Ageism is the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of their age. Ageism is widespread and an insidious practice which has harmful effects on the health of older adults. For older people, ageism is an everyday challenge. Overlooked for employment, restricted from social services and stereotyped in the media, ageism marginalises and excludes older people in their communities. Ageism is everywhere, yet it is the most socially “normalized” of any prejudice, and is not widely countered – like racism or sexism. These attitudes lead to the marginalisation of older people within our communities and have negative impacts on their health and well-being.
That’s a quote from the World Health organization on ageism.
I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast.
How’s it goin out there. Hope all is well.
This is Episode 13 of my series of episodes on Imagination and creativity, based around my book Create.
Last time I spoke about courage, trolls and human Walls, but today I want to talk about ageism and retirement.
For decades, I used to always read a writer’s bio first, even before the first line of their book. I was obsessed with age. What age was she when she got her first novel published? What age was she when she got her second one out there? The nearer she was to my age, the more relieved I became.
Why? Because I, along with so many young people, are obsessed with this Wall of age, and early achievement. I used to see myself as a failure because I hadn’t published a novel earlier.
This is the culture we live in. You’re supposed to come out with something wonderful in our twenties, when we’ve barely experienced life.
This can have really bad side effects. I’ve seen many writers who had early success and never had another thing published. There were many different reasons for this. Trying to reproduce the same thing which made them successful then being called derivative. Not being able to write another book for over ten years because of the pressure they felt to “perform” the same way again.
As a young writer I was a somewhat bitter individual. I’m not too sure I’d like to have a conversation with that young man. He was fun but he hated a lot of things. He was an angry “intellectual” railing at everyone who’d sold out. Back then, I had no idea about story. I just did what I thought I was supposed to be doing. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and got angrier the older I got, especially the more I saw badly written books getting published.
Now, I am so grateful that my earlier novels were never published. Why? They lacked story. They lacked craft. They lacked emotional intelligence. This is not to say young writers aren’t valuable. There are many wonderful books published by people in their twenties, but now I’m glad it didn’t happen for me, because it’s allowed me to grow, and so allowed my writing to evolve in private, not in public, where oftentimes you are punished for not putting something wonderful out into the world first time out, and every time after that. It’s like a film editor friend of mine once said to me.
“I don’t mind if this movie is a failure, John. The spotlight is on the director, not the editor. I have the time to grow. A director has to hit it every time out the door, and most directors can’t sustain that.”
That friend is a very successful film editor now, but when I met him first he was doing indie documentaries, not big budget movies.
So, for the majority of creative fields there’s this pressure to hit it out of the park first time out, after college, with your first creation. Well, that’s a wrong-headed and destructive way of thinking and being in the world. It only leads to anxiety and depression or worse.
It was only recently I discovered Charles Bukowski, Raymond Chandler and J. L. Carr didn’t publish their first novels until they were 51. J.R.R. Tolkien was 62 when the Lord of the Ring books came out. Harriet Doerr didn’t publish her first novel, “Stones of Ibarra”, until she was 74. And this is just novels. Think of memoirs, like Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes”, written in his sixties, after decades of being a teacher.
Then there’s drama. At 41, Beckett thought he was a failure. He’d had one novel published, “Murphy”, and it was forgotten. His career in academics was abandoned. He went home to take care of his mother in Dublin where he realized what he really needed to do. The beginnings of what he’d done in Roussillon in the south of France came alive: “Waiting for Godot”. Then there’s Ionesco, a favorite of mine. He didn’t write his breakthrough play “The Bald Prima Donna” until he was 40. And nobody liked it. They didn’t laugh. It was too far ahead of its time. Only later did people start to enjoy his play.
The mental Wall hits you with this:
“It’ll take too long. I’m too old to start writing/painting/designing, etc.”
“I should give up. I should have produced something when I was much younger.”
Well, that’s crap, the mind-ego building yet another wall.
