Since the advent of industrialization, the most valuable human beings have been those of working age, as they generate the income that fuels economic growth. And, because of our emphasis on economic status in the West, we have begun to marginalize and ignore those who are too young or too old to make a financial contribution.
Ageism is a damning form of exclusion because it subverts the very mechanism that enabled us to endure as a species. Early humans thrived because their young people were their most valuable asset as the future hunters and gatherers, and the elders who were no longer active were still esteemed for their wisdom and moral guidance.
But somewhere along the way we’ve lost this framework. Children have been ignored and suffered extreme exploitation from the agrarian revolution up until the campaigns to end child labour during the Industrial Revolution, and one could argue that they are exploited even to this day due to their naivety: advertisers have mercilessly marketed products to children and teenagers that at best are trivial distractions and at worst are a health hazard – such a sugar-laden food and drink. Meanwhile the older generation tends to look back wistfully at the ‘good old days’, lamenting the loss of homogenous communities formed of people from similar backgrounds, often connected by extended family ties or friendships that have lasted generations. In this environment, older people were still treated as elders within their communities by the younger members, and were afforded a level of care and respect unknown today.
However, de-industrialization and the deregulation of banking and migration in the latter decades of the last century saw the end of these harmonized communities. In tune with the mantra of 1980s individualism, earners moved away from their traditional neighbourhoods and the focus became the nuclear family, with grandparents often not considered part of the immediate family. The result was separation, with many young people growing up without regular contact with their grandparents, so that wisdom was no longer being passed down from the older generation, and their natural place within the extended family was gone, leaving many at risk of isolation and loneliness. And with that age became an ‘other’ group, with major detrimental consequences for its members.
This separation of the younger and older generations in the UK and US created both a social and political divide, and fast-moving social changes would grow this generational gap even further. Voting behaviour tells us that grandparents tend towards socially conservative views, with their grandchildren on the liberal side, and with younger people taking longer to enter the job and property markets than previous generations, the divide has got wider still.
The result has been the negative stereotyping of each generation by the other: younger people are of course noisy, lazy, fickle, disengaged, disrespectful of authority, and lacking in morals and commitment, while older people are cantankerous, slow, out of touch, feeble, boring, backwards-looking, and intolerant. These negative stereotypes have seeped into society and become established. Socially, we’ve become less willing to embrace and learn from the ‘other’ age, with both old and young being subject to neglect, condescension, and, in the worst cases, abuse by the systems that are meant to care for them.
Even if we discount empathy and social justice, we should all be invested in addressing these imbalances in society, since age is one of life’s universal truths. For most of us, our lives will be bookended by a lack of independence – when we are too young, too frail, or otherwise too challenged to care for ourselves. Wouldn’t we all agree that to be independent and treated with respect is a state we would hope to enjoy for as much of our lives as possible?
From Diversify by June Sarpong. Copyright (c) 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of Harper Collins Publishers.
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