Boomers this, millennials that; there seems to be an endless cacophony of self-important and self-pitying statements about who has had more opportunities. About which generation, and indeed gender, has had the most financial struggles, less rights, or more, dare I say it, ‘snowflake’ tendencies. I do not ascribe to this however. I wont even engage in such a discussion. Why? I don’t believe that age or gender makes as much of an impact on a person when compared to class. The problem with generalisations is that they are just that; generalised assumptions about entire groups of people, based purely on shared experiences of a generational cohort or what someone identifies as. It sounds counterproductive of me then, to ascribe certain traits and characteristics to individuals based on the generalisations of a person’s class. My reasoning for feeling so strongly about the telling differences of class over age or gender is the vast difference in those shared experiences that poverty or affluence can provide. Members of the same age group whose parents have contacts and cash will inevitable have a very different upbringing, and therefore view of the world, than those whom needed to cultivate their own from scratch, and that’s without recognising the struggles lower class women have historically faced without manual labour to fall back on. All I am going to mostly speak from is experience on this, but the lack of self-awareness from the affluent when discussing age and gender can be staggering.
I can only ascribe age discrimination to the naivety that comes from having a rather comfortable existence. Those whom adopt a ‘village elder’ approach see their protégées as having an easier time of it than they did. And I cannot blame them for coming to this conclusion. With each generation living standards improve, right? Well that is the idea, but it is certainly not the case for many. The next generation will not be better off than you if their parents; your peers, were not of the same class as you to begin with. Common sense dictates that. Generational poverty; the family heirloom of having nothing, is a baton passed down through the ages, and the cycle is immeasurably difficult to break. It is not impossible for children from low income families to shake off poverty when they have the opportunity to make their own way in the world. I and many of my friends have, but it is rare, though. So why is it then that I find the discourse surrounding different generations highlight only the ‘upper middle class’ experience and above? Do the poor people of today find themselves in a better position than the poor of the 1950’s? As a general rule yes, absolutely! But to assume that everyone today is having an undeniably better time of it then say, someone of middle class in the 1950’s? Absurd! No, what I find difficult to digest academically, morally, and personally, is the game of ‘who has it worse’ encouraged by the media from those in middle age towards those aged 25 or younger. This is not a game that I want to play, because it’s something that I don’t want to win. The only competition I seek to triumph in is the game of life; preferably in the form of a liveable pay check! And yet this is something that I am told constantly that I feel entitled to because of a lifetime of participation medals. The irony of this being that I have had to work harder than both my affluent peers and elders for, at times, mere survival. All the while their own participation medals came to them in the plenty; in the form of nepotism and immeasurable resources.
It would be very hypocritical of me to suggest that I don’t take stock in generational differences; I wrote my thesis on how best to market to generation z! but I would never dream of making assumptions about people’s personal lives in the real world, and their reasoning for being in whatever career or financial position that they find themselves in (whether that be good or bad). Perhaps my background has led me to be wise enough ‘beyond my years’ (shudder) to know not to say anything if I have nothing nice to say, and to assume nothing. I pride myself on being individualistic. Every conversation, debate, relationship and even personality test I engage in comes up with this result. It’s a core value of mine; a part of how I exist and navigate the world. But I digress. My point is that not everyone sees the world this way, and that can be problematic when discussing age or gender without first considering class.
Age is Just a Number. Class isn’t.
A former boss of mine once made a point of bringing up my age in a negative light every day that I saw them. And I saw them every. Single. Day. Needless to say, I diverted discussions where I could, avoided this person whenever able, and failing these solutions, left as soon as I financially could. A rather ‘millenial’ act I suppose; throwing in the towel so to speak. But my problem did not stem from being offended as the media would have us all believe. Assume that I am younger than I am, and I will be undeniably flattered; who wouldn’t be!? What’s more, life is very dull indeed without humour, and even more so in an office. I love to laugh and can take a good joke. But to be told that you are something that you aren’t; to have your personal strife, history and very identity erased by someone whom does not know you (and whom does not care to take the time to, or to think critically upon their own beliefs) was hard to digest. My experiences with unfounded assumptions in the workplace can be surmised by a small number of anecdotes, all following much the same vein…
Having taught myself to use software others had struggled with, instead of receiving a polite nod of recognition, I faced a barrage of defensive and fork tongued comments about how I had only done so because I was of a generation that lived and breathed technology. But I shook it off and thought nothing more of it till after the fact. Teaching myself, putting my head down, and very much just ‘getting on’ with things was all that I was used to…so having mulled it over a little more, I realised that the reaction was pretty shocking. These people seemed to think that their generation had the monopoly on these industrious traits. But their reluctance to adapt or show graciousness had shown me otherwise. Mostly though, I was upset because I had never encountered such an assumption about myself. I realised very quickly that these people not only didn’t know me at all; but they had already made up their mind about me due to something as unindicative as my age. this was not an isolated incident, but only the ‘tamest’ which I would feel comfortable sharing online.
