By J.A. Garretson
How can we, as a society or as a world, decide who is valuable based on age? The notion that a person is more or less valuable based on the number of times they have been around the sun reveals several key flaws in an already incredibly flawed system. It is at least understandable from a required work knowledge standpoint that someone can be too young to understand what a specific task requires, and on that same line of logic, it is understandable that a person can be too old (and certainly too young) to physically perform a task that may be required of them. But barring those two examples, using a person's age to decide their worth in the world seems like a very out-dated frame-of-mind.
There is an ideology in western civilizations that the older a person is, the less capable they are of performing work. I would agree with this as a generality, and based specifically on the particular job the person wants to perform. I don't know how comfortable I would be with a 60, 70 or 80 year old person responding as part of the active-duty fire brigade, or in an EMT/ EMS/ Ambulance person. In an odd twist of irony, I would likely be very nervous if I were about to go into major complex surgery and see that the lead surgeon appeared to be in his early 20's or 30's. A prime example that is relevant to me right now is finding a pediatrician. My wife and I don't want someone who appears too young because they may not have much experience but we also don't want someone who appears too old because they may not open to the newest ideas and theories. The tricky part is finding a comfortable balance.
Age stratification and ageism are very closely related; one cannot exist without the other. Age stratification separates people into three primary groups according to their age; the young, the old and the rest. Each of those groups can be further broken down to suit whatever purpose. In schools, the students in a grade are all within a year or so of each other and they are taught the same things that are considered appropriate to that particular age. After all, you likely wouldn't teach trigonometric functions or vector physics to a class-room of five and six year olds; they just haven't had enough time to comprehend the processes that lead up to those ideas. In the workplace, the goal is to find someone young enough to know what they are doing, but not so old that they want to be paid for their experience. Ultimately the balance is motivated by the theoretical profits (aka Return on Investment -ROI).
Age is just a constructed method of keeping track of how long an item has been around. Ageism takes over from there by being an enacted series of prejudices against a person or group based on their age. If humans weren't so caught up in their need to classify and dominate, I don't believe that age would be as important. James Henslin, the author of "Essentials of Sociology: A Down to Earth Approach", tells us that for many thousands of years people who made it to "old" age were celebrated and highly respected because it was not something that was commonly achieved and that the people were highly respected because of their experiences, knowledge and wisdom (Henslin, 286).
The American industrial revolution was a major contributor to the ideology of Ageism. Younger, faster, stronger bodies could perform the same mind-less task for hours on end, which in turn created an enormous ROI. The business people who did the hiring for these facilities realized this and in order to increase the company profits, they had to decrease the wages being paid and increase the hours being worked. It was the catalyst for several social structures still in place today. The social stratification of the labor was based on age. Starting at the top, the old, rich, power elite, upper class owned the company. They paid the middle-class factory manager to make money for them. In turn, the middle-class factory manager made their trusted lower-middle-class hiring manager want young, cheap, strong and fast. This is where the poor began to be separated from the working lower-class citizens. It was still a rather blurry line between the poor and the lower class, because at any given moment you could be replaced. There was not a lot of room to move up, and the only incentive to stay with the company was to have an income. The old and elderly went from being respected for their wisdom to being rejected for their perceived inabilities. This lead to many older people lying about their age, saying they were younger. This was a shift from previous generations where children would lie about their age, saying they were older (Henslin, 286).
An interesting practice started taking place about a century later; pensions and social security. As the working lower class matured and was promoted, they earned a little more and moved up to middle or upper-middle class. They had served time with a company and likely that company was paying them more than they would have liked to. In addition, there were a larger number of (younger) people beginning to look for jobs as well. This older employee was probably earning as much as two, three, or even four potential new-hires. According to the capitalist business models, it didn't make sense to pay one guy that large sum of money. The government's social security program combined with private employer's pension programs acted as an incentive to entice (bribe?) the aging work force to leave the company and make room for more people at the bottom. The ageism is clear in that the company wants to be rid of the older employees because they are perceived to be worth less than the new employees due to the ideas of productivity. Based on age stratification, the person who retires is agreeing that they are too old to perform that work anymore. They may make any number of rationalization or excuses, but the message is unchanged.
Our society places an enormous value on a person's perceived age, with major handicaps given to the very young and to the very old. The very young are either not physically or mentally capable of performing the required task, and the same is true for the elderly. Since society requires that people be able to perform some level of productive activity, those that cannot are viewed as a burden on the system.
Henslin, James M. "Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach". ©2009. Published by Allyn & Bacon and Pearson Custom Publishing. Boston, MA.