Ageism for being old — when you are still young
Words by Dr. Ruth V. Walker, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology Gerontology Program, Missouri.
One of the worst kept secrets about social science researchers is that they like to study themselves. I am no different. So when I was deciding what my research topic was going to be for my dissertation, a large research study I had to complete in order to earn my PhD, I turned to myself. I was interested in studying ageism and wanted to contribute something meaningful to what researchers already knew about the topic. As a 34-year-old woman, researchers studying ageism would likely argue that I have never experienced it, since I am still considered a young adult. However, I believed I had already gotten a taste in my personal life of what it was like to be treated differently for your age. Although there are several stories on this site detailing reverse ageism (ageism for being young), I was interested in learning more about ageism for being old… when you are still young.
The first time I remember someone making me really think about my future (older) self was in my early 20s. An older man once came up to me when I was working to tell me that I needed to stop plucking my eyebrows or I would regret it when I was penciling them in when I was older. While I lamented the loss of the stylishly thin eyebrows of the 90s, and the fact that my eyebrows stopped growing in thick after a disastrous waxing incident in my teens, I was reminded that even as a young woman I was expected to be proactive and mindful of how my appearance as an older woman would be impacted by the decisions I was making now. No one wants an ugly older woman. Clearly I needed to shape up and get with the program or I would live to regret it.
"As a 34-year-old woman, researchers studying ageism would likely argue that I have never experienced it, since I am still considered a young adult. However, I believed I had already gotten a taste in my personal life of what it was like to be treated differently for your age."
Dr. Ruth V. Walker.
Years later, my niece told me that I could be mistaken for her sister… if I was wearing large sunglasses to disguise my thin eyebrows and the beginnings of laugh lines around my eyes that belied my age. Family members are funny like that. As family, they feel comfortable making comments about your appearance or your age that friends, acquaintances, and strangers would not typically feel comfortable saying. At least not to your face. Sometimes those comments are meant to be compliments, like above, or sometimes they are meant to be protective. Like when the same niece let me know I was too old to wear a particular dress I was trying on while shopping with her. She told me it looked like I was, “trying too hard” to look young. I’m sure she was just doing her part to save me from the inevitable looks and judgement I would get from others. But I digress.
Now that I’m in my thirties, I have started getting other types of comments from others, predominantly children. For example, around a year ago I was reviewing a middle school girl's science project for a fair when she innocently asked if I needed to view her results in a larger font. She expressed concern that, due to my age, I was unable to read the (somewhat large) print on her poster.
Ultimately, these experiences have taught me two lessons: (1) age is relative, and definitions of what it means to be “old” vary. To a young child, I am ancient. And they have been taught that ancient beings are defective by television, literature, and the media. (2) I have also been taught that, as an aging woman, I need to be ever vigilant because my appearance, like my age, is tied to my worth and needs constant attention and upkeep.
"How we and others perceive our age is affected by the situation and the context we are in. If our culture viewed all ages positively, that would not be an issue for any of us."
Dr. Ruth V. Walker.
Since many wonderful researchers have already studied and written extensively about the importance of appearance to aging women, I decided to focus, in part, on exploring whether other young and middle-aged adults had experienced ageist comments and treatment because they were “too old,” even though they had not yet reached older adulthood. So I set out to get answers by asking a total of 70 men and women from 22-87 years old to tell me their stories about how they have been treated due to their age.
I found that, yes, there were some younger and middle-aged adults who did report being treated in ageist ways typically reported by older adults. For example, a Marine in his early thirties was routinely called “grandpa” by his younger co-workers and offered extra assistance with physically demanding tasks under the impression that he was “too old” to complete the tasks himself. Since most of people he works with are around 19-20 years old, he has been called a “grandpa” since he was in his mid-twenties.
The most commonly reported ageism for being older when the participant was young or middle-aged came from parents. Young and middle-aged parents were often told by their children that they were “dinosaurs,” they did not know how to utilize technology, or could not complete physically demanding tasks. Like my experience with the science fair student, the Marine and the parents were considered “old” by younger people around them.
"I was interested in learning more about ageism for being old… when you are still young."
Dr. Ruth V. Walker.
In the end it turns out that age is just one of many social identity categories (e.g., race, gender, etc.) whose definitions vary depending on the situation. When that Marine is in most environments outside of work, he is considered a physically fit young man. But the moment he walks into work, an environment where he is 10 years older than most of his co-workers, he becomes “grandpa.” This is a feeling many of us can relate to. I walk into a classroom to teach, and I am generally the oldest or one of the oldest people there. But I walk into a faculty meeting, and I am generally one of the youngest people there. How we and others perceive our age is affected by the situation and the context we are in. If our culture viewed all ages positively, that would not be an issue for any of us.
"In the end it turns out that age is just one of many social identity categories (e.g., race, gender, etc.) whose definitions vary depending on the situation."
Dr. Ruth V. Walker.
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