Considering Age as a Shared Identity Creates Opportunities for Empathy

Whether I’m teaching in the classroom, facilitating a workshop with a community group, or some other event, I consistently hear stories from people who are younger, older, and in between on life’s spectrum about times when they were silenced, belittled, or marginalized due to their age when exploring the impact of our lived experiences within our social identities and our connection to power, privilege, and oppression. I also hear stories about times when they were advantaged because of it.

Whether we are talking about our individual/interpersonal experiences with marginalization through the use of the microaggressions activity, the social identity spectrum exercise, or making connections to more structural forms of oppression, but age as an identity continues to surface as a point of conflict. That makes sense because we live in a society that advantages members of some groups at the expense of others, and age as an identity isn’t exempt from that reality.

Ageism is the result of prejudice against people who are older, combined with the social/political power to act on that prejudice in interpersonal and structural ways that impact the lives and experiences of older people in ways that reinforce the idea of the inferiority of their inferiority to young people; empowering the young with a host of privileges as a result.

Adultism is the result of prejudice against people who are younger, combined with the social/political power to act on that prejudice in interpersonal and structural ways that impact the lives and experiences of younger people in ways that reinforce the idea of the inferiority of their inferiority to old people; empowering older people with a host of privileges as a result.

Sometimes someone might share a painful experience with ageism and follow it up with something adultist, sometimes another might share something painful with adultism, and say something ageist. The more I hear it the more I can’t help but notice that pattern, as well as the opportunity that is often missed, but can be named and appreciated, if we’re in a place to search for it.

Considering Age as a Shared Identity Creates Opportunities for Empathy

Some of our social identities can change over time, and age is one of them. Ideology exists that, when backed by power both privileges and oppresses us based on age. There are times when older age is valued because of some perceived or actual attainment or experience. Yet, there are points and environments when that same age is perceived as a liability. There are situations when youth is associated with traits like “vitality” and “innovation”, while in other contexts it might be associated with inexperience, incompetence, or some other negative trait.

Considering age as a transitional, shared identity creates opportunities for empathy, appreciation, and positive social change. Moving from a framework that devalues folks based on age to one that appreciates them; moving from a framework that assumes that “we have it” based on our age and perspective, to one that recognizes that generationally, each of us has knowledge and strengths to contribute as well as things to learn from each other can open the door for affirming inter-generational exchanges. Getting there will involve us examining ourselves.

Are you a person who is older? Think of some experiences where your age provided you some advantage. Can you remember times when you were younger and were dismissed due to your age?

Are you a person who is younger? What are some ways you’ve felt that youth is valued in society? Have you heard others make jokes or use/act on stereotypes of people who are older?

What actions do we take, what systems to we participate in that reinforce the ideas of superiority/inferiority when we think about age?

No matter how young, or old we might be, we’ve been somewhere, or are heading somewhere along the spectrum of aging and the experiences that come with it. The more we can commit to identifying the roles we play in improving or perpetuating conditions, the more we may discover how interconnected we are, and how much we each need to work together, to create change.

Ubuntu,

From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins-Jones

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I'm a Social Worker, Educator, and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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