I wondered maybe if the fact that I had grown up to be in a now unnoticeable state of poverty was some sort of personal victory? The thing is, the class to which you are born is not only out of your control, but it shapes your thinking and feelings and entire personhood, from the most obvious concepts of money, but more deeply into one’s social life and values. But by holding my breath and rising above such nonsense, I managed to maintain my private dignity by not bringing up the fact that I hadn’t even seen a computer in the flesh until I was 15 years of age. Yes, your three year old may have an iPad, but I was more concerned with having somewhere to live back then. My uncomfortableness continued, and I have since been on the receiving end of much the same; variations of, “you wouldn’t know what stress is”, or, “these young people today don’t know how easy they have it”, and, “You wouldn’t have coped back then. I didn’t even have central heating!”, all of which had left me feeling like screaming into the void. How bold of you it is to assume that I had the unheard of luxury of on-demand warmth! These decidedly lazy comments helped them to explain away my successes and their own shortcomings, and were certainly more telling of their character (and age and maturity level) than mine. I would wager that I have more life experience (at least in the subjects that they bought up) in my big toe than their entire ‘senior’ bodies.
In my early career, the times when I found myself in out of my depth were not from a lack of confidence due to being female as many male and female superiors alike would have me believe, but from a lack of experience in existing in such elitist social circles. My issues of fitting in at particular workplaces/academic spaces and taking such comments on the chin were directly related to class, not gender experiences. For instance, I was told repeatedly that I would get better with time at talking to people, and that I shouldn’t be afraid of voicing my opinions or having firm handshakes with professional men; and that was true, but also wasn’t, at least, not in the way that they understood it. Namely, I had never been ill adept at talking to people, male, female, or otherwise identified. I’ve always had a very wide circle, particularly in age and gender in my social life, which is pretty ironic (and what made these comments all the more frustrating!). I wasn’t shy. I am used to talking to people from almost all walks of life. I just wasn’t yet used to conversing so fluidly with their sort of people!
Rubbing elbows with MP’s, CEO’s, and clergymen is very different, and I am sure would make a working man in his 50’s as uncomfortable as I felt in those moments, particularly when conversations quickly turned to the difficulties they had in deciphering my ‘common’ accent. They were friendly enough, and I suppose they were trying to break the ice by bringing up what they thought were universal truths; asking me about my family and if I had any hobbies such as playing an instrument. The answer would have been a cold no for both, which I knew would have stopped all networking dead, so I obviously didn’t reply with that, but I had nothing rehearsed for these odd expectant and frankly quite prying questions that followed. It baffled me that people existed in this bubble, where everyone had been skiing in their youth. My stiffness at these mixers and with these clients was because I was unaccustomed at the time, of lying about what I always knew to be ridiculously unattainable talents and holidays in order to fit in. However, they equated my reserved nature to my gender and a ‘lack of worldly experience’ or ‘confidence’ instead of a lack of social and financial investment in me as a child. The only thing I lacked in was luck of birth, which I have since compensated for. Looking back, my only deficiency was that I had not yet mastered the fine art of pretending to have something in common with people whom may as well have been from a different planet!
As a final note, I am making the educated assumption that ageism from the other side is more prevalent and damaging, at the very least in terms of practicality and finances. With youth on my side, I had the ability (and took hold of it with both hands!) to leave the job in question where I was underestimated and unappreciated. To experience more outright ageism at work, especially when you are not yet at the threshold age for retirement, will make it significantly harder for a person at the end of their working life to quit their job and start afresh elsewhere. The same can be said for gender inequality. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced workplace sexism, other than the occasional jest about making tea which I could respond to with a quip and build up good rapport. What’s more, feigning the ‘shared generational experiences’ of activities that I will always deem absurd (such as wild holidays or Sunday family gatherings) has certainly become easier with time. Even if I do feel as though I am starring in my own parody of a poorly written sitcom! However, I imagine that if someone is attempting to rise ranks in latter years, these subtle differences of lifestyle that contribute to feelings of being a social outsider looking in, will be made all the more difficult without the adaptation capabilities that come with youth, or the ability to have a drink in the pub after work with ‘fellow man’ without raised eyebrows and sexual connotations.
It’s a real shame truly, that instead of learning from one another as both individuals and generational cohorts, condescending comments are still directed at either older or younger, male or female, richer or poorer employees. They are aimed at undermining people’s confidence, and are often so subtle that they are brushed off for fear of causing a scene over nothing. The same can certainly be said of classism at the workplace, and yet where they clearly intersect seems to be rarely discussed. What are your thoughts on age and gender vs class? Have you found the conversations surrounding age to exclude the ‘working class’ experience? I would love to hear your thoughts and am always open to new ideas and perspectives on any matter!
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