I suspect ageism has always been ‘a thing.’ Since humans began walking the planet, our evolution has likely involved the tensions that arise when some of us adapt faster than others or adopt new practices ahead of the rest of us. But like so many other aspects of life in the 21st century, it seems the existence of ageism is more pronounced and pernicious than ever.
And to be clear: I’m not making this observation because I feel a victim as a 65-year-old person. I am actually pleading guilty to it, as well. Like race or faith have long been acknowledged filters, I perceive that we all now experience other people with a strong filter focused on age.
Some of it is inevitably tied to the rapid evolutions of communications platforms and tools. We are, all of us, increasingly living in parallel universes (well, sort of parallel). I am on social platforms, but still really get my ‘news’ by walking out to my sidewalk and picking up a local paper and a national newspaper and reading them over my first coffee each day. I know that I am a fast-disappearing breed. Does not make me right or wrong but knowing that others are consuming news differently is notable. Two quick illustrations: I still catch myself when someone mentions a great piece of content they saw on television, wanting to ask, ‘when is it on?’ Then a cringe as I recall the look on my own son’s face as he wondered what I was talking about…you watch it on-demand, of course. Second illustration: when I contemplate reaching out to people with a message, I labor over the language and carefully consider who to include as recipients. Meanwhile, my 7-year-old granddaughter tells me she has more than 200 followers on TikTok who hear from her regularly. I know where all this is going…
Interpretation of the news also reflects ageism: context plays a major role in how we process and understand the information we receive. A strong example: For young professional colleagues who’ve ‘come of age’ since 2000, there is absolutely no reason to think our federal governmental has the capacity to be ‘bipartisan.’ The word still gets used, but it doesn’t really exist – and so political activity has increasingly devolved into siloed, ecosystem whirlwinds that never really overlap. By 2020, each ecosystem even has its own separate streams of ‘news,’ ensuring diverse perceptions of reality aren’t likely to intersect. This is not only ageism, of course. But having no context of how things worked for the first 225 years of U.S. history causes one to interpret the seriousness of our hyper-partisan reality differently than someone older might. So, unless the Gen-Z professional is also a serious student of history, there will be starkly different assessments of current events, a consequence, at least in part, of ageism.
How to combat ageism, if you are so inclined? Ask questions of people outside your age group; be on good receive (as in, don’t assume right or wrong) and value every exchange as a chance to learn. And if you are a communications professional, or the leader of an organization, strive to consider how challenging it is to effectively deliver information and have it ‘received’ as you intended it to be received.
I am very honored and proud of Team Tunheim, whose members span from the Greatest Generation to emerging Gen-Z professionals. If you are feeling challenged in navigating ageism, give us a call. We’re listening carefully.