Who Is Old?

Edith Connors 77 year old body builder
Edith Connors 77-year-old body builder

Who is old?  What does old mean?  Who decides that you are old?  Who do you identify as old?

Is it age?  Do you automatically become old the day you start collecting your social security? Some people collect at 62, some at 66, and some at 70.  Or, maybe it’s the year you become eligible. Can it be the day you retire from your career job?  Or maybe it’s the day you become a grandparent.

My mother-in-law didn’t become old until she turned 90, while my mother decided she was old at 80. They self-selected when to be old. Meanwhile, my best friend who has a form of rheumatoid arthritis self-identified as old when she was only 55. So, it’s possible that old is when you need assistance with certain activities and realize that you are slowing in your performance. A 72 year old friend mentioned to me, “I can’t believe how much longer it’s taking me to walk to the office each morning. I used to be such a fast walker.“  Is she now old?

I am certain that my grandchildren identify me as old, while my peers tell me how young I look. Maybe that’s the answer. Old, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. My husband tells me I look as young as the day we met, which can hardly be true since that was over fifty years ago. Maybe we are old when our hair turns gray. Yet, I have a friend who went prematurely gray in her thirties.

Another answer might be that we are old when we start receiving senior discounts. I do have a senior Metro-Card that entitles me to use New York City’s subways and buses at half price. I have an AARP card, and I now go to movies and visit museums for senior admission rates.

Do all cultures and societies see “old” similarly?  Eastern cultures tend to value age and equate age with wisdom. Unfortunately, Western cultures put a higher value on youth. This causes many of the aging people I know to go to great lengths to appear younger than their actual age. I have an 85 year old constituent who came to see me one day carrying a large umbrella. “Is it raining?” I asked. “Oh, no”, she replied, but I refuse to walk with a cane.”

We, here in the United States and other Western industrialized counties, are experiencing a longevity boom. People here may not be perceived as old until they are in their 70s or maybe even 80s. Yet, in third world countries that are ravaged by war and hunger, people are perceived as old at a much younger age.

So, old may be determined by the place you live or the era in which you were born. My grandmother at 70 was an old woman. I am 68 and would not be described as an “old woman” by most people I know. Old can also be determined by one’s environment or the circumstances under which one lives. Those who live in poverty and those who are marginalized may not have access to good health care or healthy food. People who live in these minority communities are old sooner than those from middle and upper class majority neighborhoods.

So, it seems then that old is a socially constructed category. What old is to me may be different than what old means to you.

There is much truth in the adage, “Once you’ve seen one old person, you’ve seen one old person.” We are aging from the moment we are born; and the more we age,–the more we experience our own individual lives–the more diverse we become. Our individual lived experiences then may be the only key to determining when each of us is old.

Are you old?  If so, when did you become old?  If you are not old, what makes you see someone else as old?  Why do you think a society’s definition of old is important?

Ageism In The Workplace

If we are not welcome in the workplace and we are expected to live well into our nineties and beyond, how can we ever hope to be able to sustain ourselves financially?

Can you imagine a workforce made up of 3 generations?  I am 68, my children are in their forties, and my oldest grandchild is 17. I am one of the fortunate aging boomers who is still part of the American workforce. I have no problem envisioning a workplace where my granddaughter, my son, and I will all be participating in the growth of our nation’s economy. Yet, there is one major obstacle to achieving this goal. It is the oldest, most entrenched form of discrimination in this country. Ageism!

agediscriminationintheworkplace02Nowhere is it easier to identify ageism than in the workplace. As older workers are staying longer and younger workers enter the field, more often than not they will find themselves part of a multigenerational workforce. By the middle of the next decade, the United States will be an aging society, with more Americans over age 60 than under age 15.

What this means for an evolving job market is that there will not be enough young workers to fill entry level jobs. We will then have two choices. We can import young workers from other countries, or we can prepare ahead by accommodating older workers and encouraging them to remain or re-enter the workplace. This would be a welcoming departure from the cold shoulder that older workers receive when applying for jobs today.

Our country’s leaders are always a day late and a dollar short when it comes to planning ahead. For years and years people have been writing about the “graying of the American workforce” and the “aging tsunami”. The boomers are not coming; we have arrived!

We are healthier than previous generations, and we are living longer–in many cases, as much as 20 years longer. Yet, when we leave our career jobs, whether by choice or not by choice, we step into a void. We discover that there is no role for us in society. We become invisible. The invisible man today is not a bandaged wrapped non-body. He is an invisible somebody.

Here’s the dilemma: If we are not welcome in the workplace, and we are expected to live well into our nineties and beyond, how can we ever hope to be able to sustain ourselves financially? We have the intelligence, skills and wisdom to become one of society’s greatest assets.  Yet, without the opportunity to earn our own way, we will certainly become society’s burden. Most salient is our position as repositories of historical and cultural history and our ability to solve long term problems that younger people do not have the time for.

One excuse I hear for not keeping or hiring older workers is the fear that it will be too expensive. “They will be sick too often and, therefore, be less productive.” Not true. Older workers come with an innate work ethic. We take less sick days than our younger co-workers. We also come with our own health insurance, namely, Medicare. And, older workers are often willing to work for lower salaries as a supplement to our Social Security.

Mainly, we want to be valued and be seen as contributors to a better society, not as a drain. I wonder if those who would shut older adults out of the workforce are ageists who drank the youth-obsessed Kool-Aide that the media hands out. They probably do not even recognize their own internalized ageism. Have they thought about why they do not want a workplace filled with grey haired people? Could it possibly be the threat of having a workforce who reflect the true life process of aging that they would rather deny?

Ageism does not only affect the old. It affects our entire society. It deprives one generation the opportunity to pass on knowledge to the next, while depriving the younger generation the opportunity to learn and build on that knowledge.  It deprives an older generation the opportunity to keep growing and learning new skills for which the young are our best teachers.

The stereotypes of older people that we all own do not match up with the reality of today.  They are out of date.  It’s time for an upgrade.

 

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