Sharon Butala, one of Canada’s better-known authors, recently published an article in The Walrus in which she laments widespread ageism and demands better treatment for her sixty-something person and well, RESPECT.
As for me, one of Canada’s least-known authors and a good decade older than Ms Butala, I would like to make some random, old lady comments on this hoary topic. First of all, I agree with you, Sharon; it is simply shocking and not fun to discover that young people are disrespectful of the old these days. Old folks have been complaining about this very problem since Roman times. But then again, not all behave badly. I have found that they actually leap to their feet when they see me bearing down on seats ‘reserved for people with disabilities and seniors’, in which they happen to be sitting. Some even talk to me as if I were an intelligent human, albeit old and decrepit. You just have to make an effort and pick your victims carefully, I find.
On the other hand, handling staff at restaurants and stores tends to be much less successful. They do insist on calling me ‘dear’, and when I insist they stop that because we are not really well acquainted, they are mystified, even hurt. They meant well, you see because I reminded them of their grandmother.
But these intergenerational tensions pale in comparison to the real issue here: getting old sucks. Totally. Who, I ask you, enjoys spending most of their time in doctor’s waiting rooms, various hospitals, joshing with physiotherapists about your bum knees, or contemplating living in a wheelchair because you’ve developed severe spinal stenosis? That is what I’ve been doing lately, and this after a lifetime of rushing to the pool, the gym, the yoga studio and so on. Perhaps I should have simply been a lady of leisure, lying on the sofa watching something while munching on bonbons, after all? I mean, come on, I believed in living a healthy lifestyle, and this is what I get?
And that’s not even saying anything about the terrifying traffic jams in our health care system. Those are our fault, apparently. We are a terrible drain on resources. But I do not think that we can feel sorry for ourselves because the young are struggling in a ‘gig economy’ that offers minimum wage, no benefits and no security. No wonder they have no patience with us oldies; after all, we are the generation that never really had to scramble like that. We lived through a rare moment when capitalism and social security nets actually sort of worked for the benefit of most people. The young today never had it that good; and besides, we left them with Climate Change. Guilty as charged.
So, demanding that everyone show some respect is a nice idea, but not very realistic. Nobody has respect for anyone, anymore. That’s the twenty-first century for you. We no longer respect our institutions, our politicians, even our doctors. So be it, I am far more interested in figuring out what I can still contribute while I’m being a drain on the system. I might be slightly wiser than the young, as Sharon claims, but since when did the young ever seek the wisdom of their elders? Especially since they can’t seem to get their heads around modern, digital problems such as data harvesting and artificial intelligence? What, if anything, can we offer them, the beleaguered young?
Perhaps what we all, young and old, most need at this fraught period of history, is a sense of our shared humanity, expressed in kindness, humour, and patience. I can do humour, can sometimes be kind, but patience? Forget it. Others will have similar caveats. My point is that sharing a story, a bit of funny news, a kind word, a helpful gesture, is what makes us connect to each other in such a way that concerns about respect simply vanish. I used to believe that living in Korea, where young people are expected to prostrate themselves in front of the ancestors and the grandparents, would be very gratifying. But I no longer believe that is something we can aspire to. I’m relieved that we are no longer living in Victorian times when our society was much more ‘respectful’ of our elders. I actually prefer our modern, disrespectful times because they give everyone the option to be rude, even to the Queen, who is in her nineties. We fought two world wars, and they certainly loosened things up and contributed to our collective bad manners. Let’s not forget what it’s like to live in a society with strict rules: it’s oppressive.
I’d much rather live today when we’re able to decide who deserves our respect, and who doesn’t. I reserve the right to be rude to young people who don’t get up when I limp into the bus. And they then have a choice: get up, or make a surly remark about old fogeys. I will certainly have a comeback. Bring them on, those disrespectful young folks.
Because that’s what keeps me going: disrespectful discourse.