Overcome "ageism"

Brian Beale

A friend of mine recently asked me if I knew what type of segregation was most prominent in the U.S. My mind, of course, immediately turned toward the common social dividers: race, income, status.

Black and white?

No, he said—it wasn’t racial.

Rich and poor? No again.

Burbs and urbs? Uh-uh.

After a few more minutes of racking my brain I threw up the white flag, and he clued me in: the most common type of segregation in the U.S. today, according to him, is age segregation.

Having been so baffled by his question previously, I quickly tried to shoot down his answer and justify myself. But I couldn’t. Think about it: you have probably had many more meaningful or semi-meaningful relationships across racial, economic, or status lines than across the steel wall of age.

Even within the family unit, close parent-child relationships are rare—it is unlikely that you share with your parents half of what you share with your roommate or college companions (or classmates, for that matter). Yes, yes, call it old-fashioned—but even that term, “old-fashioned,” reveals our natural bias against age.

By not engaging in close relationships with people 20 or more years older than us, we expose our subconscious belief that the elderly (or more elderly than ourselves) are not worth befriending or spending time with. Or at least, we reveal our belief that the social stigma of doing so outweighs the benefits.

So here’s the question: is our aversion to relationships across the generational gap based on legitimate evidence of their lack of benefit? Or to say that in a less wordy way: are we not befriending older people because they’re not worth befriending?

I say no.

And I back this no by one simple example. According to U.S. law, an individual cannot become president until he or she reaches the age of 35. Clearly, the idea behind this regulation is that generally (not always) a 35-year-old is wiser (has more life experiences, is better able to make decisions, is less variable or emotionally-driven) than someone younger.

In practice, we assert that age produces something in a person that is beneficial. In attitude, we assert the opposite. We don’t want a 19-year-old jock or emo who is flunking political science to make our national decisions, but we want him or her to be our only friend and to influence everything we do.

We don’t want a 35-year-old father and businessman to be even one of our friends and to influence our daily choices, but we want him to make our national decisions. I understand the social hurdles that stand in the way of reversing our befriending trends, but I can’t help wondering if maybe Job was right: “With aged men is wisdom, In length of days understanding.”