drifted through a conflict-free era, ignorant of the issues at hand. That would be like someone of our generation trying to claim to their grandchildren, “Why, I’ve never quite understood what a gay person is, or what this marriage fuss is about.”
You would have to be deaf, blind, and voluntarily ignorant not to know what the fuck the situation is there. Any person in the US who lived through the Civil Rights Era couldn’t escape knowing about it, even if they avoided participating in it.
~ On Women! ~
If an old person is in their 80s or 90s, they might have attended Federally-funded daycare while their mother worked. You would think such a person would be in favor of government supporting childcare programs and paid parental leave, having benefited from similar family support policies.
If they’re only in their 70s, they were probably raised in the 1950s by a stay at home mom (if the family was of low socioeconomic status, she might have been a working mom. There have always been working moms in America, and always will be as long as there is a working class).
A 1950s stay at home mom might have felt curiously stifled and unfulfilled, because the average housewife of the era was discouraged from educational pursuits and married by the age of 20. Would every kid have picked up on this? Who knows. Could you always tell when your mom was sad or depressed? I could.
Betty Friedan tapped into this angst with her best-selling book, The Feminine Mystique, which means the generation of now-elderly, then-children would have watched their mothers, sisters, and wives go through the feminist movement–perhaps even experienced it for themselves.
Today’s 70-somethings spent most of their working lives with women in the workplace. They saw firsthand the legal struggles of their coworkers, friends, and family members as they played out across the national stage. Through the 1960s and 70s, women fought to obtain pregnancy coverage on health insurance policies, the end of so-called “marriage bans” and “age ceilings” (where an employer could refuse to hire her if she was married/ over a certain age, or could fire her if she got married/ hit a certain age), and for parity in wages (still don’t have it).
~*~ IN OTHER WORDS ~*~
The 70-90 year olds of today are not exactly relics of the 19th century pioneer era. They’re not Civil War vets, confused and doddering as they try to figure out this new-fangled electricity. They’re not baffled Victorians, wondering how on earth women ended up in pants and earning an income.
These people are products of the 20th century, same as the majority of the population–and they’ve managed to live well into the 21st century. They’ve had plenty time to adjust to a new status quo. Five decades, at minimum.
That’s FIVE DECADES to revise their attitudes from being on the wrong side of history. FIVE DECADES to learn, at the very least, to treat others with respect if they expect to receive respect in return.
So when you look at it in that light, anyone who uses bigoted and hateful language today is actually signaling a pretty clear message that they want the world to go back to a sadder, smaller, more separate place.
Racial slurs indicate a desire for a world where schools are segregated, lunch counters separated, and American apartheid is a way of life. It shows a longing for the days when the forced deportation and illegal incarceration of American citizens based solely on the color of their skin was an openly-acknowledged thing.
Those of the older generation who say misogynistic, sexist shit are hearkening back to a world where women couldn’t easily conduct financial/ business transactions without her husband’s signature. A world where someone must be at fault to acquire a dissolution of marriage. Where their nostalgic memories (or unfulfilled fantasies) of a woman waiting hand-and-foot on them as she prepares all the meals and cleans up after them without complaint take precedence to the humanness of the person in said scenario.
These are sick desires. They are not, “Things were different when I was young, it’s hard to keep track of all these changes.”
No, it’s just straight-up bigotry. Not, “Ooops, I misplaced my glasses because I’m getting old–oh, and I forgot I have to treat those pesky bleeps with respect now. Gosh durn it, things were different in my day! Why, I could give a bleep a good wallop and no-one would care!”
~*~ SIDE RANT ~*~
I’d like to take a moment to note that tons of politically progressive minds have been both influential and ordinary in the distant and recent past. It’s not like the path of history is some … some bright ladder, always stretching upward and progressing to a final penultimate point of clarity and awesomeness for the human race. History is more like the tidemark on the beach, constantly being reshaped by the shifting waves of history as the same basic events repeat in new formations with each new tide that washes in and out.
Labor rights activism washes in, labor rights activism washes out. Gender equality washes in, gender equality recedes. Religious freedom advances, religious freedom retreats.
Don’t go thinking we’re somehow more advanced, or morally superior to our ancestors. Humankind has been wrestling with the same basic social questions for thousands of years in various iterations of culture and throughout numerous governmental experiments. We keep adding complications–the written word, the printing press, the typewriter, the word processor, the internet–but in the end, it comes down to the same thing. There are multiple perspectives trying to convince one other to agree with differing ways of seeing the world, and sometimes when the words fail, the arguments devolve from persuasive language to fists (or the modern equivalent thereof).
In the past three centuries, we’ve managed to spectacularly fuck things up on an unprecedented level in recorded history by linking slavery to race and making it a generational thing, which meant even once we got rid of slavery, there was still this whole socially ingrained idea our culture had spent the last THREE FUCKING CENTURIES hammering in that the color of our skin was somehow relevant to our character–an idea that was like, nada before.
Before, they judged you on religion.
~*~ BACK TO THE MATTER AT HAND ~*~
So, yeah. When I exhibit ageism, sometimes I feel a little bit guilty, because my mom used to say, “Imagine that was your grandpa!”
