In his WSJ column, Dan Ariely does half-facetious Q&A from the standpoint of 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, someone asks about a gift for a 45-year-old coworker.
Dan 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.”
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, the stereotype. Not everyone needs reading glasses at 45, 50 or even older. Reading glasses have to be chosen for the individual’s eyesight. So 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? 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, or to give a box of candy to someone who’s allergic to half the ingredients. Give an Amazon gift certificate.
Dan Ariely would never be allowed to take a dig at statuses like being black, Asian, Jewish, or gay. Yet an insensitive, equally objectionable reference to age? No problem.
Time Magazine – March 28, 2016 – page 62. The View Point Column.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes, “But being a black role model is a double-edged sword of inspiration and frustration…The frustration for the black role model is knowing that thought you are proof it can be done – a happy lottery winner waving a million dollar ticket – the odds are so astronomically stacked against you that it sometimes feels as if you’re more a source of false hope and crushed dreams. A casino shill they let win so the suckers will keep playing the slots…”
If you’re black and you fail, he says, people will say “blacks aren’t up to the task.” If you succeed, they’ll say you had advantages from being black.
Let’s try replacing “black” with “aging.”
If you’re old and you fail (or, quite literally, fall), people will say, “It’s your age. What do you expect?”
If you’re old and you dance, work out or perform outstanding feats with technology, they say, “You’re doing well for your age.” Never mind that what you’re doing would be impressive at any age.
I once saw a television interviewer exclaiming over a white-haired woman who was jumping out of airplanes. That’s something most people won’t do, at any age. But the focus was on how old she was.
I get annoyed when younger women at the gym say, “You are amazing.” I’ve been working out for over 30 years. I’m in better shape than some younger people. Even doctors – on the rare occasions I see them – admit I’m in shape.
But I also must have gotten some good genes. And being old is still far from being a picnic, unless you’re running for president.
Today’s New York Times Style section included an article, The Bliss of Grandmother Hormones by Dominique Browning.
She has a remarkably frank comment about aging:
“When we’re young, aging looks sort of yucky; frankly, even though it is extremely un-P.C. to say so, it looks sort of yucky when we get there, too. Hence, the magical thinking around skin creams.”
It’s not clear what we’re to make of that comment. Is she saying that yes, older people are ugly and therefore worthy of discrimination?
But, she says, all these concerns about aging disappear when one enjoys the pleasure of holding “a six-pound newborn boy” against “a heart burnished with the patina of age.”
Probably true. As a single person, I get a lot of pleasure out of holding my cat or snuggling with the dog. Age is a non-issue. Just mutual acceptance.
Maybe I should try for an op-ed about that. Not as PC as grandmothers but surprisingly common.
Not sure how I feel about this article. It’s not easy to transport attitudes across cultures.
In some ways the stereotypes are reinforced, such as asking “elders” for advice. Being old doesn’t automatically make one wise.
But in general, shouldn’t everyone be treated this way? In a medical setting, everyone should be addressed by last name and title. But if everyone else is on a first name basis, why make the “elders” stick out?
It’s fine to serve “elders” first at a family or purely social event, but not everyone likes to be reminded of his or her status. In some contexts, special care comes across as patronizing.
I’m especially nervous about the advice to intrude on someone’s privacy by assuming they’re lonely and want company. No thanks! Nobody should be in a nursing home – they’re evil places. If you’re at a party and see someone who’s alone, it’s nice to seek them out; in fact, it’s a savvy networking strategy.
Age isn’t a useful marker here. Anyone can be lonely, physically limited, or able to deliver wise counsel. Focus on the person, not the age.
“Gram-gram?!” So now “grandma” isn’t just a woman of uncertain age. She’s got no taste and she’s the giver of ugly sweaters.
Stereotypes of aging got reinforced with this photo that got uploaded to Facebook today. I wrote :
“Another ageist stereotype. The man in the cartoon isn’t a 67-year old. Many – perhaps most – people in their late 60s do not need help. A lot of people in their 80s could dash up those steps. We don’t make fun of Asian, gay or black people. Why older folks?”
The response was predictable: “Perhaps we ought to have a sense of humor about our own health problems.”
So I wrote again:
“The danger of laughing at “our aches and pains” is that we tend to attribute health issues to aging when they’re more likely to be related to activity, food or side effects of medication.
“The problem is, when you encourage people to laugh at older people, then ALL older people won’t be taken seriously when they apply for a job or tell the doctors “No thanks, I don’t want that test.”
“The price of ‘cute’ is being treated like a child or a puppy.
“It’s like black people and watermelon jokes. Or jokes about women drivers, which used to be considered appropriate. It seems harmless till you realize the hidden message.”