General Question

janbb's avatar

Why is being old a pejorative in our culture?

Asked by janbb (59031points) 2 months ago
41 responses
“Great Question” (4points)

I was getting ice cream at my local ice cream parlor yesterday and I made a joke to my friendly counterman about seeming old and he said, “You are old.” I wasn’t insulted but it made me think about why looking/acting/seeming old is so disparaged in America. Is there any wisdom, or dare I say even beauty, that comes with age?

Your thoughts? (Putting this in General because I want on-topic answers.)

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Dutchess_III's avatar

And why are saggy tits on older women fair game for crude jokes?

Zaku's avatar

It’s not disparaged in my America, but maybe in Capitalist America, it might be disparaged by some people due to the elderly’s reduced potential for long-term capital investment, and/or reduced marketability, or diminished “feature set”, or reduced trendiness, or because they’re “dated”, or because “sex sells”, or countless other dehumanizing commercialist notions.

And/or because some elderly people tend to be slower, wiser, more experienced, more hesitant, know many things from way before the current zeitgeist, and that doesn’t really fit in with the breathless zero-attention-span anti-intellignence zero-wisdom messaging that corporate America likes to push?

e.g. The almost never respond to a slogan like “JUST DO IT! (Nike)” by buying $200 tennis shoes.

There is plenty of value and wisdom that can come with age, but much of it doesn’t “contribute to the GDP”.

cookieman's avatar

In my experience, age and wisdom are not valued in America. Old people are often seen as ‘in the way’ of progress or clinging to old ways. They are generally regarded as less physically attractive or capable. Their value at work is disregarded (they cost too much, should retire, etc.). Even within families they are often shuffled into elderly homes as soon as they lose a step or two or require more attention. Their value to family often focuses on caring for grandchildren or the inheritance they’ll leave behind. It’s terrible really how inhumane many elderly are treated in the US.

Conversely, I’ve seen how in Japan, China, and Italy older folks are at the center of the family structure, valued for their wisdom, and living with their adult children who care for and respect them.

Note, this is only based on my own experiences thus far.

That said, it has led me to the conclusion that I either need a boatload of money to care for myself when I’m old (which is unlikely) or I need to off myself before I require any care (more likely) because I have zero confidence that my daughter or anyone else will put in the effort.

Dutchess_III's avatar

That’s the saddest thing I ever heard @cookieman.

product's avatar

Good question. I think there are probably multiple reasons that merge in significant ways.

- As @Zaku points out, there is definitely a connection to the economic system. Capitalism means that humans are workers and consumers, and older people are declining on both. Culture is youth-focused.

- The temporary nature of life is not something people tend to want to focus on. It forces people to contemplate their own existence (and approaching death) in a way makes people uncomfortable and anxious. When people see old people, they can’t help but see glimpses of their own decay and death. This fear triggers aversion and disgust. If we can “other” the natural process of aging and death, we can temporarily avoid having to deal with deep spiritual questions about our own existence.

- Older people do (on average) tend to hold opinions about some things that hold things back. The racist/homophobic grandpa might not be everyone’s experience, but the data does consistently show that younger people are far less racist, etc. These are unfortunate images of old people that fly in the face of real wisdom that many have, but they are realities that many young people are aware of.

- The generational tension isn’t a one-way street. The disgust of young people and the incessant “millenials/gen y/ etc killed [fill in the blank]” is felt by young people, who in turn resent being blamed for something by a generation they (rightfully) see as having pulled the ladder up behind them.

- Largely because of the economic structure and cultural norms, there is very little place for older people in families. My friends from India are shocked at how few people live with multi generations. Instead of raising children in a house with grandparents, etc. – we send kids to daycare. Older people aren’t part of the child-rearing process.

- I think we all find ourselves with our bodies failing and our minds not as sharp and look back on our youth with some envy. We miss certain things about youth that give a certain cover for the cultural crapping on older people.

janbb's avatar

@cookieman I’ve come to that conclusion too and was talking to a counselor who feels there is a shift in the culture and that our children are focused on their careers and their families and not on having a caring relationship with their parents. As a single person with children who live far away, I feel I will have to rely solely on myself and my friends as I have greater needs.

kritiper's avatar

The same reason anything old is. When you’re done with it, throw it out. It’s all disposable. Don’t worry about whether someone else might have need of it. Why care about them??

