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Don’t fight ageism. Become immune to it.

November 2, 2020

In yesterday’s post about my first online conference as a speaker, which I survived despite struggles with technology, I promised to post an edited version of the stuff I said about ageism, and how to become immune to its worst effects.

Here it is. It was written for a professional audience, so not all the advice will apply universally. It’s also quite long, but with lockdowns in force in various parts of the world, for many of us, time is probably a more ample commodity than it normally is, even if patience is not. Anyway, feel free to dip in:

“Cicero (above) is one of my favourite personalities from the ancient world. In an essay on aging, he wrote:

“It’s not by strength or speed or swiftness of body that great deeds are done, but by wisdom, character and sober judgment. These qualities are not lacking in old age but in fact grow as time passes.”

Much as I agree with his sentiments, I’m afraid he didn’t live up to them. His fatal error of judgement, sober or otherwise, was to talk too much about the wrong people. And for that, Mark Antony, with the consent of the politician who later became the Emperor Augustus, had him decapitated, and his severed hands displayed in the Roman Forum, proof that he would never write again.

Not all of us, fortunately, are as eminent or injudicious as Cicero. The consequences of speaking out are not usually as dire as they were for him. Indeed, one of the wonderful things about the elderly is the way in which so many say exactly what they think. Even if we don’t particularly like what they say.

Let me give you one example. When Clare, the organiser of this conference, posted my introductory video for this session on Facebook, one of my friends, who years ago had been a work colleague, commented on my appearance. She said I looked odd, because the camera was rather low down.

Now anyone with an ounce of sensitivity might be a bit hurt when accused of looking odd. And anyone too young to be classed as elderly would be unlikely to come out with such a comment, even if that’s what they thought.

Except, of course, in France. When I was preparing for this discussion, I put out an appeal on Facebook for people to tell me the most outrageous example of ageism they had encountered, and how they dealt with it.

The same person who made that unkind comment about my appearance gave me two examples. Both were from France, a country I love almost as much as my own, but which has its own very distinct work culture.

The first was about a friend of hers who was aged nearly forty. When she applied for a job, she was rejected, on the basis that she was too old. The person interviewing her, told her that nobody could learn anything new after the age of forty.

The second example she gave was of an academic who suggested to one of her students that anyone over sixty was basically senile.

So much for life-long learning, you might think.

Of course, France doesn’t have a monopoly on ageism. But isn’t it true that most of us, if we do have some prejudice against the elderly, try our best not to show it?

We’re so sensitive to the possibility of being shamed that we go to any lengths to deny our innermost feelings. But occasionally things slip out, don’t they?

Where I come from, anybody who begins a sentence by saying “I’m not being ageist (or racist, or sexist), but…;” is usually about to say something ageist, (racist or sexist).

In this session we’re going to look at ways in which we can immunise ourselves against the sense that people think we’re past our best for no reason other than that we’ve reached a certain age.

What we’re not going to talk about is how to fight against ageism. Yes, you can confront attitudes head on, but you’re going to find it hard to overcome prejudice that’s been around in some cultures for centuries.

So what’s the most the most important consequence of getting old? As I see it, it’s losing your self-esteem. Feeling that we aren’t worth anything anymore. That we’re on the scrap heap. That nobody apart from our loved ones pays attention to us anymore.

The first and most obvious thing to say is that if we feel that way, there are unlikely to be many people who will go out of their way to change our minds. Doing something about it is down to us.

I’d like us to think about three aspects of immunity against ageism: planning, preparing and making it happen.

Let’s look at planning.

If we want to be immune to ageism, I think that first we need to be realistic about ourselves, and environments where we’re most likely to face prejudice on grounds of our advancing years.

Let’s start with the workplace. Most of us, especially if we’re high-flyers, reach the peak of our careers somewhere between our thirties and our late fifties. After that, unless we happen to be Donald Trump or Joe Biden, we might get the uncomfortable feeling that we’re in the way. (Come to think of it, they might have that feeling as well.)

