Here is a thought experiment. Picture each of these situations in your mind: a book club meeting in a coffee shop, people at a table at local bar on a Friday evening, a meeting in a downtown office building.
What do these pictures have in common? Are the people in the book club all the same age, gender and race? How about the people gathered at the bar or in the conference room? Perhaps you saw multiple genders and races. What about age? Are the people gathered together all the same age?
If you look in real life for pictures of these situations, people are usually age segregated. Older people are with older and younger with younger. Our society is set up this way. Outside of family and, occasionally, at work, most people do not interact socially with people who are much older or younger than them.
Is age segregation normal?
Here is part two of the thought experiment: Now picture one of tables at the bar, full of 30-somethings and add one person in their 50s or 60s. Does it look awkward?
Extreme age segregation is a more recent phenomenon in the US. In some ways, it is useful to separate groups based on age, for instance a pediatric medicine practice. However, age groups neither need nor benefit from being separated. People miss out when they know only people their own age. Kids develop better social skills when they interact with adults and older kids.
We also lose perspective when we are regularly segregated from others on any basis – gender, race, religion, age, physical abilities . . . you-name-it. We naturally start to generalize about the “others” and we don’t take into consideration their needs or perspectives. Age segregation leads to ageism.
We have so much else in common
The purpose of Changing the Narrative’s latest campaign, on the same pAge, is to intentionally break down age barriers as we confront ageism together. The campaign connects people of all generations to talk about how ageism impacts us. It is much harder to be ageist – or any kind of “ist” – once we know what it is like to be the “other”.
When we come together, we often find that we have much more in common. As we launch this series of intergenerational conversations, it is a good time to talk about what things we all share, including ageism.
Ageism and related issues impact young and old alike. For instance, consider:
- The dreaded job interview – Our work cultures keep people out both because of lack of experience and for having too much experience. Either way, the emphasis is on very quantifiable things like years of education or years since gaining a degree, leaving out crucial soft skills and personal traits, or even the opportunity to prove oneself.
- Finding a place to live – The housing market is hard for people of all ages. This is especially true for those on fixed incomes and those with little credit and lots of school debt.
- Making your way through public spaces – Walkways are not always set up for walkers or strollers. Intersections can be tricky for even the most common differences in physical abilities, like the short legs of a toddler or anyone on crutches.
We all face assumptions based on age and the narrow definitions of normal in our society. Age segregation is our way of life. With most of us living much longer, most of us will also eventually face ageism based on old age. It is time to acknowledge that we are all on the same page.
Join the conversation with Changing the Narrative or start one of your own with someone of a different generation.
Sara Breindel, Changing the Narrative blogger