Eliminating ageism starts with me

Age discrimination is the last somewhat socially acceptable form of discrimination. In contexts in which we would never think of joking about somebody’s sex, colour or creed, we will say they are a bit long in the tooth.

Discrimination is about negatively stereotyping people based on an inalienable characteristic. It used to be you were allowed to discriminate against people over the age of 65, but human rights legislation across the country changed years ago. You can still discriminate against somebody for being under the age of 18, but any other bad treatment based on age is prohibited.

Whether it is in the context of housing, providing services or employment, age is not to be considered and is irrelevant. The problem is that age discrimination is so very hard to prove. A prospective employer cannot necessarily tell your colour, your creed or whether you have a disability from your resume, but they can tell your age. Graduation and seniority dates tell all. How can you even begin to prove age discrimination when you never even got a call for the interview and certainly never any explanation? For those already employed, while there are still a few employers around that are stupid enough to ask repeatedly when someone is going to retire, most have learned to keep their mouth shut.

Aging is very individual. Making assumptions about how quickly somebody can learn a new skill or complete a task based on their age is as ridiculous as making those assumptions based on their gender, skin colour or disability.

Perhaps age discrimination is so pervasive because almost all of us are guilty of discriminating against ourselves based on our age. As I approach my 60th birthday, I have come to realize that I talk a lot of crap to myself. My internal dialogue has often been negative and defeatist because of assumptions I make about myself based on my age. I often crack these jokes out loud. I have one wise friend who has long admonished me for such negative self-talk, but I am only now beginning to understand the point. How can we expect age discrimination to genuinely dissipate in our society if we are walking around telling ourselves “I am too old for that?” I recently lost out on an opportunity because of my age. No, there is nobody to sue. I can’t prove it, but in my gut I know it’s true. At first my anger was palpable. Eventually, one reflects. How can I be mad at people or institutions for holding the same kind of stereotypes that I throw at myself every day?

As a society, we have an aging demographic and therefore an aging workforce. There are not enough younger people to replace the more mature people. People are and will be working later in life than has historically been the case. Employers are really going to need them to be willing to stay. Finances permitting, that is not going to happen if people feel like they are going to work in a place that discounts their contribution or potential because of how many birthdays they have had.

Some research indicates that the anti-aging garbage we bounce around in our own mind actually accelerates our decay. The negative self-talk is actually making things worse. Separate and apart from the effect on ourselves of our own internal biases is the effect upon the world around us. If I have a self-image of being something less because of my age, how is the world supposed to see me differently?

Almost all of us contribute to ageism by buying into age stereotypes without really considering them. If there is to be any hope of age discrimination being a thing of the past, the real change has to start with how we talk to ourselves.

Ed Canning practises employment and human rights law with Ross & McBride LLP, in Hamilton, representing both employers and employees. Email him at [email protected] more employment law information: hamiltonemploymentlaw.com.


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