It's time to wage war against everyday ageism



Joy ! I’ve made it! Or will have done by next birthday. At the age of 59 and a half, I am finally waving goodbye to the purgatorial wilderness of middle-agedom and entering the cosy, blissful province of old. 


I say ‘blissful’ because if the popular happiness U-curve theory is to be believed (the one that says we emotionally trough in middle age), I can soon look forward to a period of delight and self-belief I haven’t felt since I was a kid. I can also look forward to a slew of gags and ‘hilarious’ birthday cards. 


Here are some corkers I recently came across: ‘Happy 60th! You’re going from Hip Hip Hooray to Hip Hip Replacement!’ Or ‘60! Which is still less than the number of cats you live with!’ Or what about this one : ‘Happy 60th! At least you don’t need to worry about dying young any more!’Any of these, though, if you are thinking of  sending me one, would be a hundred times better than the funereal ‘congratulations for reaching this momentous milestone’ choices offered by the likes of Hallmark.


Congratulations for what? Still being alive? Everyday ageism. Think it doesn’t exist any more? Well it does and it lurks in all corners of society, not just the birthday card section of Paperchase. 


Now I would say that, wouldn’t I? After all, I’m about to hit 60 — and that’s what humans do as they age, move the goalposts. On the other hand, is 60 that old? When retirement age might soon be 75 and it is now medically possible to delay the menopause until well into one’s 60s? But, of course, it is not as simple as that. No doubt ageing is not what it was 20, even ten years ago. 


We are fitter, more engaged in work, more relevant to society (especially as older women) than we have ever been. It is 13 years now since the first anti-age discrimination laws were passed in this country. Legally, you can no longer fire someone because they are too old. Certain companies, Go Compare for example, only take CVs with no age and one day such CVs may become the law. 


But as we all know, attitudes and innate beliefs take more than legislation to shift. According to a report this year entitled Ageist Britain, a third of Brits (34 per cent) claim they have been discriminated against because of their age. 


The survey of 4,000 UK adults found the places people were most likely to experience ageism were at work (31 per cent), in shops (16 per cent) and on public transport (10 per cent). Interestingly, more than half of the over-50s, who admitted everyday ageism made them feel less valued (68 per cent), unhappy (60 per cent) and alienated (52 per cent), said it could have been unintentional. But then, in a way, that is the point about everyday ageism. 


Like everyday sexism — as highlighted by feminist writer Laura Bates in her brilliant blog everydaysexism. com — it is not always intended, or overt. In fact, its strength lies in its stealth. And if you think you’re not guilty of it or immune from it, you are probably mistaken.  


I’m thinking of the employer who invites prospective employees to join their ‘young team’. I’m thinking of all the hospital doctors who say, ‘due to your mum/dad’s age, we don’t think there is any point in more investigative tests, thank you, bye-bye’. 


Or, indeed , the two perfectly nice Heathrow staff who met my whip-smart 70-something mum at the airport with a wheelchair because she had sprained her ankle and, as they wheeled her to the terminal, kept referring to her in the third person (‘Do you think she’s comfortable like that?’ and so on).


Then there was the time, it must have been a decade ago, when a male colleague asked after a female colleague in her mid-50s who had moved to the U.S. to start a new venture. ‘How is the old bird?’ I recall him saying, and although I couldn’t quite figure out why at the time, it managed to feel like a magnificent putdown, not just to our friend but to me. 


Now, of course, I recognise it for what it was: an excellent example of everyday ageism (with a splash of sexism mixed in), the implication being, what a foolhardy thing for a woman approaching her 60s to think she can start over! Worst of all, I’ve realised that I’m as guilty of casual ageism as anyone else. 


I don’t think of myself as old — how can I be when I’m fitter, healthier and quite possibly saner than I’ve ever been? And technically, empirically, you can’t really classify me as old. Not when it’s likely I will live for another quarter of a century, maybe more if I look after myself. 


Not when, as my latest super-comprehensive health MOT revealed, I have ‘the arteries of an 18-year-old’. But I find myself perpetuating the language. Take the way I so readily confess to a ‘senior moment’ whenever I forget where I’ve put my phone or try to turn the TV on with my keys (sorry, but what millennial hasn’t done that?). 


Or the way I’ll always preface any opinion to a slightly younger person with, ‘well, of course I’m much older than you are . . . ’ And why do I so easily agree that I’m a ‘loveable incompetent’ when it comes to technology, when actually I’ve been using it for far longer than my digitally native children? My kids are the worst ageists. 


I take it from them because they are my kids, and my absent-mindedness has always been a family joke, but I sometimes wonder if the constant ribbing might have a self-fulfilling element about it. The bonus of not painting ourselves into that particular corner is that, the less we perceive ourselves as old, the longer we may live. On the Pacific island of Okinawa, where there is no word for retirement, the inhabitants routinely  live to 100 and over. 


Whether ageism is flourishing because it is one of the last acceptable ways for human beings to discriminate against one another, or because as a culture we have such an obsession with youth, who knows. Maybe a bit of both. Whatever the case, these microaggressions against others and ourselves will build if we don’t start to call them out. 


Which is what I intend to do in my new Femail column ‘Everyday Ageism’, starting next week. This doesn’t mean I’ll bop you on the head if you volunteer how good I look for my age, or stand up for me on the Tube. I understand that you mean well. But you’ll excuse me if I don’t dissolve into helpless giggles at your ‘60 is the new . . . wait, what was I saying?’ birthday card message. I think, in 2019, we can all do better than that.