Ageism Age Bomb

AGE-BOMB II/Image: Michael Moffa

Submerged in, if not subscribing to what critics would describe as our out-of-control(-)youth cult(ure), we can be forgiven for taking it for granted, even though we should not. But that absolution does not also absolve us from making an effort to understand how the youth culture (and its flip side, ageism) has become such a dominant cultural and economic force —a pervasive influence ranging from the screening of MTV gangsta’ videos to the screening of job seekers, young and older. To foster that kind of understanding, the following factors—including economic, demographic, medical and more broadly cultural—are worth noting:

The “WAgeist Dilemma”: One source of ageism springs from the workplace itself. The older worker is an easy target for a facile employment-focused ageist argument. If the older worker wants to work near or past retirement, (s)he faces criticism for displacing a younger job-seeker (especially when, as is the case now, jobs are scarce). On the other hand, if (s)he retires early or on schedule, ageists will complain that (s)he is an unproductive burden on the backs of tax-paying younger people and a weight on a struggling economy.

Damned if (s)he does, damned if (s)he doesn’t. Call this the ageist “WAgeist Dilemma”—the alleged predicament of older workers who will be faulted for choosing between working for wages or retiring on a government pension funded by the wages of younger people, as well as by the wages of their own earlier years of employment. Cogent or not, the WAgeist Dilemma is grist for an ageist’s mill.

Scarcity value of youth: Basic principles of economics suggest that anything that has intrinsic or exchange value becomes more valuable if it becomes scarce. Youth is no exception. As parents in the developed and developing worlds have fewer children, they invest more per child as a “store of wealth” and maturing asset, and accordingly pin higher and higher hopes on the one child many now limit themselves to, i.e., they expect proportionately higher levels of success, a.k.a. ROI per child.

Likewise, declining birth rates throughout the Western world, and elsewhere, e.g., China and Japan, mean that youth is an increasingly scarce commodity, like oil, to be prized, but, unlike oil, also to be preserved. Accordingly, youth’s cultural and economic value, relative to older age, will increase as older people fail to become equally scarce as a proportion of the total population and instead become, on the contrary, both more numerous in absolute and relative terms,  and also less valued (because of other perceived “drawbacks”).

Dissemination and commercialization of health, nutrition and fitness information: The digital mass-media era’s broad and instantaneous access to information about aging, health, nutrition and fitness keeps the problems, solutions and potential of aging on the front fat-burner, especially because information is, more than ever, a money-making commodity.

The vanishing afterlife: The decline in the influence of religion makes death a scarier prospect for many—an inevitability now to be delayed as long as possible, given the absence of imagined comforting guarantees of an afterlife. Accordingly, to the extent that staving off unrewarded death is associated with battling its harbingers, such as wrinkles and varicose veins, death-resistant youthfulness replaces traditional end-of-life spiritual acquiescence, in an attempt to take “do not go gently” into that night to the next level, “Do not go, period.”

Life extension and delayed aging: We now have much longer life expectancies than our forbears only 60 years ago, e.g., a Canadian baby will, on average, have eleven more years to read this article than one born in 1950 would and will have. This means eleven more years of health and social management issues best dealt with by staying youthful, if not young, as long as possible.

Disappearance of the extended nuclear family: Caring for, caring about, learning from, otherwise interacting with and respecting the elderly have diminished to the extent that the role of the extended family or clan-based intergenerational lifestyle has shrunk to insignificance where it hasn’t already completely vanished.

One result of the disintegration of the multi-generational family is the loss of the guaranteed retirement safety net one’s children and grandchildren used to represent. This is a fact not only of life in America, but also in faraway places like China, where the double-whammy of fewer children who could provide direct support and the resultant shrinking younger workforce to indirectly (through taxes) support the elderly also means greater post-retirement peril.

This is how this tattered-safety-net scenario is unfolding in China: “In the 1990s, practically every Chinese woman approaching retirement age had at least one son to turn to: In that time, all but 8 percent of Chinese women who were reaching the age of 60 had given birth to at least one male child. By 2025 the corresponding proportion of older women who have borne no sons will increase to about 30 percent, meaning that one in three elderly couples will have no sons as they head toward retirement age.” (Source: Nicholas Eberstad, Far Eastern Economic Review, December 2009). [But note how Chinese grandparents have traditionally fared better, below.]  By obvious implication, the same elderly couples will have to depend on their daughters and sons-in-law for filial support that traditionally has been more available and forthcoming from the dwindling numbers of sons.

As a consequence of this imperiled safety net, becoming old is now something to be slowed and delayed as long as possible, along with the onset of any indicators that suggest one may become a burden to one’s family, friends or employer.

