Monday, November 22, 2010

A Really Long Rant About Ageism

Discrimination and presumptuous comments based on age is a big problem for me.  It's one of my biggest pet peeves.  Last week I was at an event and an "older gentleman" thought it necessary to comment that I am way too young to be married.  I couldn't think of a clever come back, so I just shrugged and said, "Hey, I was older than my parents were when they got married."  He retorted that was probably because my parents were just a couple of horny teenagers.

Apart from the obvious, let me begin to break down the problems with this conversation:
- At no point had I mentioned or made reference to my age.
- My parents were college graduates both starting out in their careers when they got married.
- I was a university graduate starting on my second career when Jason and I married.
- What difference does it make how old I was or how old I am in reference to anything I choose to do?!

I personally feel that attitudes about childhood and youth in our culture have created at much extended "coming of age" that is, in my opinion, to our detriment.

Historically speaking, children were once regarded as small adults, but fully capable of working inside or outside of the home for the benefit of the family.  Toys and games were designed for the wealthy, and generally children and adults played and took part together.  While it was known that children required instruction and training of some kind, by their early teens they were regarded as adults -- capable of marriage, running a business, or taking the throne.

Fast-forward to the current day, and a Toronto-based TV show featuring a house full of twenty-somethings promises to show us what it's like to "grow up" in Toronto.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to advocate for shorter periods of schooling, or teen marriages.  But I do think at some point in the evolution of our thoughts on childhood we started looking at children as little idiots rather than little adults.  Kids are so much smarter, and more aware, and more capable than we give them credit for.  I don't think six and seven year olds should be expected or permitted to work in mines or serve on battle fields.  I do have a problem with a culture that doesn't allow eleven and twelve year olds to have a paper route or work on the family farm.  See below for the rights and freedoms our children should, but don't always seem to have.

No, in the current day we expect our "children" to continue their studies and delay all forms of work until they are nearly 30.  And then we wonder why they have trouble leaving the nest.  I'm sorry, but at 20 you're no longer "growing up" in Toronto -- you're an adult!  You've grown!  Your shenanigans and antics are not stepping stones on the way to being a grown up, it's just who you are.

I have to give my parents credit where it's due, they obviously did something right.  My 21-year-old sister manages a group of employees, some of whom are high school aged.  She was telling me this weekend about a Mom of one of the employees who calls and emails her on a regular basis to discuss her daughter's work.  Her top complaint -- her daughter is mature enough to handle more responsibility on the job.  My sister replied that when her daughter is mature enough to ask for it herself, then they can talk about giving her more responsibility.  Can you imagine?  That would be like my Mom emailing my boss to say I deserve a raise.  Hey, maybe I can get my Mom to sit on the Salary and Benefits Committee at work to negotiate a salary increase.  My sister also told me when she sends out the weekly schedule she has to send it several parents.

Of course, when I worked in undergraduate recruitment I saw all forms of helicopter-parentism.  Everything from the worrying hoverer to the intrusive "stealth fighter" parents.  Good grief, cut the cord already!  NEWSFLASH -- by the time your child reaches university, he or she is a fully functioning adult, capable of making his or her own decisions.  If that is not the case, you've done something wrong.  I once had a lengthy conversation with a Mom who wanted to know what her son should take in first year if he was going to get in to both the Richard Ivey Business School AND dental school.  I asked what her son was interested in and she scoffed, "Nothing.  He hates school -- he only likes video games."  Bummer Mom, but your little high achiever who has no academic aspirations probably isn't going to get his MBA or pursue oral surgery, and he certainly isn't going to do both.

You may think I'm being a bit harsh, and you may be feeling sorry for any future, hypothetical children I might have.  Fair enough, but before I end rant, let's talk about biology for a minute.

The human brain undergoes two major periods of growth and change (after birth).  The first happens around the ages of 2 - 3.  We know this time is important for language acquisition and a number of other important skills.  The second major growth period happens at different times for different people, but usually between ages 15 - 18.  This is why, despite my argument that we don't give children and young people enough credit for their capabilities, you will never hear me advocate for lowering the drinking age.  We know there is a LOT of important stuff happening to the teenage brain, but we actually know very little about what's taking place.  After this period the human has stopped developing biologically.  That's it, welcome to your adult body/mind. I hope you treated them well up to this point.

Another biological phenomenon I find interesting, especially when talking about people in their 20s and 30s is fertility.  Consider the following charts from the World IVF Website:

The news no woman wants to hear, but here it is: your optimal childbearing years are 18 - 25.  By the time a woman is 30 (the age deemed appropriate for motherhood by our society) she is entering into her "moderate risk" pregnancy years and has a greater chance of miscarriage, complications, and of bearing a child with chromosomal abnormalities.  Is it any wonder 1 in 6 North Americans will have trouble conceiving or carrying a pregnancy to term?

And yet, somehow at 26 I am considered by some to be "too young to be married".

Clearly this extended period of youth is a social construction and not based on fact, ability or biology.

Young people, stop thinking of yourselves as youths.  Sure, you may feel like you still have a lot to learn about life, but welcome to the club.  The minute you stop learning is the minute you stop fully participating in your world.  Stand up for yourself and don't let someone else stand up for you or tell you what to do because they're older.  You're as much an adult at 20 as you'll ever be, you just need to start acting like one, and demanding to be treated like one.

People over 35, stop patronizing the younger generation.  Be better mentors by setting a good example and letting younger people make their own mistakes.  Parents, stop setting up guard rails for your children.  I know, you don't want to see them fall on their faces, but if you've done your job well they'll be okay.  Let them jump, and if they fall they'll get back up.

End of rant.

1 comment:

  1. Very well said!! I'm sorry you didn't have a snappy retort for the geezer, clearly he's forgotten that 30 used to be considered old age. Unfortunately, even at (coughcough) over 35, there will always be someone older who will still consider you too young for something (trust me).