We might become uneasy, because we have a sense that we’re blocking career paths for those who are younger and more energetic than we are. In fact, if we’re insecure about our careers in our fifties, we’re likely to be more so if we read this article in The Times which suggests that after 54, we start losing our passion and drive.

A sense of insecurity must also be more common today as we face the consequences of COVID. Even if we have what we think is a job for life, say, in the civil service, we need to be aware that there will be huge pressure within society to make way for the young, especially those whose lives have been blighted by unemployment.

COVID is just one of a number of factors, another being the effect of artificial intelligence in eliminating roles previously carried out by humans, that should cause us to be increasingly uncertain about our lifetime employment prospects.

Here’s another thing to think about.

Several things might be happening in parallel while we move up the career ladder. We might have young families that consume everything we earn and more. So we feel under pressure to earn more.

When we get beyond our fifties, we might find our earning power slipping. If we haven’t planned for it, this can be worrying. Also frustrating, because we don’t feel we’re any less effective or deserving of a high salary. But the problem is that we see earning power as an upward curve, and we don’t consider the possibility that the curve might at some stage take a downward turn. Perhaps we’re made redundant, and we can’t accept that a new employer shouldn’t pay us what the last one did.

Perhaps we also find it hard to accept that our role in our sixties might be different. Unless we own our own business, and therefore control our own destinies to some extent, we may find ourselves in the situation where the only option open to us is stacking shelves at Walmart or Tesco.

If we don’t see that coming, the effect on our financial well-being and our self-esteem could be catastrophic.

So we need to plan. Perhaps we might need to look at our finances, and instead of factoring in a steady upward line in earnings until bang, we retire, we should cater for a gradual tapering off of income, from our fifties onwards. Or possibly ups and downs, as we move to a period of less certain employment. And those ups and downs can happen any time, not just towards the end of our careers.

We should also manage our expectations on an emotional level. No matter how committed we are to our work, we should always remember that we are not defined only by what we do 8 hours a day, 220 days a year.

We are more than what we do for a living. And if we have a family, we’re more than what we do for them. If we fail to give our lives more dimensions, we risk ending up at 65 with no work, no family and nothing else.

So if our life is all about work and family, we should make sure well before our careers come to an end that we have more strings to our bows.

Then there’s preparation.

How do we prepare for a time in our lives when we might fall victim to ageism? Perhaps the most important thing is to understand how our outlook on life might develop over time.

If we’ve managed to avoid being stuck on the same treadmill in our sixties as we were on in earlier decades, how do we transition to different roles, perhaps different careers, that play to our strengths? Perhaps our horizons have broadened. We’re no longer interested in the narrow focus. We want to take a wider view.

Let’s say we’re a research scientist. We win fame and fortune for our achievements in our twenties or thirties, as Albert Einstein did. We might continue on the same path of research until we die.

Or maybe we say hey, there’s more to life than this. I want to stay in the same field, but now I’m going to guide and encourage younger researchers. I can be a head of research, or maybe a mentor. Or I can use my fame in support of wider objectives: eliminating poverty, dealing with climate change, eradicating malaria. I may no longer get into the detail, but I make it possible for others to do so.

Let’s take a couple of real-life examples.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter lost the US presidency. He was 56 at the time, which was fairly young for an ex-president, especially by the standards of the time.

What did he do? He’s spent the last forty years campaigning for peace and human rights. When he was 78, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, not for what he did when he was president, but for what he achieved afterwards. At the age of 96, he’s still doing his best to help his local community by helping to build affordable housing.

Bill Gates is another example. He stepped down from an executive role with Microsoft in 2006. Since then, he’s dedicated his life and much of his fortune to a foundation that helps to combat poverty and find cures for infectious diseases. Who’s to say that he won’t be remembered more for his humanitarian work than as a founder of Microsoft?

