I was watching a news program recently, listening to a discussion about a prominent older person* in Washington, DC, and it shocked me, but not for the usual reasons.
I grabbed the remote, hit the pause button, and backed it up.
The statements by the journalists were shocking because they were so clearly ageist, and worse, they were said with such nonchalance and certainty.
*BTW, I wrote this post before Charlottesville happened. As a result, I’ve deleted the name of the older person in question.
Peter Baker, NYTimes, said, “At 71, Mr. (prominent defender of Nazis) seems unlikely to discard a lifetime of operating habits and learn to stick to a plan and temper his self-destructive instincts.”
Katy Tur, broadcast journalist for NBC news, said, “Getting Mr. (prominent defender of Nazis), a 71-year-old man, to stop doing what he does every day is going to be difficult.”
Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer prize winning journalist and associate editor of the Washington Post: “I’m of the school that Mr. (prominent defender of Nazis), 71 years old, used to working this way all his professional life, is probably not going to change a lot.”
I know, you’re thinking: consider the person. But these people aren’t saying he won’t change because so far he hasn’t. They’re saying he won’t change because he’s 71.
Why is everybody so sure that 71-year-olds don’t change?
While being frozen in intellectual amber may be true of one 71-year-old man, that doesn’t make it true about anybody else his age. To judge people based on age is ageist, yet these bright, committed, caring people blather on about age-based intellectual limitations as if it’s a known fact.
Here’s what I’d like to ask Peter, Katy, and Eugene: Don’t you realize you’re being ageist?
People change all throughout their lives. Sure, we develop routines and stick with them, but the blunt certainty with which we openly and freely stamp 71-year-olds as UNABLE TO CHANGE isn’t only insulting, it’s damaging.
This dangerous belief is one reason employers don’t hire older people.
How can we decry age discrimination in the workplace if we say things like this? Or consider the ethics of such pronouncements. We wouldn’t say “women don’t change,” or “gay people don’t change,” or “(ethnic) people don’t change.”
From what I’ve seen, Mr. (prominent defender of Nazis) is one 71-year-old who will never change, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us are burdened with the same moral and intellectual lethargy.
I stole the title for this post from an article of the same name, by journalist and ethicist David Brooks. He says in middle age, people go through a sort of moral puberty, where they start all over again in a new form of their adult selves.
I love that. It speaks to the possibility of change in older age, doesn’t it?
The last sentence of his article says, “people change all along the way.” I’d sure like to think I’ll be capable of change until my last breath!
This idea of change and growth, moving past your own stumbling blocks and becoming a more adept adult, is a force that propels humans all through their lives. It doesn’t stop at – BING! – the chime of the midlife bell. Neither does curiosity, ambition, greed, lust, altruism, the quest for self-improvement, love, creativity, and dozens of other human motivations. Motivation is what jump-starts change.
We’re human unto death. It’s dumb to say we lose our human characteristics — our humanity — as we age. Next time you hear somebody proclaim that, set them straight. We’ll all benefit from leaving such ignorance behind.