Maybe because yesterday was my birthday I’m thinking about the ageism that I’ve been encountering in recent years.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission asks the following:
Have you ever encountered questions, such as…
“Do you really think you could handle this job? You know it takes a lot of energy and enthusiasm. Besides, we are looking for someone with career potential.”
“You don’t need this training program. At your age, what would the benefit be?”
“Well, you are getting on. What do you expect at your age?”
When I read this I had to say, “Oh wow, have I!” About as soon as I turned 50 I began to hear exactly those remarks from some employers.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission tells us that “Such comments reflect ageism — an attitude that makes assumptions about older persons and their abilities and puts labels on them. Ageism is also a tendency to view and design society on the basis that everyone is young. Age discrimination is a consequence of ageist attitudes.”
I love the language about a tendency to design society on the basis that everyone is young. I remember a conversation that I had once with a younger co-worker who was asserting quite vehemently that a particular activity she was coordinating would suffer if older adults were included with younger adults–because it would be “less fun”, the older adults would “feel uncomfortable” and be “less adaptable” and other generalizations. Boy, does that run contrary to my own real life experience. From the time I was a teen myself, some of my best times and growthful experiences have been obtained participating in groups with a healthy mix of ages. No generation is without its fun and adaptable members and no generation has cornered the market on sourpusses either!
It’s worth repeating, “Ageism is also a tendency to view and design society on the basis that everyone is young”. Oh, that makes me feel so sad, because I’ve always loved the company of the very young and the very old in my life. Yet I recognize that in the media, in advertising, in the structure of many activities we create this false generational rift. And the less time we spend with people of other age groups the vaster our ignorance and prejudice becomes.
One of the places where I most run into ageist assumptions is in the area of technological literacy. I often find employers and others making inaccurate assumptions about my computer savey. When they become aware that I am very computer literate, surprise is expressed. I’ve been complimented on being a “life-long learner” as though normal computer literacy in the workplace is unusual for a 50-something worker.
Again, my own experience is just the opposite. Those of us that came into the workforce around the same time as computers or just before, had to struggle with DOS, write batch files, work in word processing programs using on-screen codes that were the pre-cursors of html, and have a hands-on knowledge of our computer’s system configuration. With this experience, we are well-positioned to trouble-shoot problems, learn and understand html code, and design and work with databases. By contrast I have trained a number of young workers whose sole computer experience has been gameplaying, surfing the Internet, and email. While those young workers who have specific business training generally come to the workplace well prepared to use business applications, many employers hire young workers from other programs of study assuming computer knowledge that is simply not there. Often it is those of us who have been in the workplace for some time who train these workers to mailmerge, make mailing labels and to use desktop publishing programs.
I have been told that mature students entering the community college system in Ontario, are more likely to be exempted from an intro computer course on the basis of their scores on a test of computer knowledge than students coming to community college directly from high school. This does not surprise me although it flies in the face of the myth that any given 12 year old is more computer literate than any given 50 year old.
So I found it thought-provoking to read the information sheet located on the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s website. There’s a printable pdf version of the sheet available–suitable for posting in any workplace. Worried that posting such a sheet might be unwelcome in your workplace? Do you really want to work for an employer who discriminates on the basis of age and is blind to the strengths of older workers?
Let’s post this sheet broadly about the land and make sure that everyone knows that ageist remarks aren’t just tasteless and baseless–they are a violation of Ontario’s Human Rights Code.