I’m just back from a conference hosted by this 30-year-old Palo Alto think tank, the theme of which was “Living Longer/Aging Well.” Most of the attendees were from healthcare and pharmaceutical companies, and I wasn’t sure how hospitable they’d be to my message about the medicalization of old age. In cultures with meaningful social and economic roles for older people, physical health is just one aspect of aging, but in ours, sickness takes center stage. And as the population ages the medical-industrial complex will depend more than ever on the old for its profits.
Ageism in Silicon Valley has been all over the news lately. The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story titled “Silicon Valley's Youth Problem.” Male engineers in their twenties are getting botox and hair transplants before key interviews. “The Brutal Ageism of Tech,” a feature story in the New Republic, described a swelling cohort of “highly trained, objectively talented, surpassingly ambitious workers” sidelined “for reasons no one can rationally explain.”
I stole that line from Lynn Parramore, whose excellent piece about age discrimination in the workplace just came out on Alternet. According to Parramore, ageism may be more common than other forms of bias, like ethnic discrimination, and job insecurity is the number-one source of financial stress for Americans over age 50.
This elegantly simple video by software developer Marius Budin uses Google Suggest (the feature that “completes the thought” when you type a word or two into the search window) to traverse a hypothetical life course writ in billions of searches. Worries about pregnancy, virginity, failure and loneliness prevail, a telling glimpse into human insecurity. Also noteworthy is the fact that the video devotes 90 seconds to ages 10 to 40. The next 45 years rate 24 seconds, starting to skip decades at 50 and ending with "I'm 85 and I’m tired."
I had fun talking with KMO, creator of the geeky and wide-ranging C-Realm Podcast, and I think he did too. Posted on Wednesday, May 8, the podcast covers a lot of interesting territory, from ageism in society to mortality, the U-shaped happiness curve, Ted Kaczynski’s ruminations on “primitive man,” and how KMO used to scare baby boomers into buying health insurance.
This public project is the brainchild of Rachel Levy, an associate professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, who was tired of hearing people say stuff like, “Just explain it like you would to your grandmother” or “That’s so easy my grandma could get it.” Levy started it “to counter the implication that grannies (gender + maternity + age) might not easily pick up on technical/theoretical ideas.” In other words, to challenge the mindless, ageist and sexist meme that older women are technically inept.
That’s the title of a short article in Forbes with a refreshing take on the multigenerational workplace. It steers clear of the standard fallacy that younger workers suffer when older ones stay on the job. It avoids the usual grumbling about baby boom's oversize footprint, emphasizing cross-cohort collaboration instead. And it points out that success in the workplace means adopting and adapting to the work habits of the Millennials (b. 1982-2004) who are moving into management now.
My poor kids. My son Murphy, a computer scientist, was talking last week about a system for archiving mathematics research on the web. "The problem is that a lot of the important papers are by people who are really old now," he said. Uh oh. The problem, I promptly pointed out, isn't age but technological illiteracy. While older scientists were indeed less likely to race to post their work online, it was wrong to assume so on the basis of age alone. He got it, with his characteristic sweet smile, though he probably felt more like kicking me.