As I Am Now, So You Will Be; Your Ageism Is Hypocrisy
A lovely, stylish 65-year-old woman crossed the room to where her 29-year-old lover, an exceptionally beautiful man, was talking to a stranger. “Is he your son?” the stranger asked.
“No,” she replied with a grin. “He’s my boyfriend.”
After a quick double-take, the stranger gave the woman an enthusiastic high five. Her boyfriend, also grinning, asked “Where’s my high five?”
This happened. Why does it seem so improbable? Because when it comes to aging, double standards are everywhere, especially for women.
Silver hair on young woman? She’s styling. Silver hair on older woman? She’s let herself go.
Digital natives? Hot properties. Experienced executives? Incompetent relics.
Trendy outfit on young person? Sharp. Trendy outfit on older person? Pathetic.
Amorously entwined twenty-somethings? Hot. Amorously entwined seventy-somethings? Cute. Or gross.
Think of aging as something unattractive that happens to old people, or celebrities, or your parents? Think again. Aging is living, and everyone is doing it. Growing old is the one universal human experience. It’s also the one thing every person aspires to: no one wants to die young.
Why are we so apprehensive about it? Because our ageist and capitalist culture frames aging as a problem to be “solved,” a disease to be “cured”—and what a market, because everyone’s going to come down with it! And because all prejudice pits people against each other—in this case the young against the no-longer-young—in order to maintain the status quo so things stay comfy for those at the top of the food chain. That includes a lot of the people celebrated in this magazine— which, in fairness, is named Flaunt.
We all have double standards, because we’re not robots, because we’re social beings, because the way we think about a given behavior depends on who’s doing it, because we want life to feel fair and our choices to feel right (I’ve raised my kid to think for herself; his is a disobedient brat!). A double standard is a way of justifying or legitimizing a flawed way of thinking—a prejudice or bias—whether about parenting styles or what someone’s age says about them. It’s a way of rationalizing inequity and papering over our discomfort with difference.
We’re prejudiced any time we make an assumption about a person based on a group they belong to. It’s especially punishing when the bias is based on something we can’t change about ourselves, like skin color or country of origin or age. Age bias means making assumptions about a person or group of people—what they’re capable of, or listening to, or secretly yearn for—based on how old we think they are. That’s being ageist.
All prejudice relies on “othering”: seeing a group of people as “other” than us. The strange thing about ageism? That “other” is us. Ageism is prejudice against our own future selves. A double standard turns what’s acceptable for one group into something that another group shouldn’t be allowed to get away with. The strange thing about ageism? The group that’s “getting away with something” is either the group we hope to live long enough to join or the group we used to belong to (ageism cuts both ways, and young people experience a lot of it).
Until we embark on the uncomfortable task of examining our largely unconscious bias, we remain hostage to the negative myths and stereotypes about aging that bombard us from the media and popular culture, from childhood into old age. Deeply entrenched and unexamined double standards around aging divide us, cost us money, fill us with needless dread, and cripple our personal and professional lives.
Age discrimination in the workplace is rampant. Often expected to work for free, youngers can’t get hired because they lack experience while olders can’t get hired because they have too much of it. How’s that for a double standard? The personal and economic consequences are devastating, especially for the hundreds of thousands of older Americans whose wealth of knowledge disqualifies them from being able to draw on it. How’s that for a soul-crushing mindfuck?
That’s despite abundant evidence showing that not one negative stereotype about older workers holds up under scrutiny, and that age- diverse teams are more effective, especially in creative fields. That’s despite the sheer dumbness of it: Who’s going to take care of your grandparents—and you in turn—if elders are forced out of the job market?
The double standard is pervasive in tech, where entrepreneurs over age 50 struggle to get funded even though they’re twice as likely to succeed as those in their twenties. It’s biting youngers in Silicon Valley too, where engineers are getting Botoxed and hair-plugged before key interviews. These are skilled white men in their 30’s, so imagine the effect further down the food chain. It’s arguably worse in Hollywood, where a 2017 survey of movies nominated for Best Picture found that less than 12% of “speaking or named characters” were age 60 and up, and many of them were portrayed as impaired. The vast majority—shocker!—were white, male, and straight.
Google “double standard+aging” and you get a famous essay by Susan Sontag, who defined it as the social convention that aging enhances a man but progressively destroys a woman. A woman’s market value declines along with her fertility, especially in a heterosexist world, but how much sex is for making babies? And when’s the last time you heard a woman worrying about her date’s sperm being past its prime? (It happens.) This double standard is doubly mindless and unfair in view of the fact that women hit their sexual prime much later than men, making them highly compatible lovers for younger men. A big age difference makes men less likely to feel they have to compete in the tiresome ways that patriarchy dictates.
We get better at sex. People genuinely interested in great sex between equals celebrate confidence and experience—the province of “cougars,” and MILFS, and GILFS. You’d think the idea of getting laid to the end would make us happy, but aversion to older sexuality runs deep. Behavior that’s ignored, even commended, among the young provokes invective at the other end of the spectrum. Older guys get labeled “creepy old men” for engaging in perfectly normal behavior like watching porn or admiring someone who’s hot. It’s a hurtful slur that’s almost impossible to refute. People are creeps because they’re creeps, not because they’re over a certain age.
Between our ears:
Considering Botox in your twenties or thirties for “wrinkle prevention?” Think about who profits from your anxiety. Flinching because the wrinkle ship has sailed? Think about who profits from your self-loathing. Trying to “pass” for younger versions of ourselves is like a gay person trying to pass for straight, or a person of color for white. These behaviors aren’t good for us, because they’re rooted in shame about something that shouldn’t be shameful. They also give a pass to the underlying discrimination that makes these behaviors understandable. Like enticements to look thinner or whiter, appeals to look younger are straight-up bigotry. We pay a high price when we buy into them, and it’s not healthy to go through life dreading our futures.
If aging is so awful, how come no one actually wants to go back to their youth? Go ahead, ask some older people. Reflecting the sad fact that few Americans have age-diverse friendships, Flaunt is in no place to find those older voices, but maybe that’ll change as the movement to dismantle ageism gains momentum. Age segregation impoverishes us because it cuts us off from most of humanity. Exchanging skills and stories across generations is the natural order of things. Let’s examine our double standards, think about how to shape the multi-generational society that we all hope to live long enough to inhabit, and come together at all ages to make it happen.
Illustrated by Jacob Thomas