Someone posted on Facebook: My husband gave advice to a guy who’s feeling discouraged in dating. I overheard him advising the guy, “You can practice by talking to women in their 70s, just to learn how to relate to women as real people, and maybe get some advice on how to approach younger women.”
So now the role of an “older” woman is to be unpaid relationship coach to a clueless guy. And of course she’s filled with advice on how to deal with women in their twenties, since it’s been awhile and dating norms have, um, changed just a little.
And of course she’s a wise old crone. Never mind that she had a string of affairs throughout her life, most of which ended badly, mostly with guys with drinking problems who left her broke.
Or she’s always been an uptight lady who believed “save it for marriage.”
Or she’s wary of casual dating because she remembers the vulnerability she experienced growing up in the days before birth control pills were readily available just for the asking.
Or she’s a gay woman who isn’t quite the expert to advise men of a certain age.
Nope…she’s in her 70s. That makes her wise. A truckload of books supports the notion of wise old people. There’s even a whole book called “Replace Aging with Saging.”
When I think of “sage” I tend to think of spice you use on poultry; according to some spiritual healers, saging your home is a way to drive away the bad spirits.
And speaking of spirits, I’m not crazy about comparisons to wines that grow better as they age. Remember they have to be kept under special conditions so they won’t go sour.
First, why is “aging” a verb now? We don’t talk about “adolescenting” or “youthing” or even “midlife-ing.” We don’t talk about “health-ing” or “sick-ing.” The implication is that adding years to your life calls for some action on your part. If you’re healthy and active along the way, you’re “aging well.” If you’re happy and you demonstrate a positive attitude, you’re also “aging well.”
This concept takes responsibility away from your environment. Dealing with ageism every day? It’s up to you to be bright and cheerful. Your doctor says, “What can you expect at your age?” Well, you’re not aging as well as you thought … or you’ve chosen a doctor who deals in stereotypes. Catch pneumonia or fracture a bone in a fall? Definitely not aging well.
But let’s get back to being a sage. When you think about it, assuming you’re a sage can be just as stereotypical and destructive as assuming you’re a technological idiot.
When do we ascribe good things to a demographic group, universally?
Hopefully we’re beyond saying, “Black men play basketball,” or “Black people have rhythm.”
And hopefully we realize that not all Asians are natural mathematicians and engineers.
A lot of people – including the late Joan Rivers – joked about the stereotype of gay men and fashion. Hopefully we know that’s not true. I had a gay neighbor who wore plumbers-crack jeans and oversize sleeveless t-shirts with holes.
So let’s look at this one: “Older people …say, over sixty … are filled with wisdom.”
What’s wrong with this?
For one thing, not all people over a certain age are wise. Just take a look at some politicians around the world.
People of all ages can make poor decisions. Once they’re outside their areas of experience, competence and expertise, they’re like everybody else.
A sixty-plus person can deny climate change, insist that abstinence is the cure for teen sex, and believe fervently that anyone who doesn’t share her beliefs will go straight to hell — literally. A sixty-plus person can believe that we’re too puritanical and we should make sure teenagers get initiated into intimacy with experienced women. Conversely, another person the same age might have trouble naming the part of the body the British call the “naughty bits;” they might think the sex act is something inherently nasty — something women endure for the sake of marriage.
And I’ve met lots of mothers whose mothers delivered awful advice about child-rearing based on their own background. Someone who grew up in the forties and early fifties might respond to a misbehavior incident with, “That kid just needs a good swat.” Wisdom? More like an expression of values.
One problem with the “elder as sage” stereotype is that it’s hard to joke about. A famous female basketball player once joked, “I can’t dance. People tease me about it – my assistant coach asks, ‘Are you sure you’re black?'” My gay neighbor used to joke, “People ask, ‘Are you sure you’re gay?'”
But who’s going to joke, “Are you sure you’re old? You’re so dumb!”
Third, giving people pseudo-respect comes across as patronizing. “You’ve got experience. You have so much to offer!” reminds me of the way people speak to a five-year-old who stumbles across the stage in an ill-fitting ballet costume. “Wow – you’re really good!”
Finally, a lot of people over 60 would like to remain in the workplace. They want to take ordinary jobs. They may not be qualified to be Supreme Court Justices or Minority Leader of the US House of Representatives or coaches on basketball teams (both Paul Westhead and Marynell Meadors were a year or two away from 70 when their teams competed for the WNBA championship).
The thing is, who wants to hire a sage? Who wants to work alongside a sage? We want to hire a competent person who can pull her own weight and make a good colleague. We want someone who will be just another person.
If you want to hire someone with wisdom, find a consultant who understands the problem your problem to solve. Worry about experience, not age.