You associate ageism with discrimination against the elderly, but Andrew Dickens thinks turning 40 is when the prejudice kicks in
Hello. My name is Andrew and I’m 44 years old. This is not only a fact, but one that it would be literally impossible to avoid unless I’d met with an unfortunate fate before last October (the 8th, in case you’re thinking of sending me a present this year).
And yet I still feel squeamish saying it (or writing it). I feel uncomfortable revealing my age. My genetically, chronologically determined age.
I feel uncomfortable stating a fact of time. That’s because, even in a world with an ever-older population, I feel that my age will be judged, that I—a man with all his hair and most of it not grey—will be a victim of ageism.
As I sat nursing a hangover and ‘Christmas pudding baby’ on Boxing Day this year, I read that the UK was “completely and institutionally ageist” according to the chief executive of Care England.
Now, he was talking about a much older age group than I occupy—and, to be fair, very serious issues around welfare—but when I saw the headline, I thought, “Yes! Yes, it is!” Because I, a year younger than George Foreman was when he became heavyweight champion of the world, feel the spectre of ageism haunting me.
I feel that, to some, I have one hoof in the knacker’s yard.
Too old, but not old enough
I’m lucky in so far as most people don’t think I look as old as I am (see hair comment), but the reaction when I tell them how old I am is always a cocktail of surprise and pity.
Like, “Wow, you don’t look that old,” but also, “Wow, that’s really old, are we capable of having a meaningful conversation? And would you like to sit down?”
I got a whiff of it in my late 30s, but once you get a 4 at the front of your age, you’re viewed completely differently.
Visit the gathering place for armchair medieval rabbles that is Twitter and ‘45-year-old white bloke’ is snidey shorthand for anyone out of touch with the modern age (cue people thinking me disliking Twitter is a sign of being out of touch).
It’s balls, of course, and I have the pristine, early-adoption usernames to prove it — but it persists in a very particular way.
Saying things are ‘balls’ is also not a sign of being out of touch.
You’re not old enough to be despised for causing Brexit or buying all the houses for 15p in the 1970s (those people don’t care what anyone says, because they’ve got all the houses), but old enough to be mocked if you, say, try to enter the cultural territory of 20-somethings — and not old enough for it to be ‘fun’ if you do.
We’re not gammon, it’s not malicious, we’re just not supposed to be there somehow.
This isn’t new. Forty has always been seen as the gateway to middle age.
I can easily imagine the 17-year-old me’s internal organs removing themselves from my body before heading to the nearest food-blender and committing an act of self-disintegration had my parents come at me brandishing Nirvana tickets, praising the lyrical genius of Kurt Cobain, and telling me to mind the cat while they went out for a mosh.
But new music is something you possess by generation. Memes are not.
Change is possible
I understand that ageism also affects young people. A lack of experience and a baby-smooth face can make it harder to find a job.
The crack in the door is too often narrower than their foot. But in my realm, I’ve seen a lot of experience replaced by youth because a) you can pay younger people less and b) people older than me think that only people younger than me can work the internet, where journalism now lives.
Because people over 40 can’t adapt, right? They’re not capable of learning or a career change?
Again, it’s balls, but it’s balls that seep into your conscience. All the stereotypes do. They inject you with self-doubt. It’s poison.
You start thinking that you are too old to change, which is how grumpy old people are born: the world is changing and I’m not supposed to change with it, so I’ll just resent it instead.
But do the maths. I’m 44. I’ve been working full-time since I was 22 and as a journalist since I was 28.
So my current career is 16 years old. In 16 years, I’ll be 60 and lottery win aside, still working. The way things are going, I’ll probably be working at 76. So, theoretically, I could have another two careers and be really good at them.
Stereotypes are for schmucks
That’s not all. I could have a gap year if I wanted. I could travel the world. I could move abroad. I could take up competitive video gaming. I could learn an instrument. I could invent an instrument. I don’t have to have kids. I don’t have to start watching Discovery Channel shows about lumberjacks. I don’t have to wear slippers (though I do, because what kind of madman wouldn’t?).
I don’t have to be defined by my age.
And I don’t have to listen to what other people say. If you’ll pardon my language, to goshdarned heck with the negative stereotypes. I can’t do anything about what people think, but I can know, deep in my 44-year-old heart (still going strong) that they’re wrong.
Damn it, I’ll out-youth many a 20-something; I’ll out-run, out-dance, out-drink them. Then I’ll have a nice sit down in my slippers.
And yes, I know that there are people who suffer far, far worse prejudice and discrimination. I’m not gay, black, trans or a woman, for example. But that still doesn’t make it ok. These preconceived opinions still affect lives, still impact careers and mental health. So away with the whataboutery.
It’s also in the interest of younger generations to see 40 as nothing but another number—because that clock doesn’t stop for anyone.
And that is not balls.
Three trips where you can kick ageism into touch:
Hitting the limits in Jordan
Do 40-something past-it has-beens go canyoning through ravines and waterfalls? They do on this trip. Not to mention camel-riding and taking the ‘back door’ route to Petra.
Dine out on Chile gone barmy
Do 40-something past-it has-beens trek all day through Torres Del Paine National Park to the Base Las Torres viewpoint? Do they go glacier-sailing and white-water rafting? YES. YES. YES.
Crush expectations in South Africa
Do 40-something past-it has-beens hike to the summit of Table Mountain, then abseil back down it? Do they go seal-swimming and bungee-jumping? You know the answer.