Dutchess_III's avatar

I think women are shamed more than men. We’re supposed to be tight and sexy until the day we die.

Demosthenes's avatar

@product Excellent response. Agree on all points. The second point is the one I was considering, that people may be reminded of death and decline when they see old people and react with hostility. That’s an especially unfortunate one. I am fascinated by cultures that treat old people with more reverence and respect. (It’s often said about Asian cultures, though I don’t know how true that is. I know a lot of older Asian people who dye their hair and try to look younger).

cookieman's avatar

@Dutchess_III: Yes, indeed it is.

@janbb: My daughter, generally an amazing young lady, has already told us she has no plans to take care of us when we’re old. Said she hopes she makes enough money to maybe hire people.

She’s watched my wife and I kill ourselves for years to care for my in-laws and is like, “Nope”.

stanleybmanly's avatar

I think the problem is basically that the majority of young people simply lack the perspective to appreciate, or more to the point, even consider that old folks are the same species as themselves. I say this because I can look back to my own perspective on the world and the people inhabiting it. When you’re young, even when you understand that people GROW old, you never think in those terms. They ARE just old. And of course ours is a society geared to cater to youth. They’re the ones with the money and no sense at all on what to do with it. Like life itself, aging is a huge practical joke on us all. But I think it’s a particularly brutal ordeal for women. The interesting thing is the shift forced on us regarding age as the bloom of youth shifts to the realization we ourselves are aging. As a man (a very lucky man) I was for the most part blithely unaware of it except for the ever accelerating urgency in my female contemporaries toward defeating the cosmetic ravages of time. My awareness of my own aging was probably the sessions in the barber chair watching as all that black hair snowing toward the floor intermingled with ever more grey. It’s been a snow white blizzard now for years.

@cookieman Don’t believe it.
I’d bet money that your kid will stand up if or when the time comes. I’ve told my own kids since they were little that I would most assuredly saddle them with my decrepit ass at the drop of a hat if ever the hint of infirmity threatened me or their mother.

JLoon's avatar

@Dutchess_III – Saggy tits can be funny, but limp dicks are just sad ;)

@cookieman – EVERYBODY says Amercians don’t value wisdom and experience, but look at our political system: Both parties dominated by men (and a few females) well over 60. They won’t go away and continue to rake in millions in donations in every campaign – on average more than $1.6mil in the House, and over $10.5mil for Senate races. How’s that for value?

@janbb – I hear you, and I’ve seen it happen in situstions exactly like you describe. But at 29 I get snark, disrespect, and worse for being blonde and female. Could it be that we’re all just forgetting how to be tolerant, kind, and mind our own damn business?

I don’t know…

Jaxk's avatar

Frankly I don’t see the problem. I moved out of my father’s house when I was still in High School. I certainly don’t expect to move into my son’s house when I’m old. I could not live with someone else’s rules and if I had to listen to Rap music for the rest of my life, I’d be sticking an icepick in my ears. I definitely can’t do all the things I used to do but once I can no longer care for myself, well, nursing home seems appropriate. The world is made for the young and the economic system has nothing to do with it. Why saddle your kids with a decrepit old fart when they are in the prime of their life. The world moves on and if it leaves me behind, so be it.

Dutchess_III's avatar

What on earth could be “funny” about sagging tits @JLoon? The humor escapes me. It’s just insulting.

JLoon's avatar

Anything can be funny – If you’ve got a sense of humor.
And nothing will make you smile if you don’t.

Thanks for the reminder.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I have a sense of humor. I just don’t find insulting people funny.

flutherother's avatar

It is a cultural thing as @cookieman says. The elderly are highly regarded in Asia and it is expected that children will look after their parents at home when they become frail. Elderly Chinese in hospital get cooked food brought in every day by family members and hospital food is pretty well unheard of. Status in China depends on age and the Chinese language even has specific words for “eldest uncle” and “youngest uncle”. It is quite deeply ingrained in their culture.

janbb's avatar

@Jaxk The point is not about expecting to move in with your kids; the issue I was raising is the non-caring in society in general about the elderly and the stigma around getting old. I never expected to move in with my kids.

stanleybmanly's avatar

I’m not so sure the society has abandoned its elderly to the degree I had formerly suspected. Since covid, and my decision to stop working, I have never been so astonished in my life at what Is available to me simply because I am old. No matter how the society is geared apparently for the young, I’m damned lucky to have grown up in a time when this country saw fit to look out for its codgers. That urge lingered until I arrived here. The young punks can insult me all they want as long as those social security checks and senior discounts pile up. It tickles me no end that I can be treated with reverence for sitting on my ass all day simply because I have a head full of white hair.

