Ageism Is An Old Idea


My crime books deliberately use elderly leading characters, which leads to quite a lot of debate with readers.

Somebody said to me recently, ‘We really look after older people here – there are care homes everywhere.’ I was horrified by her casual acceptance of the idea that the best thing to do with older people is leave them in a home, but with the disappearance of the multi-generational nuclear family few choices are left. Attitudes around the world are extraordinarily different. In some countries I regularly see four generations dining together. In the UK and US the old are often severed from the young.

In the young-dominant baby-booming 1950s the idea of being old became something almost horrific. Superman, above, is still clearly as fit as a fiddle but now shunned because of his age. But if he fared badly, Lois Lane had a much worse time.

Old maid, spinster, maiden aunt – there’s no equivalent for men…bachelor? She ‘wasted her life’ waiting for her man. And lately a pernicious new tone has arrived from the US, with the ‘OK Boomer’ brigade calling time on an older generation who, through no fault of their own, found themselves better off after working for a decent wage in times of booming economies. This in turn has started an ‘OK Flakes’ movement going back in the other direction, in which Boomers ridicule Flakes for fretting over gender-fluid toilets online rather than getting directly involved in real causes.

If the young have less money than the old the economy switches its sales demographic, which probably explains the curious de-emphasis on selling to the young now – where are young designs, young grass-roots fashions, young art movements? Is repurposing your grandad’s clothes and adding black tights as far as innovation goes? In a country as cosmopolitan as the UK why are there hardly any black writers or young artists?

With the government shifting retirement to 67 – and eventually, it’s mooted, to 70 – I’ve been witnessing a new problem. Many of my friends work in media, the creative economy being one of London’s largest money-drivers, but most media companies start to phase out their staff while they’re still in their early-to-mid fifties. It’s illegal to dump an expensive employee and replace them with someone younger, but a lot of companies are finding ways to do it while offering minimal severance packages.

Why is there such horror of growing old in the West? To me, there’s one obvious answer; a massive lack of contact between young and old, when they have so much to offer each other. But a young woman I met recently told me she wasn’t prepared to listen to older people because they had sexist views. I guess learning from the direct experience of others isn’t essential anymore.



16 comments on “Ageism Is An Old Idea”

  1. Jo W says:

    Looking at the first picture,Chris, highlights another problem for the people who arrived earlier than most – the lack of facilities. Well, I assume that’s why the man in the trilby hat is up against the wall?

  2. Liz Thompson says:

    Well some of us ancients (71 in my case) don’t do sexism, or any other ‘ism’ if we can help it. I mix with all ages, 5 months to another 71 year old, at the local community centre. And I’m one of the volunteers, helping run a craft group for all ages. I hold the 5 month old at times so her mother can sew or knit, I talk to everyone of every age , and, this bit’s important, they talk to me! My mother in law lived with me, after that my own mother did too. I think it depends on where you live and what you’re prepared to do. I like multi generational families and groups, and my neighbours seem to as well. They invited me to the Leeds Pride event, and I walked with them and my own son and his family. My neighbour’s mother came too and her sister. I don’t feel old, I still feel as much an activist as when I was an 18 year old student, demonstrating against the war in Vietnam. Now it’s Extinction Rebellion and Unite Community. I walk slower than I used to, and I’ve mislaid 2 husbands along the way, but that’s part of a very rich and rewarding life, and my son and daughter still argue political theory with me, and my Labour Party activist friend still tries to convince me that her party would welcome an anarchist member…. who actually votes Labour on the basis of damage limitation…..

  3. Brian Evans says:

    When I was a child (born in 1951), the father-son role was reversed with us at home. Dad was mad keen on the pop music of the time, and he was especially enamoured with the Beatles and the “Merseybeat” sound, while I was discovering the Big Bands of his generation-Henry Hall and Jack Hylton etc. He could never get over this as to him they were so dated. I also favoured the old school variety artists and old films as well. I still do.

    When I was 19 I took up amateur dramatics as a hobby, and as a consequence I mixed with people of all ages, and became very friendly. platonically, with middle aged ladies.* One of my best friends at the time was a lady called Enid who was 60 when we met, and we used to knock around together a lot socially, including going out drinking together-often to excess! There were others as well, and I spent more time with them than people of my age.

    The down side of this is that they are all now dead, but I have so many lovely memories. At 68, I actually feel as if I have grown into myself, as I think I was always a bit of an “Oldie” This is helped by being a baby boomer and the advantages mentioned by Mr F. Is today the best time of ever to be old? Are the youth of today going to be as comfortable in their dotage as I am? And as comfortable with themselves as I am? I really do think the Boomers were born at the best possible time in history, apart from living through the Cold War that is. However, that worry is now taken over by the threat to the planet of global warming-and what a terrible threat that is.

    *Sorry if “ladies” sounds sexist, but I wrote women and it didn’t look quite right.

  4. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    I discovered that ‘old people’ didn’t always have sexist views when I met my great aunt who had been a suffragist in her youth. I spent a lot of time with my engineer father doing things that girls ‘weren’t supposed to do.’
    I ignored the careers advisor at school who told me I could be a teacher, nurse, secretary, or work in a shop.
    Despite what many people seem to think, that doesn’t mean that I hate men ( I married one, and am mother to another)
    There are some advantages to becoming invisible when you turn into an old lady, but my family is another multigenerational one, and I hope it stays that way.

