Ageism – C’est la vie?

Ageism – C’est la vie?

One of our consistent critiques against “business” in general or management in particular is that it doesn’t hesitate touching domains above its own only to drag them down to its own level – often pushing them even below that; by squeezing higher concepts into the business domain, it even feels qualified to change the meaning of words -in many cases by trivializing them- or it creates various new isms. It doesn’t need to do this, but beyond being a proud pragmatist, it also wants to be an idealist and thus it often ends up being a hypocrite.

Let’s have a look at ageism.

A simple definitions of ageism is that somebody is discriminated against or is treated unfairly based on their age. There are shades of gray to ageism with geographical differences, differences between industries and functions, but the discrimination is increasingly against the older work force (when it was the opposite, it was not called ageism, in other words, it was not considered to be unfair for reasons that will become clear in the train of thought that follows).

What we are interested in here is what business considers to be fair – since ethics is one of those domains above business that MBAs, financial engineers, economists and other type of specialists consistently fail to grasp.
Why is ageism unfair from the business’ perspective? It seems, because it doesn’t allow certain people to do certain work (be it for cost, productivity or “cultural” reasons). However, there is a more subtle, implicit aspect: because it actually differentiates between people!

Obviously, not giving a chance to people in a certain age group to perform certain (or any) work is not fair: business functions, being highly mechanical, and with time more and more so, hardly have any organic aspect to them, thus it is true, that theoretically anybody without a serious mental or psychological handicap is capable of learning and performing ANY of them. (Let’s note the corollary: organic functions do require specific predispositions and letting anybody without these perform them would not only be unfair but irresponsible.)

The question of qualitative differentiation is more interesting. The ideology business has adopted doesn’t like qualitative differentiation; it wants everybody to behave the same way, to dress the same way, to work and perform the same way, to think the same way, to speak the same language, to have the same opinion, to want the same thing, etc. – and it’s winning. It’s winning against people, meaning that it puts them on a Procrustean bed, cutting off all age-specific (and of course many other natural) qualities.

This victory is relatively recent. Even 30 years ago, age-related qualities were still nurtured and business, as well as society at large, benefited from these. Today this is no longer even desirable and we can observe people in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, even in their 60’s and 70’s acting and thinking uniformly and the situation is worsening: we can observe people in their 50’s and 60’s acting out specific style elements that belong to people in their 20’s, and doing so with even more vigour than the “kids” themselves. Worse yet, they are also acting out vices due to a lack of maturity in judgment (previously typical mostly of young people), following a downward spiral, where, for example, people in their 60s are more hedonistic than people in their 20s, who in turn may give up on life completely and lock themselves in their bedrooms to stare at screens all day (see the Hikikomori phenomenon in Japan as a leading indicator). It seems that while we can’t suppress differentiation, we can certainly corrupt it by turning things upside down.

To illustrate this, let’s have a look at the difference between the mechanical and the organic view on youth or age in general.

The mechanical view, which defines our era, is well known: it’s mostly fascinated by the look (looking young) and arranges everything around this external factor. This results in cheating through plastic surgeons, photoshopped linkedin or fb profiles, fake behavior, fitness fanaticism, etc.; not only by people in their 50’s but increasingly even by people in their 30’s (depending on where you live). When it comes to the internal factor of being young, this, according to a fluid idealism that lacks a stable center, is changing rather quickly, we can almost say on a yearly basis and accepts this change quite happily as the only constant, as something unchangeable. Youthful may mean foolishness, energy, growth, intellectual curiosity, easy-goingness, rootlessness, openness, hedonism, or the exact opposite of these, etc.

When it comes to a life plan, what’s suggested is that everything must be achieved by the time you’re 40 and what happens afterwards is kind of up in the air, forcing people to live not only like they’d never die, but like they’d never age. When people realize that they do age, and death may be pretty close, they, for lack of ideas, pretend this is not happening and attempt to live not as they did when they were young, but as the young live at the moment; not to mention the problem of the difficulty of keeping their jobs which younger people can do cheaper (note: the value of experience is an illusion in any role that may be automated). When it comes to people in the early stages of building a career, they react to this pressure with two types of irrationalism: extreme ambition (with or without corresponding qualities) or an almost complete lack of drive. The older generation’s response is typically driven by desperation.

