Even many old people deny it exists but ageism is a serious problem. In just one manifestation of its impact, age discrimination in the workplace begins as early as age 40 and picks up speed from there.
Often, when workers many years younger than retirement age are laid off, they never work again in their field. They end up in low paying jobs unrelated to their area of expertise and some never find another job at all. Here are the common results of those events:
• They lose their homes because they can no longer afford the mortgage.
• The kids are on their own to pay for college.
• They can no longer afford health coverage.
• Stress ends marriages.
• Retirement savings are emptied for living expenses.
• In what should have been their highest-earning years paying off the mortgage, building up Social Security and other retirement funds, they are instead forced to make much lower contributions (if they can do that at all), dramatically cutting their income for the rest of their lives.
As a result, many who were previously solid members of the middle class are consigned to an old age of poverty that would not have happened if the culture had allowed them to work a normal span of time.
Ageism is the last acceptable prejudice. Even with the common tragedies as detailed above, derogatory references and jokes about old age are easy laugh-getters and exist in all media – movies, television, internet, books, magazines, newspapers along with everyday conversation.
It is so ubiquitous that many people don't even notice the nasty jokes or the knee-jerk denials of age so casually tossed off and when it is pointed out to them, they think it's okay because it's always been that way.
Don't be so sensitive, people say – even old people – when anyone (like me) points out the problem. Just ignore them, they tell me never seeing beyond themselves the harm that is done to all old people by the constant use of derogatory language.
Last Friday during his trip to Asia, President Barack Obama held a town hall meeting with the Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative in Malaysia. During the question-and-answer period, a student began thusly: “Since you are ageing toward a very senior life...”
You don't need to be told this caused a lot of laughter in the room. Obama got off a one-liner or two with the kid about his gray hair and mugged for the audience about being insulted. Finally, the young man finished his question:
”What do you want to see from young people like us in the future when you are old?”
Watch now how our president who, at age 54, is eligible for 50-plus discounts and retirement communities, handles that:
There he is, the leader of the free world at his charming best. Obama doesn't get accused of being smooth for nothin' and he's hard to resist.
But he uses his gift, in this case, to perpetuate one of our worst stereotypes (worst because so many refuse to believe it exists at all): that there's nothing good about being old and that it's an insult to be truthful about it. Then he uses the young man's honesty to take some friendly-sounding umbrage.
Friendly-sounding, but making it clear that he doesn't want to be tagged as old.
What chance do old people have to gain any respect if even the president disparages their appearance.
As the video ends abruptly, I don't know if Obama goes on to address the student's serious and important question but I suspect he does – it's in his nature. Whatever he says, however, the only part that was broadcast around the world on television and made any impact was his disdain and disrespect for old age.
The town hall was 90 minutes long and if you are up for it (I was not) you can see the whole thing here.