Ageism Is The New Normal
Updated: May 8
When Is Diversity Not Diversity? When Prejudice is Condoned By Parliament.
As a middle-aged woman, I'm considered anathema to many publications. I'm your mum, and nobody wants to listen to what their mum has to say. Except, perhaps, all the millions of other middle-aged people out there with cold hard cash to spend, who might relate to middle-aged authors and find us relevant, thoughtful, experienced or occasionally even wise.
But rationality never defeated bias single-handedly.
Ageism is a worldwide problem, The WHO considers it to be the most prevalent form of prejudice.
"Ageism is highly prevalent; however, unlike other forms of discrimination, including sexism and racism, it is socially accepted and usually unchallenged, because of its largely implicit and subconscious nature."
Bias against older authors makes no sense logically - and it makes no sense financially either. The middle-aged have access to a lot more disposable income than younger people, have been proven to have a greater attention span and, like all humans, search for meaningful stories in areas, topics and interests relevant to their own group. Why dismiss such a lucrative market?
Yet, I have been dismissed as not being edgy or diverse enough by publishers: though of course they're careful how they word their prejudice. In this TikTok World, my life experience isn't relevant to many of those who could actually monetize my skills for their own gain. Because I lived past 40.
Younger people haven't yet been older. But older people do have the benefit of having once been young. Some of us remember it pretty clearly and enjoy, value and uplift the voices of younger writers and creators. Some of us acknowledge the benefits of youthful malleability and neuroplasticity, progressive notions and new ideas - and while we don't always agree with younger writers for valid reasons, many older writers are happy to offer our praise and support for the talented amongst our younger peers. Unfortunately, that appreciation is rarely reciprocated.
Ageism is global, harmful and insidious.
Reports out of the UK and Europe have found that ageism is the most common type of discrimination. In the US, around 61 per cent of workers at or over the age of 45 reported witnessing or experiencing ageism in the workplace.
We're all entitled to our opinion, and publications have a perfect right to publish and elevate the voices of whomever they choose. But I do wish it wasn't such a struggle to encourage them to at least consider their unconscious bias.
When Is Diversity Not Diversity?
Perhaps even worse is the ageism which doesn't solely inform opinions but also informs policies and permits legal discrimination.
Did you know that the Queensland Police Service, alone of all Australian government agencies, forces its officers to retire at the age of 60? And no, that's not based on physical capacity as there is no physical capacity test. They're not even given the opportunity to prove they're still effective and capable.
In Australia, you're eligible for the aged pension at 67. Fire and Emergency services and all other government front line officers are free to continue working past the age of 60. But QPS Policy leaves officers who have devoted decades of their life to serving the public, officers who are at the top of their game managerially and have a wealth of experience, to fend for themselves for 7 years before the government considers them old enough to receive a pension. This clear bias is based on an arbitrary historical rule, dating back to 1863 when the average life expectancy was 47. However, the QPS has unashamedly refused to reconsider this ageist legislation, though it has been brought to their attention.
Australian legislation now supports many progressive changes. I think we can all imagine the news headlines if the QPS insisted on retaining outdated policies mandating sexism or racism.
But ageism continues to be supported by law.
Ageism and Sexism: A Toxic Concoction
I think most of us would agree that women, generally, are a much-maligned sex. Mums in particular are censured for a lot and credited for little. If her son turned out to be a serial killer, it must have been his mum's fault. But if he turned out to be a rocket scientist he must have applied his own talents and been a very hard worker.
Historically, society has enthusiastically heaped blame on mothers for a variety of problems. In the 1940s, Austrian physician Leo Kanner hypothesized that the cause of autism spectrum disorder was a “genuine lack of maternal warmth” from so-called “refrigerator mothers.” During the same time period, Sigmund Freud and other psychologists blamed schizophrenia on maternal rejection and a lack of attachment. But mother-blaming isn't specific to medicine. Throughout history, mothers have been disproportionately blamed for everything from homosexuality (caused by overly-attentive mothers who feminize their sons) to poverty (the pervasive myth of the “welfare queen”).
I have considered, like writers of old, using a pseudonym. But I'm too forthright for that to work for long. I like being my own, authentic self. I feel I have stories to tell, and a voice worth listening to. Many publishers, however, disagree. Because I'm an older woman.
And it's perfectly acceptable not to include ageism in your diversity considerations, apparently.
