What’s with the benevolent stereotyping of older workers?

This guest post is by Ruth Ginzberg, 65, the Sr. I.T. Procurement Specialist at the University of Wisconsin System.  She has an allegedly useless humanities degree in Philosophy with a concentration in Ethics, and an advanced technical degree in Information Systems Security.

I keep trying to figure out why so many articles about older workers as valuable resources, and older individuals outside of work as valuable members of the community, still make me grouchy.

I think it’s because they still promote stereotypes, just perhaps slightly more positive stereotypes than those that depict us as all in the throes of decline, disability, dementia and death.

The wise, kindly, nurturing grandmotherly and grandfatherly stereotypes often featured in such pieces may describe some older individuals, but let’s not forget that many older individuals don’t fit, and don’t want to fit, into those kinds of roles in their workplaces or communities either.

Older individuals don’t lose our ability to analyze, problem solve, direct others, invent, create, design, develop, manage people and resources, lead initiatives, complete projects and accept feedback (including both positive and negative feedback) that helps us  grow to the next level. This is true whether or not we are “retired.”

Not all older workers are repositories of “institutional memory.” Some older workers have only worked for their current employers for several years themselves, and are still learning the business (and in need of as much training, mentoring and professional development as are younger workers with only a few years in their current roles).

Some older individuals are more comfortable analyzing, synthesizing, designing, engineering, building, and testing solutions to tricky problems than they are reading children’s books to toddlers or gardening with middle schoolers.

Some older individuals have talents they’ve not yet had the time or energy to develop, and cherish the opportunity to develop them later in life. Some older individuals discover talents they never knew they had before.

Most older individuals probably don’t want to play the role of stereotypical characters in somebody else’s script.

Even stereotypes that on the surface appear to be positive often are not.  They still pigeonhole multi-dimensional human beings by reducing them to one-dimensional caricatures  The problem is that the invoked stereotype, viewed close up, interferes with the ability to see older individuals’ many other talents and skills.

We can’t just replace negative stereotypes with more positive stereotypes and believe our work is done.  We need to push this transformation to the next level

2 thoughts on “What’s with the benevolent stereotyping of older workers?

  1. The images and pieces of writing depicting older people still working or capable (“still practicing at 95!”) are patronizing, which is why they are subtly irritating. Isn’t the subtext “they’re doing it, but most of you can’t?” So these older people still working or starting new careers portrayed in articles online are sort of like exotic animals in a zoo cage, instead of the ordinary and everyday. The implication is that this is rare, this is not you. There is also a trivializing “isn’t that cute” tone to these articles that minimizes the full humanness of the subjects.

  2. Economic historian Louis Hyman makes a related argument in an Opinion piece in the NY Times on August 19 called “The Gig Economy Isn’t the iPhone’s Fault” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/18/opinion/technology/technology-gig-economy.html). An excerpt:
    “The history of labor shows that technology does not usually drive social change. On the contrary, social change is typically driven by decisions we make about how to organize our world. Only later does technology swoop in, accelerating and consolidating those changes. This insight is crucial for anyone concerned about the insecurity and other shortcomings of the gig economy. For it reminds us that far from being an unavoidable consequence of technological progress, the nature of work always remains a matter of social choice. It is not a result of an algorithm; it is a collection of decisions by corporations and policymakers.”

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