If you know me or have read any of my blog posts, you probably are aware that I am a baby boomer citizen with a low threshold of tolerance for age discrimination. I have a reputation for challenging people who think that assigning an intelligence factor to generational differences is anything other than a myth. In polite company, most people agree with the truth that people in all generational cohorts should be valued on their contribution to society instead of assuming that age stereotypes are real. However, when their guard is down, real gut feelings about age are spilled out into conversation and reveals that the simulated tolerance of other generations is only lip service. This insidious form of discrimination invades all aspects of our lives, and for the most part, it goes unchallenged. I am personally offended when I am shrugged off as an unimportant outsider or subjected to blatant ageism language in everyday conversation. Do I have to go on a rant to call someone’s attention to the fact that this is not right? My wife and some of my friends already have heard the rant, so maybe I should make it public.
If I started this exposé on discriminatory behavior by saying that I was building a job board that would be for straight white males only, the outcry could be heard into the far regions of space. We have been conditioned, and rightly so, to be outraged by homophobic, racist or sexist remarks. We have accepted as truth the fact that diversity of thought in the workplace is not conditional based on sexual orientation, ethnicity, or gender. People have been fired from their jobs for using stereotypical derogatory terms in casual conversation. This strict interpretation is not just some human resources nonsense as it has found its way into the courts and our employment laws. With few exceptions, there is very little wiggle room in determining right and wrong. So why does age discrimination not incite the same degree of outrage? That is not a rhetorical question. I recognize the inherent privilege of my race, but this old angry white guy wants to know the answer!
So what is this seed that grew into an angry rant? How about:
- A few weeks ago, I challenged one of the regular writers for Mashable on his Twitter comments about a scheduled chat with legendary musician Neil Young. He repeatedly implied that at age 67, this event was some sort of freak of nature. When confronted directly by me (a boomer on Twitter!), he apologized for being age insensitive. Still, he later un-did the apology by repeating that most people Neil’s generation didn’t understand Twitter. He still writes for Mashable.
- Recently I had the opportunity to meet one of our great American heroes, Senator John McCain. The picture of me shaking hands with him generated comments about how it was a good thing that this relic never got elected to the White House. Really? You may disagree with his politics, but whatever happened to respectful treatment of patriots who gave so much for their country? At age 76, he is more vital and mentally alert than some people half his age.
- I read an article last week about how progressive the modern workplace has become since we now have organizations where boomers report to millennials. The names of the generations have changed, but the short-sighted author was speaking out of bias rather than experience or fact. Is this new? About an eon ago, when I was a young upstart 26-year old manager, I had people 20 years my senior reporting to me. Yes, I agree that this is a beneficial and productive relationship, just not a new one.
- Glassdoor recently selected Facebook as the #1 Company to work for based on comments submitted to its website. I noticed one significant factor missing in their slick self-congratulatory video about how good it was to work at Facebook: Nobody looks like me. This is true of many other youth-oriented companies that perpetually advertise a culture of young and energetic employees. Most will depict a diverse population visually ethnically, but nobody has gray hair. They will do fine, but how much better could it be?
- Last week on the 12/12/12 Benefit concert for victims of Hurricane Sandy, all of Twitter was abuzz about the age of some of the performers. Most of the rhetoric from the “Oh they’re so over!” crowd was about how the has-beens were not as good as today’s musicians. Well, I’ve heard interviews with some of today’s great musicians that look to these classic performers as role models, revere them as idols, and respect the standards they established. Everybody is a critic, but why is there so little respect for a 70-year old musical genius named Paul McCartney?
I could go on. There is countless anecdotal evidence that ageism is excused rather than corrected. I’ll also be the first to say that the reverse situation is also true. Except for a few genuine examples of backlash against age discrimination, the older crowd is just as guilty of casually dismissing ideas coming from younger workers. They can also be extremely vocal about it in very abusive language. This can be rationalized (but never excused) as a fear of becoming obsolete, an unwillingness to seek new challenges, or just plain old green-eyed jealousy. Unfortunately, these artificial barriers are thrust up to prevent a meaningful dialog between groups of people who have so much to offer each other. Cooperation is so easy, but confrontation begets more confrontation.
When somebody asked me if I was planning to attend my high school reunion, my response was, ‘Why would I want to hang out with old people?” I was only half-joking because there is an element of truth in that comment. I enjoy the company of people with whom I have shared everyday experiences and have developed life-long friendships. But I also am proud of relationships with younger people who seem to breathe new life into any room when they enter. My only hope is that when I enter the room, the first impression is not “Damn, that guy is old!” but “Wow, I wonder if I could learn from him.” A friend told me that I should be asking myself, “What is there about me that would make young people want to talk to me?” When I stop asking that question, I will have forfeited the right to be offended when I am ignored.