Younger Women Have Their Own Views of Aging, Counteracting Discrimination
The recent “OK, Boomer” meme is just the latest example of an ongoing tense dialogue between two generations prominently. Articles exploring ageism often cite the cultural experiences of Millennials and Boomers—while overlooking the cohort between them.
What about the members of Generation X? What do today’s 40- and 50-somethings know about ageism? How does it affect their lives? And how can they change the social, economic and political trajectory of its course?
Addressing these questions raises the basic issue of how valid it is to discuss generations as discrete groups. Are stereotypes for each really true, given the immense diversity among individuals within the same bracket?
Defining Generation X
We like to talk about large numbers of people born between specific years as if they have a predefined set of characteristics, but there’s an incredible diversity within generations. That diversity—in outlook, values and life choices—is shaped as much by other factors as by exposure to a set of shared events over a discrete period of time…. I’m much more interested in looking at the relationship of one generation to another through the lens of life stage and life experience.
As it turns out, life experiences cover a wide range of cultural circumstances. Sociology professor emeritus Dr. Stephen Katz of Trent University’s Trent Centre for Aging and Society lists Gen Xers’ age-based challenges as;
a) being in the ‘shadow’ of the much larger and affluent population of their parents
b) experiencing a more volatile and precarious labor market
c) growing up in both a retro-Conservative political culture and dissolution of the Cold War
d) relating to the world through new digital technologies
e) coping with the consequences of greater divorce rates.
Adjusting to Social Change
With lots of change for Gen Xers to adjust to—on top of the realities of growing older among an aging global population, they are now experiencing the pressures of being a sandwich-generation. Gen Xers have been exposed to caregiving and workplace ageism more than any other generation before.
A 2019 National Alliance for Caregiving report reveals that while 19% of Baby Boomers and 31% of Millennials are simultaneously caregiving for both children and parents, Gen Xers far exceed and assume the burden with 49% of them falling into the same responsibilites.
According to a 2018 AARP survey, 54% of older workers believe that age discrimination at work begins in one’s 50s (although in some industries such as technology, it is occurring for 30-something workers). What adjustments in perspective about getting older are Gen Xers making in response to their current lives?
For many Gen Xers, age is a state of mind. They do not have to ‘grow old gracefully.’ They can have a second act, reinvent themselves and have new adventures. While the Boomer generation may be obsessed with retaining their youth and catering to a commercialized anti-aging ‘positive’ culture of exercise, diet, wellness, brain-training, and active lifestyles, Gen Xers will know better, since their youth was not similarly idealized and their acceptance of more diverse identities and bodies is part of their generational identity. Gen Xersunderstand ageism as not just as an ‘attitude’ but as a central question of social change.
Gen Xers are also parents, they are no longer ‘the next generation,’ but their children (and their children) are such. Thus they are moving into becoming ‘seniors’ themselves and face the challenges of socializing their own children in terms of the intergenerational legacies they wish to pass on. So as Gen Xers are learning about growing older themselves, we can all learn along with them new meanings about aging.
If the next generation is successful, their new definitions of what aging means will further disrupt ageism—for the benefit of generations to come.