Watching Saturday Night Live over the past few seasons, I’ve noticed the increasing number and frequency of jokes about old people: the feebleness of the aging brain, the repulsiveness of the elderly body, particularly the elderly female body.
Partly because no one, it seems, is ever “called out” for ageism – I can’t think of one public figure who has been “cancelled” for mocking the aged – I persuaded myself that, as an older person, I was being hypersensitive. But then, this past weekend, on the Weekend Update segment, the cast member Micheal Che told a series of jokes about a report that a Chinese woman in her 60s had given birth. The labor, Che noted, had involved an unusual amount of “friction” and (I may be slightly misquoting here) the delivery had been like “removing a penny from a wad of chewing gum”. Moreover, he added, the new mother could nurse simply by leaning over the crib. The audience laughed. I winced. My husband said: “Ouch.”
I tried to think of another demographic – Asians? African Americans? Women? Members of the LGBT community? – who would have been the object of humor quite so cruel, so barbed, so personal. But it’s not only in the sphere of comedy, and on network TV, that the old are discussed in ways that would never be tolerated by (or about) another group.
This summer, the New York Times ran a piece by Ann Bauer titled Do Old People Have a Different Smell? After renting her house to an elderly couple, Ms Bauer returned to find that her home had an odd scent, “strange and cloyingly human”. A Google search provided Ms Bauer with conflicting results. One biologist at the Monell Chemical Research Center found that an increased concentration of an unsaturated aldehyde produced, in the old, “a distinctive grassy, waxy or fatty odor”. This confirmed what a Japanese study had found in 2001. Apparently the Japanese “have a name for older person odor – kareishu – and it has a definitely negative association”. These conclusions were disputed by an organic chemist, also at the Monell, who was himself jokingly accused of being biased, because he was old.
The results of these studies interested me less than the fact that they were carried out out at all – and, I assume, funded. Are there studies in progress designed to determine if black people smell funny, or if one can identify a gender nonconforming person by an educated sniff?
Ageism is more than a joke. Age discrimination in the work place is difficult to prove, to prosecute and to rectify than any other sort of employment bias. That elderly person greeting you at the door of Target or checking out your groceries at the supermarket may well have once held – and been fired from – a very different job.
It’s unsurprising that animosity toward the elderly has been profitably commodified. Again according to the New York Times, the phrase “OK Boomer” is “Generations Z’s … retort to the problem of older people who just don’t get it.” OK Boomer now appears on phone cases, stickers, pins, and sweatshirts and on a range of products that say, “OK boomer, have a terrible day.” “‘If they do take it personally’,” according to one 17-year-old quoted in the piece, “‘it just further proves that they take everything we do as offensive.’” And yet one wonders if the public would be quite so amused by a logo that said: “OK Jews, have a terrible day.” Given the losses and infirmities that so often accompany age, don’t the elderly have enough bad days without being told to have more?
The accepted explanation and justification for all this is that the old have ruined things for the young: we’re responsible for climate change, for income inequality, for the cascading series of financial crises, for the prohibitive cost of higher education. Fair enough, I suppose, though it does seem unjust to direct one’s anger at the average middle-class senior citizen struggling to survive on social security rather than raging at, let’s say, the Koch brothers the Sacklers, the big banks, and the fossil-fuel lobbyists who have effectively dismantled the EPA. OK, Morgan Stanley, have a terrible day.
In any case, I think that the animosity toward the old is less economic than existential, less political than primal, less about student debt than about fear of one’s own ageing. No one particularly wants to get old, however preferable it is to the alternative: an early death. What’s striking is that the prejudice against the elderly is the only bigotry directed at the inevitable future of the bigot. Few misogynists, I imagine, fear that they eventually will turn into women, nor do racists worry that the passing decades will radically alter their ethnicity and the color of their skin. But the young will get old, if they’re lucky. Meanwhile they might consider the fact that ageing is challenging enough without one’s being mocked and derided for having experienced a natural process that no medical or cosmetic intervention can ultimately prevent.
I’m not suggesting more “calling out”, more cancellations. We have enough of that already. So perhaps the answer is more consciousness, more compassion, a more empathic imagination. Believe it or not, the old still have a sense of humor, even about the ageing process. But cruelty is something else. Imagine how your grandpa would feel surrounded by scientists eager to determine if he had an unpleasant odor, or how your grandmother would like hearing her flesh compared to a wad of chewing gum. Then imagine how you might feel, in some as yet unimaginable future, to be told, simply because you have survived, to have a terrible day.