Youthful Compliments: Ageist Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing?

By Sheila Roher

Remember the furor when Joe Biden called then-candidate Barack Obama an “articulate African-American?” What Biden intended as a compliment angered many African-Americans who saw it as playing off a stereotype of “Black men are less articulate than white men.” Biden’s comment was viewed as a way of calling Obama “More white than Black,” and therefore an ‘acceptable’ African-American candidate.

A similar dynamic is at work when someone praises a woman by saying “She thinks like a man.” In my college days, that was a backhanded compliment grudgingly handed out to women who managed to excel in math and science despite considerable sexist attitudes. “Thinking like a man,” plays off the stereotype that most women are more subjective and less rational in their thinking compared to men; men were seen as setting the standard for rational and ‘objective’ analysis, the only ‘valid’ types of thinking (This stereotype is still a prevalent in many parts of the world, and used to prevent the education of women on the grounds that they cannot think as rationally as men).

The ways in which language codifies prejudices about race, gender, and age came home to me when someone describes an older person as “very youthful.” What are we really saying when we compliment an older person on having a “youthful” attitude? Or describe ourselves as “feeling young again?” In recent discussions with friends and strangers, definitions for “youthful” included “willing to take risks,” “optimistic,” “open to new experiences”, and “happy and free.” Not surprisingly, these same people (most of whom were over forty) defined the opposite of youthful (“an old attitude”) as “not open to new possibilities,” “more constricted in thinking,” “negative,” “old people always say they can’t do something.” Is this true or are we buying into language that reflects and promotes ageism? I think it’s the latter and it points to a major problem in our culture.

To be called “old in spirit” has no positive connotations in our culture, nothing comparable to the romanticized view of youth as “free” and ‘optimistic” (I say ‘romanticized’ because my discussions with young people don’t necessarily reveal a lot of optimism and sense of freedom in today’s world). Why is there no assumption that as we grow in experience, we may also grow in understanding and appreciation of the richness and complexity of life?

Perhaps our use of language reflects, in part, the sense that adulthood brings greater responsibility and burdens; every choice we make closes the door on some other choice(s) either temporarily or permanently. Youth, undefined in so many ways, carries the excitement of promise and potential. With fewer years of life experience and (depending on one’s childhood) less baggage; the canvas of life appears to have larger sections yet to be painted. And, some adults may envy what they see as the relative “freedom” of youth.

Yet to praise an older person as “youthful” is in some way to deny the value of life experience. Let’s challenge the assumption that old means “less open to new experiences, less optimistic.” For some people, no doubt this is true. But, how much of that is socially constructed, the result of living in a society that tells older people they are ‘past it’ and makes it harder to chart new paths in later life?

One fact about later life is true: we have fewer days ahead of us than behind us. At age sixty, the idea of becoming a surgeon, a profession that needs years of training and development, is not feasible. Age does limit some options, but that’s not simply an experience of aging. Every choice we make eliminates other possibilities. Marry one person and you’re foreswearing all others. Commit to one career and others become “might-have-beens.” But experience can also provide a clarity and appreciation that is less accessible to youth.

wolfsheepOur language about age is — like language about gender and race — impoverished, often informed by stereotypes, and inadequate to describe the realities of our experience. False compliments that inadvertently reinforce ageist, sexist, or racist assumptions need to be challenged. And even more importantly, we need to speak in language that says what we really mean, rather than taking refuge in false clichés. Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison; he himself has said that the time helped him to grow so that he could provide a much wiser perspective on the steps needed to bring about peaceful change. Was he “youthful in spirit” or enriched in vision? Was Mother Teresa “youthful in spirit” or tenacious, joyous, and committed to her purpose? Is Keith Richards “youthful” or an inspired artist? Is the Dalai Lama “youthful” or open to new ideas? Does someone look “youthful” or radiant, vital, and attractive? Just as Marie Curie had a brilliant (not “masculine”) mind, many older people are growing in new ways and taking new risks. They are growing in age, not becoming more youthful.