  • Cultural preoccupation with physical power: Physical power, as well as health, is a major modern fixation and presumed correlate of youth. Hence, to the extent that physical power and its iconic chiseled physique have become a preoccupation of our culture, it has made youth a correlated obsession. Somehow, despite the fact that other forms of power associated with age, including wealth, dwarf a pair of biceps and a six-pack, the easier attainability of a ripped look than of senatorial influence seems to have fueled its popularity.
  • Rapid technological innovation and obsolescence: Like the now-obsolete products they made during the age of manufacturing with equally now-obsolete technologies, your grandparents are far likelier to be relegated to the scrap-heap of history in their lifetimes than their grandparents were. Blame rapidly evolving technology for that and for the prospect of your suffering a similar fate earlier and more completely, if you don’t keep up as the pace of technological innovation and replacement ceaselessly quickens.
  • Decline of ancestor worship: Although this is a factor in the decline of reverence for elders, it is overrated, since only one Chinese or Japanese I ever met could identify any ancestor earlier than a grandparent.
  • Outsourcing of parental and grandparental services: The reassignment of traditional grandparental family support services, e.g., child minding, to commercial third parties, correlates with a decline in the economic and therefore emotional importance of the elderly. At least, this is the case in Western cultures, which is precisely the opposite of Chinese culture as I experienced it firsthand. Virtually all Chinese I met during my years there revered their grandparents, not least because very often the latter were their de facto parents, raising the children whose parents had to migrate elsewhere to work or were simply too busy with work to look after the children for whose future they ceaselessly toiled.

Perhaps this is why, in general, my female Chinese friends are tolerant of age differences between themselves and the men in their lives as friends or partners, and why some of them wept so much upon the death of a grandparent. However, as noted above, Chinese grandparents, like Chinese parents, are increasingly facing tougher marginalized futures, which may translate into high levels of respect unmatched by comparable levels of support.

  • Rapid social change: An obvious consequence of endless technological innovation is ceaseless and accelerating social change, which has as one of its predictable casualties what used to pass for the “wisdom” of elders, transformed by advancing technology into mere folklore, historical curiosities, outdated annoyances, quaint anachronisms or boring stories that have to fill in evenings on the nights youth-oriented American Idol is not on.
  • Future orientation: The frontier and future-oriented mentality of America orients its people toward what is to come, not to what has come before, with the result that progress counts more than tradition, the future more than the past, the young more than the old, and, as always and everywhere, and even more now, the grandchild more than the grandparent.

As Robert L. Heilbroner, whose economics treatise The Worldly Philosophers has been second in sales to only Paul Samuelson’s endlessly reissued and updated textbook, Economics, said in his 1960 best-selling The Future as History, “If the future seems to us a kind of limbo, a repository of endless surprises, it is because we no longer see it as the expected culmination of the past, as the growing edge of the present. More than anything else, our disorientation before the future reveals a loss of our historic identity, an incapacity to grasp out historic situation.” That disorientation to and disconnection from the past is mirrored in our disorientation to and disconnection from the lives of those who are old or merely older.

  • Manipulative “divide-and-conquer” marketing: Mass production and mass marketing are inherently self-contradictory, for, on the one hand, they are designed to sell basically the same thing to as many people as possible, while, on the other, their success depends on the illusion (propped up by “customization”, “status” and “niche”) that there is something very special about the individual, the product/service or the market target-group to which he belongs that purchases the marketed goods and services.

Generational marketing is but one very blatant illustration and application of this conflicted, self-contradictory “divide-and-conquer” technique: Sell the young on the idea that they are, as a group, if not also individually, all so special and better than anyone older; then sell them all the same thing and hope they don’t notice how that dilutes their individual “specialness”, which, after all, is the actual ultimate prize and goal in a culture in which striving to be individually “special” is a special ambition.

In general, the market deals with this contradiction between mass marketing and status striving by making its own products obsolete as quickly as possible, like last year’s Rolex, to be replaced by yet another “ultimate” status enhancer.

  • Salacious salesmanship: Using sex and plenty of it to explicitly or subliminally sell everything usually means using young sex. Despite their commercial success, Viagra and Cialis ads are rarely as compelling as they are amusing, which is all they have to be in order to legitimize and destigmatize their use. In the end and in general, young and sexy trumps old and funny in most corporate boardrooms, private bedrooms, movies, magazines and minds.
  • Juvenilization of Adulthood: Imitation is commonly taken to be a form of flattery. But when kids and their “tween” fashions copy the (un)dress of Britney Spears or Bikini Barbie, that imitation makes the adult role model a victim of her own success, as her style and look are appropriated and redefined by a much younger age cohort—much as the early automobile’s aristocratic punch as a luxury status symbol diminished upon its mass permeation to the lower economic and demographic strata of society.