  5. Roger says:

    One effect of London house-prices is that it has re-created the multi-generational family. Children and grandchildren can’t afford to move out. I’d guess that’s true – on a smaller scale – elsewhere.

    Why does the immortal and invulnerable Superman go grey and need glasses anyway? Is he going to end up like Tithonus, shrivelling to an immortal grasshopper?

    What’s stopping your shifted-out friends setting up as rivals to their ex-employers, or – like you – striking out on new ventures? One advantage of creative or media work – the two aren’t quite the same! – is that people can go on for ever. I know a pair of art critics/historians who are nearly ninety and who travel the world berating the younger generation – and the survivors of their own – for their ignorance and idleness and getting them to pay well for it.

  6. SteveB says:

    Everybody’s an -ist for something, it’s just human nature. What’s the current in and out depends these days on the mob rule of social media.
    Getting old is pretty sh1t as Cary Grant pointed out. The best thing is to keep connected with family and community.

  7. Brooke says:

    If SM exchanged the costume for a suit, he would fit with majority of US Congress, both houses,current President and executive cabinet, every corporate board. So what is the problem?

  8. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Good point, Brooke.
    Perhaps being rich and powerful counteracts the effects of ageing.

  9. Peter Tromans says:

    Granny and grandson are they stupid. The clue to who he is might be his outfit and the big S on his chest or are they talking about the man with the trilby? Anyway, Superman should be happy as he’s not in the slightest follically challenged.

    Ageism seems to be as old as our western society. In the 1960s we were certainly ageist, but I’d suggest in a more creative, positive and stylish way than the generations since: our attitude was more we can do better rather than you’ve ruined everything. Am I being ageist against the young? I don’t think so, or only against a few. Nineteen-fifty zero to five was such a very good time to be born, I wish I’d taken even more advantage of it.

  10. Brooke says:

    @Cornelia–being rich and powerful counteracts the effects of almost all the downsides of life. That’s why men make sure they maintain their majority on both.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    I try to talk to old people whenever possible (I may be 77 but that’s not old these days) because years ago I attended a number of funerals of people I would like to have known better once I heard their stories told. I’d rather hear the stories from themselves. You get trapped with someone who only wants to complain every once in a while but the other times make up for it.

  12. John Griffin says:

    I hate bloody generalisations. Activists around my area come from all age-groups (some with very mad CVs and histories), and living in an area with an abundance of self-satisfied xenophobes who elect a creepy charlatan (not Johnson, Michael Fabricant) makes me more aware of those who don’t conform. I always thought being born in 1951 was a boon, as I got the best of the emergence from post-war drear through to the death of the 1945 dream in 1979, from black-and-white mill chimneys to dayglo 70s via paisley shirts and hippy trappings, from passion-free early 60s to 70s wild abandon, from Dion to Hendrix, jazz-rock and folk-rock. But I still don’t get drum ‘n bass.

  13. SimonB says:

    We had this dilemma with my father-in-law who would have moved in with us in a heartbeat but didn’t want to leave his home 300 miles away if he had to live elsewhere. It was a really tough decision (and he died before we reached a conclusion) but we just weren’t raised to consider multi-generation living the norm. Or at least not parents moving in with their offspring rather than the other way around.

    Having him here for a couple of weeks at a time on holiday was so demanding that neither of us thought we could make it work as a permanent arrangement, but then that was also how we had been brought up. Neither family had much of a track-record of parents living with adult offspring, with the only example I can recall being one distant uncle (and wife) who lived with his Mother by virtue of him moving his wife in to the family home rather than ever leaving it. I think we would all be much more accepting of the concept with experience of it from an early age.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    My Great Grandmother moved in with my grandparents when she was widowed and had two grand daughters to raise. My grandparents had four children so that made a goodly number and once the kids were in their teens they were encouraged to bring their friends home, which was a good idea because Grandpa had a steady job (it was the 30s) and Gram was willing to provide coffee and refreshments. That worked better than my uncle and aunt who had his brother living with them throughout their married life.

  15. Inken Purvis says:

    The biggest problem (right now) my ageing parents are encountering is that NOBODY is bothering to build homes that the elderly can live in. No bungalows whatsoever! Just hugely over-priced 2-3 storey houses and apartment blocks. The attitude seems to be that if you’re elderly and therefore somewhat infirm, you should just move into a home or housing for the 55+ or spend a fortune trying to adapt your home. My parents have lived in their house for over 20 years – why should these be their only options?!

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Housing for the 55+ can be an excellent option according to the many around here who have taken that option. It’s not cheap, and most of it is in the form of apartment blocks but it’s not usually intrusive of your privacy. In order to avoid stairs it pretty much has to be strata of some sort or another and the developers don’t want to have to deal with property title when there is a death so rental is their answer. I agree that choices are slim and don’t meet all our needs. We may have to move out to distant suburbs to find houses and services are not as close. (We’ve lived in our house for 50 years.)

Comments are closed.