Of course, we can’t all be Bill Gates or Jimmy Carter. And I wonder at what point they started thinking about second careers. Was there a plan, or did they drift into it? It’s a shame they’re not here to tell us.

But what we can do is take a good look at ourselves. Look at our strengths and weaknesses. Ask ourselves how we might spend the rest of our lives if our current path comes to an end.

As for making it happen – taking positive steps to immunise ourselves against ageism – everybody’s situation is different. So we all have to come up with our own strategies. But by way of an example, it might be worthwhile if I share a little of my story.

My story is one of three careers. Actually, I did quite a lot beforehand, but nothing I could call a career. More, to use a phrase coined by Emmylou Harris, a process of “stumbling into grace”.

In 1991, after nearly a decade working in the Middle East, I started a business with a partner. I was forty at the time. I was married, with two daughters under five.

Things went pretty well. Over the next ten years we ended up employing over 350 people in Britain, Ireland, Germany, France, Hungary, Finland, Malaysia and China. In 2001, we sold the division of our business for which I was the CEO. Though I had an involvement in the other side of the business, it wasn’t full-time. With education costs likely to continue at least for the next decade, I wasn’t in a position to retire, and anyway I didn’t then and still don’t believe in the idea of retirement.

I did have more time, though. But to do what? I was fifty. The previous decade had been pretty much full on.

I’m not sure if it was by accident or design, but I started consciously to learn again. I did a big research project on my family. It ended up with my digitising thousands of pictures and doing video interviews with my parents. And I read books. Loads of them. Between fifty and a hundred a year. About history, psychology, geography and a number of other topics.

My great-grandparents.

Is it impossible to learn once you’ve passed forty, as that French employer implies? Of course not! You should have spoken to my father. At sixty, he bought a motorbike for the first time and started learning German. All around me, I see people of my age learning new stuff. Including learning Zoom, of course.

I learned plenty. But learning is one thing. What do you do with the knowledge you acquire?

Well, here’s another thing you can do to immunise yourself against ageism. Start passing on your knowledge. If you feel you’re approaching the end of your career, perhaps you can prolong it by being the best mentor, adviser, source of wisdom that you can.

I will always remember my Saudi boss in the 1980s telling a group of western managers, of whom I was one, that the best way of prolonging their careers in Saudi Arabia was not by becoming indispensable, but by being the best at passing on their knowledge.

For me, the idea of passing on knowledge led to a second career. In 2009, after a year managing a start-up in Saudi Arabia, I moved to Bahrain and started a training business. I wrote many courses on what people call soft skills – communications, conflict resolution, leadership and so forth. I actually don’t think of those skills as soft. Perhaps it would be better to call them essential skills. For where would we be in any walk of life without the ability to communicate?

One of the most satisfying achievements of my life was working with a team of talented people to design and deliver a programme for sixty bright school-leavers in Bahrain. It was called Going West, and it helped them to prepare for life at university abroad. The motivation, idealism and enthusiasm of those kids was truly uplifting.

Anyway, for the next six years, I ended up going back and forth around Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East running training workshops – in factories, hospitals and government offices. Not only were they great fun, but great learning for me. And hopefully for the participants too.

By around 2016, demand dried up. By then, I was back in the UK, and it became increasingly uneconomical for my clients to fly me over for extended trips when they had local resources to call upon. I did some workshops in Europe, but there was a slow wind-down of paid work, which suited me fine. I didn’t need the money, and there was other stuff to do.

The other stuff had already kicked off back in 2010. I started writing a blog, which I called 59steps. Why the name? Well, I was fifty-nine at the time. As simple as that.

Anyway, some of my stuff ended up being syndicated to quite a wide audience, and I also did a weekly column for one of the Bahrain newspapers for a while.

Since then, I’ve written well over a thousand original articles, about politics, the Middle East, history, travel, books and anything else that came to mind. That’s over a million words.

