Defeating Ageism – Are Boomers Taking All the Credit?
I’m within spitting distance of being a Boomer, but I’m not proud of what some Boomers have been saying about the gains being made in addressing & defeating ageism. A lot has been happening around this thorny issue. Two or three years ago, there was barely a ripple on the topic in mainstream media, only an article or two in a newspaper or blog. Suddenly it’s everywhere, on Twitter, on Facebook, in pod casts, videos and blogs. It’s as if a faucet has been turned on and these ideas, which used to be relegated to the back pages—old people going on about being laughed at, ignored and excluded—have become a self-sustaining newsfeed.
Who knew? Now, that its de rigueur to talk about ageism, Baby Boomers are stepping forward and taking the credit for it:
“In our youth, we said we’d never trust anyone over 30”, they crow, “Now we are re-inventing what it means to get old”. “Thank God the Baby Boomers are reaching 70”, they say, “Now, at last, we are getting somewhere”.
So now that this vast and savvy generation is coming aboard and joining the fight, we are no longer crying out in the wilderness. We should relax and welcome them with open arms. But something doesn’t quite resonate with me. I’ve been aware of ageism for a long time, long before Boomers reached an age to care. When I hear about the blame cast on my generation—the Silents, or the Lucky Few—that we gave in to being laid off or forced to retire early, and didn’t utter a peep, that we listened to the jokes about old people and laughed along with them, that we turned our parents over to inadequate nursing homes without a twinge, well that just isn’t true.
What has our generation been doing?
Our generation has been quietly laying the groundwork for the massive attitudinal shift that is happening now. In 1975 Robert Butler sent up a warning balloon when he coined the term, ageism, in his book, “Why Survive? Being Old in America”. He had an intuitive understanding of this mistaken perception of old age, and described it with a deadly accuracy that endures 41 years later.
Here’s how he defined it:
“A process of systematic stereotyping or discrimination against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish with skin colour and gender. Ageism allows the younger generations to see older people as different than themselves; thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings.”
Butler saw ageism manifested in “a wide range of phenomena on both individual and institutional levels- stereotypes and myths, outright disdain and dislike, simple avoidance of contact, and discriminatory practices in housing, employment, and services of all kinds.” The strongest stereotypes around aging are those which equate aging with the “3 Ds”- disease, disability (in terms of actual functional impairment, or as perceived potential to lose abilities), and death.”
Many other thinkers and writers of our generation questioned how our culture approached growing old. Here are a few who blazed the trail:
Simone de Beauvoir, (1970) Coming of Age, in which she explores our perception of elders, and describes “the separation and distance from our communities that the old must suffer and endure”.
Betty Friedan, (1993) The Fountain of Age. Here she writes about how our culture decries old age, and how, in struggling to hold on to the illusion of youth we deny the “reality and new triumphs of growing older”, and how we have seen age only as decline.
Ram Dass, (2001) Embracing Aging, Changing and Dying, in which he continues to provide innovation and thought, this time focussing on aging, having reached “the autumn of his years”.
Ronni Bennett, Time Goes By, a groundbreaking blog launched in 2004, and the first of many on-line blogs exploring old age.
It takes an enormous effort to nudge a culture toward change, but these people, and writers and thinkers like them, forced us to question the status quo and re-frame the unspoken rules about age that govern our society. Current and established ways of thinking and living are, by their very nature, deeply ingrained. But thankfully, a glimmer of light sometimes breaks through and, if all goes well, we have a shift in thought and, as always, thought precedes action.
These tried and true quotes say it best:
The first step toward change is awareness. (Nathaniel Branden)
The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step (Lao Tzu)
So, as the Boomers make the transition to the “second act” of their lives, and become the critical mass that will propel ageism to the back rooms of history, all I ask is they give credit to the people who preceded them—the real movers and shakers of the ageism revolution.