TJFKAJ's avatar

Because nobody likes the idea.

cookieman's avatar

@JLoon: I’m not sure that’s “valuing wisdom and experience” so much as inertia. Politics is a slow, decrepit, tanker ship that moves like a turtle going uphill on a cold day.

JLeslie's avatar

I’m surprised he called you old rather than using older or some other gentler way of phrasing it. At the same time I say I’m old or we’re old, referring to where I live, all the time, but I’m including myself.

As far as capitalism, older Americans spend plenty of money. Here is a link, I wish I could have found a better one.

Older Americans know they can’t take it with them, so they vacation, do bucket list fun things especially if they are retired, buy things for themselves, children, and grandchildren.

I think the culture is shifting a little for the better. I feel like people value the wisdom of the older generation more now than 40 years ago. It’s just a feeling, I don’t have any data on that. Partly, because the baby boomers are such a huge group, and for the last 30 years we have been told the over 65 demographic is going to grow and grow as a percentage to the total population in America.

Just to contradict myself, several of my Republican friends said the problem in politics is the older generation, which was a surprising statement to me.

Where I live the people my age (50’s) love hearing all the life stories and wisdom the older people here share. We have a lot of younger people who work here and they always show respect to the residents. I know they are working so in a way they have to, but It’s more than that.

When I moved to Florida in my 20’s and was surrounded by what felt like a disproportionate amount of older people my whole perspective changed. Many of them had more energy than me, they traveled, were happy, enjoyed life, seemed less stressed, and all sorts of other positives.

I think young people think negatively about aging when they aren’t very exposed to a lot of older people. It scares them maybe.

gondwanalon's avatar

I don’t know. Haven’t really noticed it much.

I was with a buddy of mine (he’s 2 years older than me) while he was buying papayas at a produce market. The woman in charge suddenly turned to me and asked, “And what do you want grandpa?” In just laughed it off. I doubt that she would have had the nerve to say, “And what do you want grandma?” to an elderly woman. HA!

Nomore_lockout's avatar

I was pondering your question. It was rude of the clerk to call you old, but when I think about getting older (I somehow don’t FEEL old) I think about how lucky I am to have arrived at my age, and how much luckier I will be to attain greater age. Think about the unfortunates who die as children, or as young adults through illness, accidents, or warfare. I guess it all depends on how you look at it. As said, many, many people don’t make it. I’m happy that I did.

seawulf575's avatar

I guess being OLD is a perjorative…to some. It is usually those that are young, have little to no life experience, and who have no respect for themselves and others.

Getting old is a fact of life. But those that are “old” (quotation marks since we really haven’t defined what old is) have lived a long time. They have seen and experienced a lot of things. Every experience we have teaches us something…usually what does or doesn’t work. If you take the time to talk to “old” people you can learn a lot of stuff you otherwise would have had to learn the hard way, or that you may never have learned at all.

And I find it interesting. I am similar to @Jaxk in that I moved out when I was 18 and never went back to living with my parents. In fact, at that time, people that lived with their parents into their 20’s were looked at as being losers. Today I have one adult child that is 32 and another that is 34 living with me. And no one thinks that is odd. So it is usually the younger people that are slamming “the old” yet they, as a generation, seem to have no problems leeching off their elders while they dislike them. I think that is the part of them not respecting themselves or others.

janbb's avatar

the question really has nothing to do with the clerk calling me old. .He is the same age as I am and a friend; it was a joke. It’s just that it started me thinking about why that might seem harsh and all the jokes and put-downs that the elderly get by society. I do think that being young is more prized in our society.

Jaxk's avatar

Just to give you a brief view into how your grandekids, see you.

