America's fear of aging

John Brain

April 02, 1991|By John Brain

AS THEY grow older, Americans tend to deny the years by vTC masking their effects. It rarely works; the balms, corsets, toupees, and dyes only draw attention to wrinkled skin, sagging bellies, bald pates and gray hairs.

Yet an entire industry is dedicated to resisting the aging process and ridiculing the advice to grow old gracefully.

Only in America, it seems, is youth so valued and age so fearfully resisted. The American ideal is young, physical, full of potential, and older people as a group are treated as over-the-hill.

Abetted by a shamelessly inadequate pension system, employers prefer to hire "bright, young" people with "new ideas" -- whether they have any or not -- and reject the middle-aged and up as slowpokes whose youthful energy and imagination have been spent. That older people might be more imaginative because they are liberated from youthful ignorance and prejudice is rarely considered. And since younger and younger people are hired as managers, they in turn hire even younger people and feel uncomfortable supervising those much older than themselves.

This national tendency to sideline the aging is compounded by the rate at which innovation is occurring in society. Younger people are more likely to be computer-literate (though less likely to be book-literate), and those educated before the computer revolution may be inclined to cling to the older, manual systems they know. But among executives this is rarely the case. I was once interviewed for a job by a condescending executive who told me he wanted only to hire recent college graduates whose knowledge was "state-of-the-art." Yet within a year I was teaching just such college students what was state-of-the-art. Technological innovation doesn't of itself exclude the aging; rather it is used as yet another justification for rejecting older people in a society that is pathologically fearful of growing old.

Not all societies were similarly youth-fixated; some were quite the opposite. In classical China and Old-Testament Israel, older meant wiser, more deserving of respect. The patriarch was the unquestioned leader of his tribe. Hierarchies -- like the Catholic Church and the Communist Party in the Soviet Union -- tend to lead upward through tiers of advancing age, to a pope or a chairman who has outlived as well as outsmarted all adversaries.

Admittedly, hierarchies dominated by the aged are more common in societies where change is limited and rigidly controlled, where ritual rules, and where everything thought worth knowing is already known. Such societies fare poorly in competition with those quicker to adapt and innovate, and in today's global economy it is essential to allow younger people who do have new ideas to put them to the test. An age-dominated society would not have produced an Apple Computer, but in a society flexible enough to make room for an Apple, it makes no sense to categorically exclude older people from positions which require innovative thinking. The innovative society should be open at all ages.

When I was a young man growing up in England after World War II, many world leaders were well on in years: Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill. No one told Winnie he was too old for the job. I always thought my grandmother a much brighter person than my mother. I had no reason to reject the old; quite the reverse. By contrast, youth was to be seen but not heard, to sit at the feet of, to wait one's turn.

When I came to America in my late 20s, the difference in attitudes toward youth and age was striking. Two incidents bear this out. When, after only a year in publishing, I applied for an executive position at another press, the boss didn't ask me much about my experience. What concerned him was whether I minded working under a supervisor five years my junior. I didn't, and I got the job. But if I were to apply for that same job now, with vastly greater experience, I wouldn't be offered an interview. Few young people want to supervise those 30 years their senior.

The other incident occurred a few years later, when I returned to England to help with the opening of this publisher's London office. I visited Oxford University Press and chatted with the director about publishing in America. He just couldn't believe I was in my senior position with only three years' experience. "We should expect you to have 20 years' experience in such a position," he commented disapprovingly. Assuredly, for me, America had been the land of opportunity.

But in this country opportunity dies early. For the aging, staying at the top is essential. If for any reason an executive falls off the ladder -- is dumped after a merger or when a young boss is appointed -- he or she will have a hard time clawing back.

American business now claims to be worried about where the next generation of educated employees is to come from, since the baby boom is behind us and so many high schoolers are dropping out or barely literate. We lament the waste of human potential. But almost no one seems worried about the wasted potential of the over-50s, whom no employer wants to hire because they will soon retire anyway and burden the company with pension payments.

But these older people don't need extensive training or education from the ground up. All they need is a fair deal, an even break. Right now, they're the most discriminated against class in America. If we're really serious about global competition, we'll have to make better use of our older as well as our younger population. If they do nothing else, the aging baby boomers may accomplish that.

John Brain writes from Baltimore.


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