Never mind that I grew up in poverty the likes of which most in the Western World cannot imagine or that I'm a survivor of multiple physical and sexual assaults and was raised in an environment of normalised alcoholic violence. Let's ignore the fact that for large chunks of my life I was an autodidact, and that my life experience includes almost dying in childbirth, making my way across the world from Scotland to England to America to Australia, being cheated on, being abused, losing my marriage and all that I'd acquired. Let's simply discount that I have experienced mental health issues throughout my life ranging from moderate to extremely severe and have both lived experience in a wide range of issues and robust working experience within the community and mental health sectors. Let's simply discount that I'm a skilled, experienced writer with a wide range of knowledge on many subjects.
I'm a middle-aged woman. Not currently - or ever in fact - the flavour of the moment.
We already know that older women in general receive less respect and have their viewpoint discounted more regularly both by the medical profession and in the work environment by their own employers, or prospective employers.
It turns out, to my great disappointment, that the world of publication is no different.
Bias is hard to prove, of course. I can offer my own anecdotal evidence, but that's easy to discount (since I'm a middle-aged woman).
Vida co-director Erin Belieu said the Vida statistics clearly showed that "some sort of systemic bias" was at work. "Such a very wide discrepancy between the rates of publication clearly points at some other external forces at work beyond an editor's idea of 'good' and 'not as good'," she said. "And, you know, we live in a world where gender bias is embedded in practically every aspect of our lives – why would the literary world be different than the larger world in terms of the way women are viewed and valued? It's not. No surprise there."
Realistically, if we already know that women everywhere are treated with anything ranging from less respect to almost complete disregard based on their culture, it's not hard to extrapolate that to the behaviour of editors, publications and publishing houses. It would be odd, in fact, if such a bias wasn't prevalent.
The Irony Of Ageism
Buried at the very heart of ageism is an ironic seed; your prejudice is going to come back to bite you, and much sooner than you think. You will find, as I did, that the decades pass very swiftly.
Ageism is the only form of discrimination that every one of us will be subject to, if we're lucky. Sexist men can never know what it is to experience the prejudice they have themselves aimed at women. Racists can never understand what it is to live life as a person of colour. But if you live long enough, you too will be written off by youthful bias.
A Fortunate Life
I do want to make it clear that I actually see myself as having been incredibly fortunate. Yes, my father liked to smash up furniture when he was drunk, which was often, I walked around for several years with holes in my shoes and the rain squelching in like something out of a Monty Python sketch, and one particularly unpleasant boyfriend throttled me unconscious then headbutted me and threw me to the floor. Yes, I've experienced trauma, need and struggle.
But there were people far worse off than me, and there still are. My parents loved me as best they could and provided for me as well as they were able. I made it out of the crab pot. I left the poverty, violence and alcoholic culture behind, I got to see the world, and taste many of its juicier fruits. And now I get to write about those experiences.
So What's To Be Done?
There's not much to be done about your prejudice if you're one of those editors and publishers who just aren't interested in me the second you see my face, or realise I'm a woman of a certain age. There's very little I can do to reach you. You most likely haven't even made it to the end of this article, or if you did you're trying to figure out ways to dismiss my evidence-based arguments, using every cognitive trick in the book to convince yourself that, in this instance, your bias is acceptable, different and justified.
But I'm going to say it anyway. Disregarding the accomplishments of middle-aged women (or indeed middle-aged men) means you're missing out on a huge pool of talent and acumen. Older women really do know things about the world you'd be well advised to consider. If I could only reach my 20-year-old self, I'd have a lot of wit and wisdom to share with her.
But I can't convince you of that, I am one older woman swimming upstream against a sea of systemic ageism and sexism. There's not much I can do all by myself if you choose not to hear me.
Frustrating as it is to miss out on opportunities because of your implicit bias, I really only have one option.
Even if our words and our voices are not elevated in society because of our age and our sex, even if we are dismissed, overlooked, mocked, ignored and derided, even if I can't do much personally to give middle-aged women a platform, I do have one protest I can make. There is one thing I can still do.
I can write about it.
Copyright Alison Tennent 2021, all rights reserved. Scottish by birth, upbringing and bloodline, Australian by citizenship. If you’re reading this anywhere but The Garrulous Glaswegian, Vocal+ or Medium, this work may have been plagiarized.