RETARDED GRANDPARENTS – (this was actually reported by a teacher)
After Christmas, a teacher asked her young pupils how they spent their holiday away from school.
One child wrote the following:
We always used to spend the holidays with Grandma and Grandpa.
They used to live in a big brick house but Grandpa got retarded and they moved to Batemans Bay where everyone lives in nice little houses, and so they don’t have to mow the grass anymore!
They ride around on their bicycles and scooters and wear name tags because they don’t know who they are anymore.
They go to a building called a wreck centre, but they must have got it fixed because it is all okay now. They do exercises there, but they don’t do them very well.
There is a swimming pool too, but they all jump up and down in it with hats on.
At their gate, there is a doll house with a little old man sitting in it. He watches all day so nobody can escape. Sometimes they sneak out, and go cruising in their golf carts!
Nobody there cooks, they just eat out.
And, they eat the same thing every night—- early birds.
Some of the people can’t get out past the man in the doll house. The ones who do get out, bring food back to the wrecked centre for pot luck.
My Grandma says that Grandpa worked all his life to earn his retardment and says I should work hard so I can be retarded someday too.
When I earn my retardment, I want to be the man in the doll house. Then I will let people out, so they can visit their grandchildren.

stanleybmanly's avatar

That’s some really funny stuff!

janbb's avatar

@Jaxk Oh – that is cute!

Dutchess_III's avatar


stanleybmanly's avatar

@seawulf575 It shows you what kids are up against compared to when you or I were 18. I too was out the door at 18 to college. By the time I hit San Francisco, I was 22, but could rent a huge elegant flat for 65 bucks a month. If that place were standing today, there would be 6–8 techies living in that flat to make the rent. Jobs—damned good jobs were a dime a dozen. You could quit and cross the street and get a BETTER job. You didn’t have to think about it. The world was yours. 2 years at a good job, you could put money down on your $15,000 3 bedroom house! Why not? No student debt. There wasn’t a mainline career in the country that did not include benefits and a pension. A mailman had full and first class medical coverage from Blue Cross for 6 dollars a paycheck. If his stay at home wife got pregnant, the pregnancy was covered 100% without further expense. Five years into his postal career he was entitled to 6 weeks of PAID vacation time yearly and earned 4 hours of sick leave every pay period which amounted to a day a month that could accumulate to thousands of hours throughout his career. Bus fare in the city was 10 cents and gasoline was 25 cents a gallon. Today, a kid of 18 would be a fool to leave home and poke his head into the buzz saw waiting for him.

seawulf575's avatar

@stanleybmanly Correct to a point. But then there are kids who go on to succeed even given all the trials and tribulations of the current day. But the point is that many younger people are staying with mom and dad, yet have no respect for their elders.

Demosthenes's avatar

@stanleybmanly Spot on. I grew up in the Bay Area and I know many people around my age who still live with their parents because it’s the most financially sound decision in this most expensive region of the country. I don’t know any of them to not have respect for their parents either; from what I see, they respect and appreciate them quite a bit.

stanleybmanly's avatar

I think it is a truly cruel situation the average 18 year old finds him or herself in today. And for those whose parents struggle (which is the growing trend) the odds are grim and only getting worse.

jca2's avatar

I think the large quantity of baby boomers skewed the culture toward valuing the young. Now that the baby boomers are getting old(er), the shift is going more in the other direction, therefore, we have medication for Erectile Dysfunction, adult diapers being sold in store aisles where feminine hygiene products used to dominate, people not afraid to discuss plastic surgery and skin enhancement, people in their 70’s exercising as vigorously as people in their 30’s, and people of all ages no longer looking and dressing like old people did when I was little, which was that women over 30 should have short hair (this was actually told to me by my great-aunt). When I was little, old people looked very different than young people, now, at least in the area I live in, people in their 60’s may have similar hairstyles and clothing as people in their 30’s.

kritiper's avatar

Sagging tits are funny because so many women don’t wear a properly sized/fitting bra.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Could be they can’t afford them @kritiper. Especially the elderly who are the target for this “joke.”

Nomore_lockout's avatar

@kritiper You’re a better man than I am Gunga Din. I wouldn’t touch that with a 40 foot pole.

raum's avatar

I think it’s tied into how we place value on people in general. Capitalism and productivity.

What I’ve found kind of peculiar is this recent uptick of products emblazoned with words like “busy”. Is that something we strive for and brag about now?

I also think it’s hilarious that there’s a horror movie named Old. Presumably because growing old is so terrifying for many?

I’d say growing old is a feat and quite the badge of honor. Have to say I’m rather looking forward to shouting at kids to get off my lawn.

canidmajor's avatar

@raum I like using the sharp Dowager Voice to get the attention of young clerks that are overlooking me. :-D

raum's avatar


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