Why Young People Should Fear Ageism

Social Commentary

Why Young People Should Fear Ageism

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Ayoung chap offers his seat to a visibly grey-haired man on a bus. Two teenagers gasp at a dancer who looks too young to be a mom. And elsewhere a woman who has bathed with a soap that has got her younger-looking skin, glows, as other visibly aged moms look on unhappily.

In 2008’s The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent had announced: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” The villain in this case – in everyone’s case – is the same: Age. According to the world of movies and advertising, getting old is the worst thing that can happen to you. Don’t believe me. Believe the $250-billion-dollar anti-ageing industry today. As a result, today we fear nothing like we fear getting old.

As much as people would have you believe that “age is just a number” and what really matters is that you’re “young at heart”, in terms of social, cultural, or academic practises, age is a very tangible, feared thing. For instance, up until 2017, people above the age of 25 could not appear for medical entrance exams in India. IIT’s still have the restrictive eligibility rule of applicants being under 25 years of age. Are medical and engineering studies only pursuits open to the young? Does the brain begin to deteriorate at 26? Even when new studies make it clear that the human brain is still evolving well into our mid-twenties, and people are equipped to make better decisions later in their twenties?

You might not think so, but the world around you does.

We are living in a culture that worships the young, the bright, the fresh. Silicon Valley, while being the flag bearer of all things woke, is famous for shunning older employees in their late 40s. Even in India, where the median age of the entire country itself is 29, certain sectors like the media are more geared towards to the youth. Walk into the office of a new-age media company and you’d be hard pressed to find a person older than 35. The assumption is that only people in their 20s and early 30s can come up with youthful and fresh ideas or that there is space only for young characters on screen. Even Tinder once charged older people higher for their plus services. The forties are the “senior citizens” of the internet world, whose social media learning curves are assumed to be flat even though their wisdom is highly sought after while making complex financial decisions.  

When did age become an indictment?

Act Your Age, lays out a specific code for leading our lives – from how we should be dressed to how often we should party.

In a New Yorker essay titled, “Why Ageism Never Gets Old”, Tad Friend writes, “Like the racist and the sexist, the ageist rejects an Other based on a perceived difference. But ageism is singular, because it’s directed at a group that at one point wasn’t the Other – and at a group that the ageist will one day, if all goes well, join. The ageist thus insults his own future self. Karma’s a bitch: the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging reports, ‘Those holding more negative age stereotypes earlier in life had significantly steeper hippocampal volume loss and significantly greater accumulation of neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques.’ Ageists become the senescent figures they once abhorred.”

Even before social media made age officially uncool, culturally there has always been a hint of ageism in India governed by the three golden words: Act Your Age. Act Your Age, lays out a specific code for leading our lives – from how we should be dressed to how often we should party.

A nurse at a pathology lab once added a Mrs in front of my name on the reports because she assumed someone my age must be married by now. Notions like earning a certain amount of salary by a certain age or having a settled family by 35 are drilled into our subconscious. You are considered “too old” to colour your hair red; backpacking trips come with age limits, because solo travel is supposedly only a young person’s thing. That’s how deeply entrenched our age bias is.

In a country like India, the age bias goes out of whack when it comes to women – and even before you actually grow old. Ageism mixed with some good old sexism, ensures that older women will invariably get a raw deal. While my 36-year-old single female cousin is frequently sent rishtas of divorcee men or those way older than her, another male cousin is married to a girl 10 years younger to him. Obviously, no one bats an eyelid at my male cousin.

In 2015, a survey established that elderly senior men are given medical preference over elderly senior women in a household. We see it in Bollywood too both off-screen and on-screen, where it’s okay for a 50-year-old actor to romance a 20-something heroine, but the reverse is rarely true.

So how do we address something that we do not even consider a problem? Do old people go out on the streets and protest against this discrimination? Not all is grim, as our courts have time and again ruled against ageism. For instance, in 2017, when they made LLB studies open to people of all ages.

What can change though, is our attitudes toward those not as old as us. We are someday going to be on the other side of the spectrum after all.

Yet, if that is too idealistic a scenario, sooner or later the market is going to realise what a goldmine older folks are. As the New Yorker essay puts it: “Yet older people, increasingly, aren’t simply creeping off into a twilit world of shuffleboard and sudoku… Old people have most of the money. Thirty years ago, households headed by those over sixty-five were ten times as wealthy as those under thirty-five; now they’re fifty times as wealthy. So the elderly are a huge market. Think how often you’ve seen ads selling the twin bathtubs of Cialis and the guy tossing the football through the tire of Levitra.”

Whether it’s market forces, or a shift in social perspectives, a change in our attitude toward ageism can’t come soon enough for me. You should feel the same way, because the clock is ticking for us all.