Adding some nuance to the concepts of Ageism and Adultism. (Or, how the suffix ‘-ism’ can sometimes make mountains out of molehills.)

Author: Pamela Lindsay

Category: Inclusive Language

Our current fetish for identifying isms often leads to the rebranding of ordinary social phenomena as extraordinary. This rebranding includes the terminology used to describe these phenomena by morphing ordinary words into pretentious neologisms such as: ageism and adultism.

Ageism was apparently coined in the 60s to describe negative stereotypes and discrimination against people based on their ages, be they old or young. Now ageism tends to refer to negative stereotypes toward old people as well as the systemic negligence of the needs of the ageing by a younger population. 

Adultism, a term that appears to be coined around the beginning of the 20th century, refers specifically to the negative stereotypes held by adults toward the young, and the systemic oppression of the young by adults.

I grant that at the core of ageism and adultism are discriminations, negligence, and abuses that call for redress. Labour laws are enacted to prevent the exploitation of young children and the wrongful termination of employment of ageing adults. And the burden of care required for the very young and the frail elderly places the daily needs of each subset into the hands of caregivers who might be grossly negligent or abusive. But these isms capture more than employment and burdens of care. 

Both isms include not only the attitudes, beliefs, and prejudices held by individuals toward the young and old, internalized adultism and ageism, but also those held in common, cultural adultism and ageism. The notions that children are coddled and old people outmoded are examples of internalized adultism and ageism. The Victorian adage children are to be seen, not heard and the so-called western individualism thought to lead to the warehousing of the elderly are examples of cultural adultism and ageism respectively.

Adultism and ageism are new words for old and very ordinary phenomena. Tension between the generations always has and always will exist — e.g. Boomers vs. Millennials — as sure as the young and old will always occupy the poles of the human life span. The nuclei of these poles are birth (or, for some, conception) and death, events that call for special consideration and each laden with its own phalanx of attitudes, beliefs, and prejudices, both internalized and cultural. E.g. natural versus induced labour, cremation versus burial.

Between the crib and the casket are different milestones humans reach fairly predictably amid unpredictable material conditions. 

As surely as dogs and cats and elephants, humans go through biological stages of growth and deterioration. And these stages come part and parcel with corresponding behaviours. As surely as exuberant puppies prod at plodding old dogs, old dogs snap and snarl at exuberant puppies. Yet they’ll also engage in grooming, cuddling, and playing. Though along with these bonding behaviours arise, in turn, jealousies and misunderstandings such as a gesture to play regarded an act of aggression. 

Living in packs means living with stepping on each other’s paws as much as stepping in each other’s paw prints. The size and surety of those paws are various, and even more the wants that drive them. Yet all of these physical and psychological variations are patently familiar. And many are predictably indexed to life stages, not perfectly so but enough to recognize common constituents of puppyhood, young adulthood, motherhood, and old age. Just as in human packs. And the kinds of clashes that arise between humans in different life stages are also predictable. Both children and the elderly struggle for independence, children to gain it and the elderly to keep it. Technology both mitigates and complicates these struggles.

The technological changes in one generation can occur at break-neck speed, no less for a leap from throwing stones to whittling stones into arrow heads than for the leap from cranking a telephone to cranking about cell phones. The frustration some young people have with some old for fumbling with iPhone features, and the frustration some old people have with some young who take it for granted everyone understands iPhones is inevitable. And it’s likely inevitable that these frustrations are amplified by the extended life spans afforded by science and technology. Rather than a generation gap, there are many generation gaps at play. But these gaps aren’t impassable chasms, they’re bound by webs of relationships securing suspension bridges across the divides. Bridges that see a lot of to-and-fro traffic. Grandparents. Employers. Teachers.

The old care for the young, just as the young care for the old. The old curse the young, just as the young curse the old. As one song goes, What’s the matter with kids today? And anotherYour sons and your daughters are beyond your command, your old road is rapidly agin’… 

The old (like me) have one little bit of cosmic justice to lord over the young. We know the young are ageing. And that the generation who thinks the 20- and 30-year olds of today annoying and redundant has already been born. Ah, but isn’t this attitude an example of adultism? Yes, but it’s funny. Isn’t depriving me of humour that provides some palliation for ageism ageism? Well, …. And isn’t accusing me of adultism ageism since the accusation assumes a stereotype of old people crabbing at the young? Well, …. Well?


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