The great thing about blogging is that it forces you to take a view about things. To develop arguments, to persuade, to interact. It’s basically my anti-dementia strategy. Whether it’s working is for you to judge.

During the spring lockdown in the UK, I set myself a target. Not quite the same that of Captain Tom, the centenarian who walked up and down his garden every day and raised millions from sponsors for the British National Health Service. I’m not a war veteran, and what I did was unlikely to capture the public imagination.

But my personal goal was to write and post one article to my blog every day. I ended up doing that for 130 days. Normally I would post once or twice a week. Much of what I wrote was in the form of a series I called Corona Diaries, but there were lots of other subjects. It was quite tough. Unlike some newspaper columnists, I had only myself to rely on for ideas and research. And whereas I would normally take some time on a piece perfecting the language and the arguments, I learned how to post stuff rapidly, hoping like hell that I’d avoided some major piece of idiocy.

Taking things up to the present, I’ll be seventy next year. I’ve written a book which I expect to publish within the next couple of months. I shall keep writing until I’m no longer able to string one word after another. And my self-esteem doesn’t depend on how many people read what I write, but on whether it makes sense to me.

I feel immune to ageism because I like to think I’ve capitalised on the advantages of being older: ability to pass on knowledge, being able to laugh at absurdities, and still caring about what happens beyond my doorstep. Either by accident or design, as each phase of my life has come to an end, another phase has been waiting to take over.

When I look at my family, I see other examples. My father was a lawyer who became something of a polymath. He had an incredible range of interests, and continued to practice law until he died at the age of 81. His curiosity made him a role model for me. My sister, who spent most of her career as a medical doctor, became ordained as a priest in her sixties, and now administers to souls as opposed to bodies. And a brother, after a long career as a teacher, is now a life coach.

At this point, forgive me if I share a few more thoughts on the COVID crisis.

Ageism is a hot topic right now, isn’t it? Should we wreck our economies to protect the old? Is it better to let old people die off because they’ve had their time, or spend precious resources keeping them alive?

I only have one answer to that question. I look at all the people who have passed away in recent years before they reached seventy. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Robin Williams, Tom Petty, Carrie Fisher to name a few. Would I rather live a shorter life full of achievement, or a longer life, in which I spend my last few years stumbling towards the end with little purpose or motivation?

For me, the answer is this. The important thing is not how long you live, but what you achieve in the time you have.

That said, to ration care to people on the basis of an algorithm seems wrong. In the UK, during the height of the first wave, if you were over 75, the chances were that you might not get treated at all – and certainly not in intensive care – because of a scorecard that was weighted against you. The underlying philosophy seemed to be that people of a certain age no longer had anything to contribute to society if they were “economically inactive”.

Think of the writers, musicians, scientists and thinkers who wouldn’t have survived that brutal cut-off. Think also of the beloved grandparents who bring so much support and wisdom to their families.

When a person dies, are they remembered fondly for being economically active? I don’t think so. Anyway, enough on COVID.

When I look back at the way my life has worked out up to now, and how I came to have three careers, I have to make a confession. None of it was planned.

But had I prepared for it? Hell yes. I’d always wanted to run my own business. I’ve always loved communicating. And I’ve always loved writing. The common denominator between those three things was love – the things I loved to do. And I was lucky enough to do each of them.

Your story will inevitably be different, but if you asked me to come up with three ideas that we should all hold on to if we’re to live lives that aren’t blighted by ageism, it would be these:

The valuable things we do in our lives are not always rewarded by material wealth.

We will never be victims of ageism if we value ourselves.

We will value ourselves if we always seek to do things that are valuable.

  1. Abuujames permalink

    Another column of great wisdom, Steve. It was a privilege to have interacted with you for at least part of your journey. I hope that all parts continue to function well enough to keep 59 Steps going!

    • Kind words. Thank you. Yes, be assured that most of the moving parts are still moving! S

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