Age-Based Condescension

Ageism is bidirectional.

Middle-aged people wield a disproportionate amount of political and economic power in our culture. This is unsurprising, since it takes time to accumulate prestige and since most people retire at some point in their lives. But when that power translates into automatic social capital, or when being middle-aged is seen as sufficient reason to grant someone undue credibility, there is a problem. Others have pointed out that insufficient attention is paid to prejudice and discrimination against older adults, and I agree, but I think it is also important to realize that ageism is more complex than just negative treatment of older adults – young people, too, face ageism.

Middle-aged adults sometimes feel that they have a “right” to condescend to young adults, but there is never a rightful reason to talk down to any person based on that person’s social group membership. If someone’s ideas are flawed, point out those flaws – but don’t reject the ideas purely based on the age of their source. Any time someone attempts to claim that an idea is less valuable because of the social group membership of its originator, we should be extremely suspicious of their motives – it is likely that they do not have a well-reasoned response to the idea itself.

Middle-aged adults often point to their own life stories as evidence that people in general become more “wise” as they age. The obvious fallacy here is that people change as they age and it is hardly surprising that any given person will believe that the most recent changes have been for the better. More pointedly, though, age acts differently on different people. It is unfair and unrealistic to make declarations of what knowledge another decade or two of life experience will convey to anyone, based purely on one’s own individual experiences. I can talk about how I have changed over time, or how my friend has changed over time, or how participants in a scientific study changed over time, on average – but I cannot presume to know how you will change, and I cannot declare that your current way of thinking is invalid simply on the basis of my prediction that you will change.

Our institutions limit the social and political rights of young people, and to some extent these limitations are necessary. We cannot allow toddlers to vote in elections, so we have to set an age-based cutoff somewhere. But as children become adolescents and then adults, they deserve to be taken seriously, and the tendency to dismiss them must be recognized as a form of ageism.

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