Bikini-bottom line: In a youth-oriented culture like ours, kids will steal whatever they don’t reject that belongs to adults, stripping the adult world of its historically erstwhile esteemed status. It doesn’t matter that tweens are not applying for jobs; for now, they are, by cultural diffusion of the meme of youth-fixation, contributing to the battering of the image of anybody older than them, including anyone older than you and older than your youngest job applicant.

  • Alzheimer’s: Because Alzheimer’s disease is an affliction of the later years of life, it may seem logical to argue that staving off visible signs of aging means staving off serious cognitive decline. Flawed argument or not, the Alzehimer’s logic gives a sharper edge to Mick Jagger’s “what a drag it is getting old” line in the Rolling Stones now-ancient song “Mother’s Little Helper”.
  • The Goo-Google Generation: With an obvious skewing toward the young and frivolous, key culture and market drivers now prominently include many at-best still forming, at-worst formless culture-shapers like Justin Beiber, 17, whose YouTube goo-goo video “Oh Baby”, at an utterly undeserved 590,697,450 views, completely buries anything by the vastly more polished Elton John, 64, whose Google-owned YouTube best tally is “Your Song” at 28,168,048. Madonna, despite her professional longevity and youthful persona, fares even worse: Her YouTube highest count is her recently posted decent (Parthian?) shot at perpetual youth and the youth market, “Give It 2 Me” (24,457,927), trailed by her now-classic “Celebration” (18,461,938­), uploaded, like Beiber’s “Oh Baby”, one year ago.

Up against the kid, the older singers and the older songs (recorded when the singers were young) both lose—to younger talent, you think? Really?

It’s not just older entertainers who are overlooked or altogether invisible. Other older employed professionals are suffering too: Barack Obama, 50—whose historic inauguration, posted much earlier than Bieber’s, has garnered only 4,809,008 YouTube views, i.e., 1/123rd of Beiber’s “Oh Baby”; Stephen Hawking, 69—with a current count of 1,912,222 YouTube views of his views about the universe (1/310th) and Robert L. Heilbroner—whose 1999 1-hour interview, before his death in 2004, about his multi-millions-sold, seminal blockbuster book, The Worldly Philosophers, has been seen only a measly 2,416 times (1/246,000th of Bieber’s juvenile “Oh Baby”). Even the Roswell aliens, presumably older than Justin Bieber and more skilled, paled in comparison, with a maximum single video total of only 1,882,066, despite having been posted five years earlier.

In (Missing) Praise of Older Women

Throttled by the grip of the youth culture, mature female professionals don’t fare any better: According to a recent Coed Magazine survey, reported by ABC news, the top 10 Googled females (and their ages, which I’ve inserted) are as follows (with the full list of 50 at the ABC report):

10. Avril Lavigne (26)

9. Paris Hilton (30)

8. Miley Cyrus (18)

7. Justin Bieber (17) [Note: This is Coed Magazine’s or the general public’s mistake or idea of a joke, not mine, unless teenage androgyny is now a way of being female. It’s actually on the original Coed Magazine list and ABC’s online reprint of it.]

6. Britney Spears (30)

5. Rihanna (23)

4. Beyonce (29)

3. Madonna (52)

2. Kesha (24)

1. Lady GaGa (25)

For a female professional who is neither an entertainer nor willing to wear a meat dress, this is discouraging in so many ways and at so many levels: Not only are the truly vital, indispensable professions, e.g., medicine, science, technology, teaching, diplomacy, health, business, law, government, engineering, and, of course, recruiting, completely absent from this top-10 list, no one over 30, except Madonna, made it—and then probably only by dancing and dressing like she’s 29 or Lady Gaga.

If it’s any comfort, it should be noted that first lady Michelle Obama made the list at No. 21 and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at No. 32. Less comforting is the inclusion of Sarah Palin at No. 18.

You may be tempted to argue that if both Google and Google-owned YouTube are overwhelmingly “goo-google” youth-dominated platforms, it should be unsurprising that they results are so skewed to the very young side of life. But, even if that is a sound argument, it merely necessitates other questions: Why is their youthful audience, as a generation and a half, seemingly so self-focused and unreflectively ageist? Is the youth-oriented content of YouTube and Google searches primarily a contributing cause and/or one of various consequences of ageism?

This latter question is much like the question of why horror movies of the 20th century invariably targeted sexy teens as the monsters’ victims of choice—a matter of supply, or of demand?

In those movies, the script often blamed us for creating these monsters, e.g., Godzilla, by testing A-bombs and H-bombs. As is the case with those bombs, the damage inflicted by the Age-Bomb, its fallout and shockwaves extends far beyond its ground-zero, even into your office and the minds of the young and the older.

However, unlike the bombs in those now classic movies, the Age-Bomb doesn’t create a monster.

It is the monster.

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