“OLD” is a dirty word in the American vocabulary. Approximately one quarter of the lives of Americans are spent growing up, while the other three quarters are spent growing old, yet our society is obsessed with youth while steadfastly denying old age. Our society has become quite openminded about many former touchy topics, such as, sex, politics, religion, divorce, abortion, violence, but we revert to an ostrichlike attitude about aging and death, as if by not acknowledging these topics, they will simply disappear. I feel the need for adolescents to be more aware of, sensitive to, and understanding of the older generation, because adolescents, like us all, will someday be the older generation and even before that, they will be responsible for caring for an older generation.
Adolescents and the elderly have many differences, but I find many of the problems faced by today’s youth are mirrored by those faced by today’s senior citizens. Both are caught in the struggle between independence and dependency. Being in control of their life or at least feeling some degree of control has a tremendous effect on the “headset” of the individual, no matter what their age is. Teenagers constantly complain of having no or few choices in their lives. Senior citizens likewise feel they have few choices left in their lives due to health, financial, and social factors. The bridge from childhood to adulthood is never crossed but once. Many trips back and forth are made by adolescents. American society slowly weans teenagers into adulthood by treating adolescents as “adults” at times, but also as “children” at other times. This transition period is very difficult for most adolescents. Many senior citizens have great difficulty adjusting to the transition from productive, useful lives into what is perceived as useless existence. The bridge into another phase of their lives is not easily or willingly crossed either. The ambivalence felt by adolescents over their sexual desires has its counterpart in older people who are likewise asked by society to suppress their needs and desires. Society’s denial of the sexuality of adolescents and senior citizens occurs within a framework of heightened societal emphasis on sex. Sexuality is not something individuals obtained at voting age and then relinquished at retirement in exchange for social security. Adolescents are the victims of labeling and feel the injustice of stereotyping. “Juvenile Delinquent,” “Pot Head,” and “Lazy Leeches” are but a few of the many put downs quickly applied to all adolescents. Senior citizens are likewise victims of derogatory labels. “Old Foggies,” “Old Geezers,” “Old Maid,” and “Dirty Old Man” are but a few of the phrases applied to the older generation. Adolescents and senior citizens face two related problems, usefulness and monetary independence. Inactivity feeds into the sense of uselessness. What need is there for their existence? Our fast moving, gogettum society measures the value of an individual by their productivity and or reproductivity. Yet, we tell youth they need experience before we can employ them. But where and how do they break into the tight job market? We tell our senior citizens they must retire. They can not possibly be of service anymore. Lack of employment has two direct spin-off results for both the young and the old, a loss of usefulness that is replaced by uselessness and a lack of monetary compensation that results in economic dependency. What a tragic waste of human potential, young and old. Adolescents frequently feel isolated. Their families are usually engaged in earning a living, many times more than one job per person is necessary. The family structure is one of isolated units within neighborhoods that usually offer no real support network for children after school time. There are few significant adults for adolescents to relate to. Senior citizens are frequently likewise isolated by families geographically removed, by death of friends and mates, and avoidance by those younger than them because older people serve as a reminder that old age and death await us all. Adolescents and senior citizens share a grim problem, suicidal behavior. Elderly suicide does not receive the attention that teenage suicide does, because society views their potentials differently. “While people over 65 make up 18 percent of the population, they commit 23 percent of all suicides in the country, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.” (Barbara Stevens, 7883) I see a natural alliance and sharing between teenagers and senior citizens.
Today’s American society has brainwashed everyone, young, old, and inbetween, to believe that we live in a youth culture, that aging is a loss, and old means useless and a nuisance. This attitude is not one held by all of the world cultures. It is said that to understand how a civilization behaves, you have but to look at how it treats their young and their aged. The reverence for the aged held by Oriental cultures is shown in their treatment with deference and respect. Yuan Jihui, dean of the department of sociology at Fudan University in Shanghai, stated, “The elderly in China have five guarantees; They’re guaranteed enough to eat, enough to wear, enough to live (housing), enough medical care, and a funeral.” (Joyce Mariani, 7883) Eskimo tribes choose their rulers from only the oldest members who performed their duties then left to die with dignity on the ice fields. Positions of wisdom, counseling, religious and health issues were delegated only to the aged members of many North American Indian tribes. European respect for the elders of the family is usually continued for the first generation immigrant family here in America. Americans are not the only people who grow old. Everyone grows old, but how old people are treated in America is different.
America was not always age prejudiced. The older American was a needed and valued member of our society. Early craftsmen were the backbone of our developing nation along with blacksmiths, carpenters, shipbuilders and sail makers. Our society was settled by extended family units within a strong community network. There was too much to be done by and learned from the older generation to discard them. The seeds of a person’s worth being measured by his or her productivity and or reproductivity were being sowed at this early time in our history. Great personal pride in one’s work and family was the word of the day. But entering on the stage of life came the Industrial Revolution with the development of factories with machines for manufacturing products and the use of power from steam, oil, or electricity in place of human and animal power. There was no longer the need for skilled hands, nor for as many hands at all. Personal quality that resulted from long years of apprenticeship and experience was now obsolete. With more workers than jobs, someone had to be sacrificed. So the old were let go. Machines could make it cheaper and faster.
Ageism, a negative attitude toward older people, exists in many forms in our society. Perhaps its seeds go back to the Greek philosophy, “Whom the Gods love die young.” Their worship of youth and strength is the antithesis of old age and weakness. Having decided to squeeze the older worker out of the workforce, our society needed to rationalize this shift in allegiance to youth by idolizing all its attributes. Our present day preoccupation with youth, beauty and strength is most readily seen in how advertisements portray people. Desirability is exemplified in the young, beautiful and agile bodies of both females and males used in advertisements. Sexy, provocative bodies are used to show success, wealth and acceptance in connection with the products they are promoting. The role relegated to older people is one of ugliness, sloppiness, and stupidity. Old people are used to show the negative element that can be changed by the use of their product. Madison Avenue advertising executives have decided that senior citizens, who are mainly on fixed incomes, are not a lucrative market worth cultivating. The main products promoted for and by older people are laxatives, denture materials, hair coloring, and pain killers. The message to all from the media is one of exclusion, nonexistence as a meaningful, viable entity in our society for the elderly. A student exercise is included on this significant topic.
In an article by Seltzer and Atchley, they discuss that the maligning of the elderly has some of its roots of socialization in the stories told to children. “An analysis of children’s literature from the years 1870 to 1960 showed increasingly negative attitudes toward older people.” (Lillian Dangott, p 14) “Hansel and Gretel,” “Cinderella,” and “Snow White” are but three examples of children’s stories that portray older females as wicked villains ready to do children, youth, in. A student research topic is included on this point. Having sowed the seeds of a negative attitude toward the elderly in the minds of the young and coupling this with the taking away of a purpose for existing from the elderly, it is easy to see why everyone, young, old and inbetween, begins to believe that the only good old person is a dead old person.
The aged are seen by their children and society in general, as a burden and an expense without a “future.” The elderly are viewed as being supported without contributing. They are the true parasites of society. The old have no useful purpose and present many problems. Adolescents and teachers can increase their understanding of the elderly by looking at some of the problems faced by the elderly in our society today. If we can try to stand in the shoes of the elderly, perhaps, we too can feel the pinch of how snug the fit is for them and how little room they have to adapt to the rapid changes occurring around them.