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aging and stereotypes

Image by Jackson Films on Unsplash.

For many years, Dan Ariely ran a column for the Wall Street Journal. Mostly his advice seems sincere, but light-hearted, applying his expertise as a behavioral economist.

Alas, instead of sticking to economics, Ariely can’t resist the temptation to turn into Dear Abby from time to time.

Case in point. In the June 11 column, from several years ago, someone asks about a gift suggestion for a 45-year-old coworker. I read this column a long time ago and just came across my notes when reviewing my older blog posts.

What does an economist recommend as a birthday gift for a 45-year-old?

Dan Ariely recommends getting the person reading glasses. I’m not making this up. He says people delay getting reading glasses because they don’t want to admit they’re aging and/or they don’t realize their vision is deteriorating.

“If you give your friend a pair,” says Dan Ariely, “you will spare him the procrastination, and he will immediately realize that he has been living in a blurry world. He might not immediately feel deep appreciation, but it would still be a very helpful present.”

It’s hard to tell if this answer was intended to be serious. However, his answers to other questions in the same column seem thoughtful. He’s quite sensitive to a question about feeling pain more than pleasure.

Here’s how I responded in the Comments:

Glasses to a 45-year-old? You are saying that the only factor in choosing a gift is the person’s age, and then adding a false stereotype about age.

First, there’s the stereotype. Not everyone needs reading glasses at 45, 50, or even older. Nearsighted people often simply remove their glasses to read.

Reading glasses have to be chosen for the individual’s eyesight. Even when people buy “readers” from a drugstore rack, they choose from a range of options. The idea isn’t even practical.

Second, if someone asked about a gift for a gay friend, would you recommend Judy Garland records or a rainbow flag? Would you buy a black friend a book by Langston Hughes? Doesn’t your coworker have an identity beyond his age?

For anybody’s birthday, your gift choice should be guided by your friend’s interests if (and only if) you know them. It’s insulting to give a tea set to a coffee drinker.  It’s thoughtless to give a box of candy to someone who’s allergic to half the ingredients. Someone once set me a beautiful plant for my birthday; I gave it to a plant-loving friend before I could kill it.

Don’t know the person well? Why are you giving them a gift? If it’s a business relationship, don’t be afraid to give a gift certificate to Amazon or a Visa gift card. One real estate agent sent me a $50 gift card for a referral and I’ll send all my referrals her way! Another agent sent me a gift certificate to a pizza place – something I can’t use, even though I like pizza. I get so much pizza at group functions, I rarely order some myself.

No WSJ columnist would be allowed to take a dig at statuses like being black, Asian, Jewish, or gay. Yet an equally stereotypical reference to age? No problem.