“It is as though the aged were an alien race to which the young will never belong. Indeed, there is a distinct discrimination against the old…. It is not just cruelty and indifference that underscore the obsolescence of the old. It is also the nature of modern western culture.” —Time magazine
If it weren’t for the formality of the language, you might assume that this quote was from a recent issue of Time magazine. In fact, it’s excerpted from an August 1970 article in Time’s online archive, the Vault. The article analyzes the then-new trend of older people being diminished and isolated by a society that was suddenly and overwhelmingly being driven by young people — what Time has called the Woodstock generation.
That’s you if you were under 30 in 1968, the year that gerontologist Robert Butler coined the term “ageism.”
The first big wave of Baby Boomers — today’s 60- to 70-year-olds — had become a massively influential youth subculture that had no time for the old.
What was new for seniors 45 years ago?
- Ageism in the workplace. Forty percent of the unemployed were over 45, which was older then than it is now, life expectancy-wise. (We’ve seen some improvement: a little less than 38 percent of workers 45 and up were unemployed in the last quarter of 2012.)
- Senior poverty. One in four seniors lived at or below the poverty line. According to Time 45 years ago, “Most are bewildered and bitter nouveau pauvres, their savings and fixed incomes devoured by spiraling property taxes and other forms of inflation” — the ’70 version of market crash. (Fifteen percent of seniors lived below the poverty line in 2013.)
- Stereotyping. The idea that sickness is an inevitable part of aging, that older people are cognitively slower, that only young people are interested in sex — Time challenged these 45 years ago. They still haunt us now.
- Single-generation housing. The “amazing phenomenon” of older Americans, treated like outsiders, clustering together in new towns that exclude those under 65: retirement communities with their shuffleboard, bowling and clubs. (Today, the Villages in Florida is the fastest growing town in the U.S.)
Trying to make sense of this new society in which young and old orbited in separate and unequal universes, Time quoted Margaret Mead, who put it down to the splintered modern American family and the rapid pace of social change — “So rapid that to learn about the past seems irrelevant.”
The old, in Mead’s words, were “the carriers of a dying culture” that held no interest for the young.
Now that we’re the oldsters, what can we do to reverse what we helped to create?
Some ideas to start with:
- Resist the urge to respond to invisibility by hanging (and living) only with people our age.
- Keep an open mind on social issues, however fast things shift.
- Stay abreast of changing technologies (and try to learn them).
- Struggle to understand today’s digital culture – from Lol Cats to memes.
- Take an interest in the cultural contributions of today’s Millenials — ageism can go both ways.
- Try to interest younger people in the things we know (and they don’t). See it as a knowledge and skills exchange.
- Avoid nostalgia, which is blind to progress.
- Make every effort to examine the ageist stereotypes that we carry inside us from our youth.
- Stand up for ourselves. Invisible? Make yourself visible. Left behind? Advocate!
- Fill in the blank (scroll down to the comments section).