Ageism, Power, and Intergenerational Animosity

Ageism is a two-way street, but is usually thought of only in terms of discrimination against the old. In federal employment law, protections are afforded to over-40s, but favoring an older worker over a younger one is not a problem.

In terms of power in society, almost every area is completely dominated by old people, from billionaires and boards of directors to major shareholders and company executives. In academia, tenured professors hold all the power and associate professors are disposable and work for scraps. The average age of the 113th Congress was 57.6 years, and our last presidential election was between two 70-year-olds.

The only voting blocs that politicians really cater to are “homeowners”, which is a codeword for landed upper middle-class people who are older and financially secure. They vote the most and donate the most because they want their land titles propped up in value through government policy. They want their healthcare and pensions. They want all taxes shifted away from accumulated wealth, which inevitably means that they want taxation redirected to the young. Meanwhile, political participation for the young is intrinsically a more altruistic endeavor, because they really don’t draw on government privilege for their existence.

Unfortunately, this also results in low turnout for young adults. More than half of eligible voters aged 18 to 24 stayed home for the 1998 midterms. Those young people who are politically inclined tend to care about a more diverse spectrum of issues, which creates divisions within liberal politics and keeps deciding power in the hands of older, more cohesive voters. This imbalance is likely to get worse, as declining fertility rates among younger generations will see seniors account for much higher proportions of overall population growth in the future than they did in the past. While the population aged 65 and older accounted for 18 percent of overall population growth from 1950 to 2010, they will account for 51 percent of population growth between 2010 and 2050.

Despite the imbalance of power, most conversations about age discrimination involve the young victimizing the old. Why is it that the reverse is rarely considered? Historically, the perception is that old people are responsible, with traditional moral values, and are inherently worthy of respect and capitulation. But at this point in time, statistically speaking, young people have far fewer vices.

Rates of teen pregnancy are at an historic low, and young people smoke less, exercise more and make better choices about what they put in their bodies. They are frugal, more secular, and more tolerant than any previous generation in memory. Millennials are the most educated generation in American history, with more than 63 percent of millennials having a Bachelor’s Degree. More than half either want to start a business or already have started one.

Sociology professor Judith Bessant has explored how two early-twentieth-century writers encouraged the perception of the young as less capable: psychologist G. Stanley Hall introduced the concept of ‘the adolescent’ and sociologist Talcott Parsons began the discussion of so-called ‘youth culture’. Both these men focussed on the most troublesome among young people, popularizing the notion that they are unpredictable, emotionally turbulent, and rebellious across the board.

Photo: Mikey G Ottawa Boom Box – Montreal 1987 via photopin (license)

Surely the expectation of rebellion or failure is partly responsible for that same rebellion, or that failure. A lack of rights, responsibilities, and respect can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and if young people are not afforded treatment as equals in society, they will continue to boycott full participation. Intergenerational animosity can manifest itself as a healthy and friendly competition, or it can mutate into genuine resentment. In many cases, we seem to be trending toward the latter.

The generalizations they made have persisted for decades. Meanwhile, young people are showing themselves to be more purpose-driven in their work than any previous generation. Research from Deloitte showed that while millennials in leadership positions believe profit is important, they prioritize purpose, innovation, and the wellbeing of themselves and the workforce. Despite their demonstrable ability and ambition, young people have been walled off from many avenues of power in society.

Having started out with huge student debt, many young people have trouble getting jobs at all, and old people are living longer than ever, closing leadership opportunities off even more. Further confounding this is that there are formal and informal metrics by which the old judge the performance of the young based on the values of the old. Often times these metrics are outmoded in certain fields.

This is particularly true of technology. Consider the ‘rapid iteration’ work style of software development, whereby timeliness and planning are discarded in favor of live progress-tracking and goals that can be discarded as quickly as they are set. How does this compare to the clunky, paper-pushing environment in which much of business and bureaucracy still operates?

Older people will thus downplay the importance of technological understanding as a metric for leadership abilities and play up the importance of skills with which older people have more experience, even if these skills are outmoded.

Older people, being in the position to create rules and regulations, have the ability to subtly introduce ways to increase their perceived value to an institution. This makes the legitimacy of authority in an institution circular in its reasoning. Why do we do what we do? Tradition! Why should this be done? Because I said so! If there are no definable goals, there are no checks and balances on power. No newcomers can challenge that power on a strategic or meritocratic basis because strategy and merit are nonexistent.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the erosion of the union movement has made it more difficult for those with blue collar jobs to rise to the middle class. Males with high school diplomas in 2010 actually made less money than their 1980 counterparts: $30,000 versus $39,750 in annual salary adjusted for inflation. The younger worker is more likely to be laid off if a “Last In, First Out” policy is in place, simply because she has not been with the company for as long. The assumption persists that experience equates to merit, when in many cases the opposite may be true.

Despite the genuine difficulties young people face, it’s not uncommon to hear it suggested that the young are lazy, entitled, or incapable. It is socially acceptable to vent frustration about dealing with young people and children in public places, or in extreme cases to implement high-frequency sound technology only audible to young people as a deterrent to keep young people away from certain areas entirely. The fact that more millennials are still living with their parents is easy fodder for mockery. Yet, it is the economic policies of previous generations that have caused the current economic climate.

Photo: Kurayba For Rent via photopin (license)

As a brief thought experiment, consider these common criticisms:

  • “Oppressed ethnic groups shouldn’t be treated like children!”
  • “Women shouldn’t be treated like children!”
  • “Disabled people shouldn’t be treated like children!”

Maybe there is something deeply wrong with the way that we treat children and young people. The ageism that flows towards the young is insidious, since it is the powerful attacking the powerless. Whereas the faintest hint of ageism towards the elderly is met with grave condemnation.

Experience is sometimes correlated with merit, but it is not merit itself. Furthermore, people “rise to the level of their incompetence.” Young people are less likely to have reached their capacities yet. Therefore, there is a lag that needs to be accounted for when comparing young and old. There should be more active competition on objective standards of merit instead of simply discounting a person on the basis of age. Certainly, people at their peak physical and intellectual capacities stand an increased chance of being the best choice for a position, if irrational biases against the young are properly accounted for.

WIthout young people, we simply wouldn’t have seen the kind of power that brought the civil rights movement to the United States. Many young people postponed their studies and early careers for the sake of fighting for change, against entrenched powers that were not necessarily malicious but which had no reason to upset the present structure of society. There are countless other instances of young people being the engine of critical improvements throughout history.

How do we create the best situation for everyone? Public office, corporate boards, taxes, and voting laws disproportionately favor the old. The old need young people’s new talents and energy. The young need to learn from the experiences of the old. Both groups can work for the benefit of the other. If people are given power in proportion to their merits, irrespective of age and other irrelevant factors, we would see a more balanced age distribution and much more sensible policy outcomes. No rational agent wants to give up power, but there are rare occasions where doing so is better for everyone, including the powerful.

Featured photo: DonkeyHotey MSM Spotlights (license)

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