And I loved my grandpa. He was a pretty neat guy. He also never said anything racist or sexist or homophobic to my knowledge. As far as I know, he loved everyone.
So when I get impatient with old people, or make ageist jokes, I hear my mom’s scolding voice in my memory and feel a twinge of guilt. She’s right, I suppose. I mean, systemic social circumstances and all that. I hate it when old people drive, but its not their fault our public transport system sucks balls.
Well. It’s kinda their generation’s fault. Because they didn’t vote to increase taxes to pay for better public transportation, and now my generation is stuck with their lack of forethought.
What, did they think we were just going to drop everything to drive them everywhere? Did they think they would magically never lose their faculties–that they would be the first elderly in the history of the fuckin’ world not to experience loss of hearing, vision, and memory, and spatial awareness?
… but then again, there were a lot of corporate interests invested in making sure the automobile took precedence over public transport. No-one was exactly thinking 100 years into the future when all those individuals would be doddering away behind the steering wheels of multi-ton high-speed death machines. We could just as easily blame the corporations and marketing companies. It would actually probably be more accurate–they had all the money, why weren’t they funneling into the future of the community? Oh, right. They were lining their fucking pockets.
~*~ Okay, okay, that didn’t work. But … ~*~
Well, how ’bout this: It isn’t old people’s fault we have no sort of useful, comprehensive eldercare system.
… except, again, yeah, the taxes thing. Actually, on that one … I think we can blame everyone who was of voting age from 1980-2004 and chose to respond to the Civil Rights era by voting for any or all of the following: Reagan, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Clinton, Bush, Bush.
Yeah. If an old person voted for most of those guys, they preeeetttty much brought any current shitty circumstances regarding retirement/ social security/ medicare/ healthcare on themselves. Thanks, you didn’t just screw yourselves over–you screwed your kids and your grandkids over, too.
~*~ Show some respect ~*~
I really try to give angry bigoted old people the benefit of the doubt, believe it or not. I know it doesn’t sound like it, from this entry, but just imagine it from their perspective. For an old person today, born somewhere between the 1920s-1940s, they probably knew an elderly person as a child–a family member, or friend of the family, or a scary old person the neighborhood kids whispered about in hushed voices, or an honored member of several prestigious-sounding leadership boards.
This elderly person probably was respected, in large part, just for being old. I mean, the grandparents of the 1920s-1940s had lived through the pre-vaccine era. They knew polio and cholera and Spanish Influenza all up close and personal. Measles was a thing to be scared of. Women still regularly counted themselves lucky to survive childbirth. Like, what the fuck. The men had fought in wars when they still used bayonets. Gangrene and trench rot was a thing for the men of that generation. Mine cave ins, factory fires, and all sorts of workplace accidents. Workplace safety wasn’t really a “thing”.
Surviving to seventy, back then, kind of was an achievement all on its own.
But today’s old person … it’s like, okay. So … congratulations.
You lived through the era of vaccinations and skyrocketing advancements in medical science. Workplace safety and child labor laws have been enacted, ensuring that you didn’t have to work until you were strong enough and old enough, and that once you started working there were protective measures in place to ensure you would survive the stupidity/ inattention of yourself and your coworkers.
Advanced kitchen technology means you grew up with food that lasted longer and was fresher, preventing tapeworms, harmful bacteria, and various foodborne illnesses from killing you. You grew up in cities and suburbs, far from the lions and tigers and bears that wanted to eat your face off. Despite the fear-mongering on the news, violent crime is dropping year-by-year.
So now when an old person demands the respect their age is due (remembering the grandfather of their childhood), the 21st century product of 20th century vaccinations and EPA and Clean Water Acts and Labor Rights acts and the various benefits of medical science looks back at them and asks (rightfully) … “Uh, why?”
Living to old age, on it’s own, is just not impressive anymore. Now you’ve actually got to be a decent human being along with it.
~*~ In the end ~*~
These days, anyone between the age of 70-90 has had a minimum of five goddamn decades to adjust to the world we live in and the default rules for polite social interaction. They’re very simple.
- People of color and women are now equal under the law. Start acting like it.
- The n-word is a completely unacceptable slur. I don’t care if you said it in “your day”. It’s been over 50 years since that term was in common and accepted usage. Now stop.
- To elderly men: Women are addressed by their Title and Name (eg: Ms. Smith) when in a place of work, not bakery-cafe nicknames such as “honey” or “sweetheart”. If you wouldn’t summon her male co-worker with a, “darling, come here,” then don’t try it on her.
- To elderly women: Ditto goes for the guys. It’s not actually okay to go around calling retail and service workers, “honey,” and “sweetie,” and “darling,” and all these infantilizing names. These are grown adults, working jobs in the fastest-growing employment sectors to support themselves and their families. Stop talking to them like they’re confused children.
- It was your generation that screwed up the economy so bad that our generation is stuck working below a living wage in a service-based economy. Stop talking down to service and retail workers.
- Show respect to get respect.
~*~ Post Script ~*~
Stop driving. Stop driving. Stop driving. For the love of god, at least take a drivers’ test. I’m pretty sure they’ll tell you to stop driving.