The organic view is the opposite. It is based on a stable, unchangeable center, a principle that serves as the core of identity and that manifests itself in well defined stages of life, gradually unfolding the potentials of the individual, meaning of course, that when a life is lived according to this view, there are many things to do above 50 and many values to contribute to the community. The context for the organic view is not business or economics, but something much more significant: death. Perhaps the most succinct depiction of this view is provided to us by one of the Delphic maxims:

Children should be well behaved, youth self-disciplined, the middle aged just, the old sensible and one should reach a stage where they can face death without sorrow”.

Each stage outlined in the maxim builds on and incorporates the previous ones without which it is not achievable, creating a life-long discipline (the elderly is not only sensible, but also just, disciplined, and well behaved). The first and the second one, the obedience of the child and the discipline of youth, rely on and draw inspiration from the justice and discernment of the middle aged and the elderly. While the elderly represent the perspective and wisdom of death, which they have acquired through the life-long discipline of control, death itself, being the context, has its imprint in all stages of the discipline: obedience (etiquette, harmony, sense of decency, control in playfulness, etc.), self-discipline, justice, and sensibility.

On the surface these used to be trivialities; today they are not any more: moderns, even if by any chance they started out on the right track, eventually go off course. If they had an ideal childhood when they learned manners, by university they surely lose the experience of self-discipline and they learn nothing about the principle of justice; if by any chance they do, it will surely be lost once they start to live for a salary or work for ROIs; if somehow they manage to live without their actions being dictated by finance, meta views (for a list of these see our book) may still get them by distorting their views on death and their identity.

The majority never reach adulthood but stay in an infantile stage until they become senile almost overnight. Obedience and manners are frowned upon, probably due to a completely false concept of freedom so children are either spoiled or abused and youth never learns self-discipline. We no longer have social rituals that would ensure that such qualities are introduced into the lives of people. In previous eras, people were highly aware of the significance of reaching certain stages in life; when such stages were reached they stopped the flow of time, so to speak, reflected, transferred knowledge, initiated, and celebrated.

When it comes to other responsibilities related to age groups, people have become cynical about the truth and are too egoistic to be just.  Without qualitative differences between age groups respect has completely disappeared and has been replaced by one of the most terrible and degrading inventions of the post-modern era: tolerance.

Whatever little differences have remained, they are not being respected, but tolerated. Children and youth are not raised and educated according to principles but trained until they become productive and quite often just being tolerated by their parents (by their “schedules” that is) until they switch roles and seniors are being tolerated by their children or society at large.

People routinely misunderstand what it means that one should face death without sorrow. They think that life should be action-packed: everything tried and experienced; when in doubt, do more! Popular concepts about death and the potential it entails are quite ridiculous and completely useless for an authentic life that consciously realizes potentials offered by specific life stages. They tend to range between two extremes of the same world view which philosophy calls naive realism: total annihilation (materialism) or various branches of the New Age movement, offering traditional doctrines and paths, “adjusted” to the masses including import/export “yoga”, vulgar reincarnationalism, Buddhism for managers, “gurus” in India with a 30 minutes response time on skype, “mediation” for stress release, mindfulness for success, etc.

As we can see, ageism applies pure pragmatism that finds justification in a false ideology that considers age only from a quantitative point of view and that is willing to assign some minimal value only to an age group it considers -again, from a purely quantitative and mechanical perspective- productive.  This means that one can’t fight ageism while one accepts pragmatism; in other words, to fight ageism in order to stay employed is an absurdity.

The role of leadership is to introduce organic elements into our highly mechanical organizations, even if only in small doses; to turn collectives into communities.


Image source: The guardian

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Laszlo Kovari is a writer and the founder of Prakhsis, an organizational development company that has been a pioneer in the concept of organic organizations. As a "consigliere" he has worked with founders, managers, CEOs and board members at startups, mid-sized companies and some of the Fortune 500 across North America and Europe. Laszlo is based in Prague, Czech Republic, supporting clients across Europe.

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