This idea of being too old to start is ridiculous really. Picasso never stopped. He painted until 91, literally until three in the morning, a few hours before he died. Frank Lloyd Wright designed, Stravinsky composed, and Sophocles wrote (“Oedipus at Colonus”), all in their nineties. In her eighties, when Georgia O’Keeffe lost her vision and could no longer paint, she began making pottery. In their eighties, Willie Nelson and João Gilberto are still performing, Quincy Jones still producing.
Retirement? What the hell are people retiring from? Life? Why bother living any more if you’re going to retire from it? Why not create something instead? Why not re-create, not re-tire? Are you really that tired, or only tired because society says you are?
Young programmers, or more brogrammers, and certain unwritten company policies from the tech generation are even more willing to retire people. In his book Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Startup Bubble”, Dan Lyons says the tech industry are firing people at 40 now. They’re too old for the brogrammers. This is crazy.
So, what do we say? How do we combat this? Don’t be ageist? Saying geezer is prejudicial? Old coot too? Calling someone decrepit is the same thing. I used to do it myself. I used to call people older than me, geezers. And as with all the brogrammers in Silicon Valley, I did it because of the one thing we really know about life, that we’re going to die. And as the Romans used to say “Timor mortis contrubat me” – The fear of death terrifies me. And what reminds you of death? Old people. So, we need to get them out of our sight, not listen to them, learn from, let them inspire us to be even more creative. I’m not saying old age makes a person wiser, but as Hemingway wrote in “Farewell to Arms”, it does make them “more careful”.
Just because the body fades doesn’t mean what’s inside it does not have the same incommunicable wildness that was there 50 years before. It’s about how old you feel, not how old you are. Don’t be agist. You’re only insulting your future creative self.
The World Health Organization has started four studies to define ageism and to discover ways to combat it. In their fact file: “Misconceptions on ageing and Health” they say one myth is that mandatory retirement ages don’t help create jobs for youth, quote:
Policies enforcing mandatory retirement ages do not help create jobs for youth, but they reduce older workers’ ability to contribute. They also reduce an organization’s opportunities to benefit from the capabilities of older workers. Age has not been shown to be a reliable indicator for judging workers’ potential productivity or employability.
They also cite surveys in the United States that found the majority of people approaching traditional retirement age do not actually want to retire. But still, many countries or industries have mandatory retirement ages. These discriminatory practices should be abolished. People should be allowed to participate creatively in whatever they want until whenever they want.
Even if someone decides working isn’t a creative or passionate practice for them, then retirement from work shouldn’t mean waiting to die in the living room. Life isn’t about sitting down all day, doing nothing, staring at the TV with your hands crossed. When you’re older you don’t have to make as much money to pay for the mortgage, the kids, the bills, etc. If anything, when you stop working for the man it’s an ideal time to start creating. It’s an opportunity. To create. To do what you always never had time to do, not to vegetate. Are you a vegetable, or a creative being?
It’s also an opportunity to help, to be of service to others, to help others create, to become what the Hindus call a forest dweller, to go out into the “forest” and bring back your wisdom to give to the rest of the world, what they call “Vanaprastha”. It could be doing art classes with a grandchild or daughter. Writing a journal of your life for your grandchildren. Helping people in your community. Anything.
For example, was poetry woven into your life from childhood, but then family and work took over? For a seventy-four year old woman who goes to La Muse every year this was exactly the case. She didn’t even consider becoming a “poet” — that was for Whitman, or T.S. Eliot, the pinnacle for her. But when she retired from wage work, she knew she wanted to write poems. So she went to La Muse with a book called “Poetry as Spiritual Practice”, and worked through it like a text. She hasn’t stopped since. They (both life and her poems) have only gotten better and better with time.
So, say no to retirement. Resist ageism. And if you’re younger, try to have compassion for people with older bodies. Just because they’re bodies are old doesn’t mean their hearts are no longer young, and just because your body is young doesn’t mean you have to create a masterpiece in your twenties. The imagination is not about age, but about patience, compassion and consistency.
So, no. Don’t compare your age to others. Don’t retire. Create!
So thanks for listening. I started with a quote from the World Health organization and as usual I’m going to end with an Irish proverb. This one means:
Youth does not care where it sets its foot.
Is cum leis an óige cá leagann sí a cos.
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Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.