We live in a global society that heavily emphasises youth and beauty. Billboards across the world feature young faces with pristine white smiles; stereotypically stunning celebrities saturate the big screen; and old people are often disregarded as valid members of our communities. Ageism is defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as “prejudice or discrimination against a particular age group especially the elderly.” With a rapidly increasing population size worldwide, and simultaneously a growing population of well-educated young people looking for work, employers have a larger pool to choose from than they had in the past. Therefore, young people are chosen for jobs more and more often, pushing older people to the side. As the World Health Organisation indicates, “Ageism is widely prevalent and stems from the assumption that all members of a group are the same. Like racism and sexism, ageism serves a social and economic purpose: to legitimise and sustain inequalities between groups.” This occurs even though “older workers are not necessarily less healthy, less educated, less skilful or productive than their younger counterparts.”
Although many countries emphasise the importance of respecting one’s elders, Thailand included, ageism nonetheless lingers in countless forms. One of the main places in which ageism persists is in the workplace. I had the opportunity to interview two women who had firsthand experience with ageism in Thailand. These women prefer to withhold their identities for personal reasons, and I will refer to them as Ms Smith (age 56) and Ms Brown (age 68). Smith arrived in Thailand with training as a teacher and practical experience as a translator, librarian, copy editor, and researcher. During her job search, she was met with blatant ageism in stipulations that applicants must be “under 30,” along with sexism in the specification that applicants should be either male or female. “These are jobs where no argument could be made that age or gender are in any way relevant,” said Smith. “On the contrary, diversity and experience seem definitely to be an advantage, and yet I was eliminated already before I could apply.” Brown had a similar experience. Job applications often gave a certain age window, usually ending at 30 or 40, and because her age surpassed that she had no chance to even be considered. “If I have way more experience than you and we’re going into the same job, you’ll be the one that’s chosen,” she said, referring to my being in my 20s. More value is placed on youth than experience – especially for women. Consider the entertainment industry, for instance.
While male actors’ careers may continue long after they pass their middle age, regardless of their greying hair and appearing wrinkles, actresses rarely have the same experience. Instead, there is pressure for them to perpetuate their image of youth through cosmetic surgeries. Male actors are far more likely than women to continue to be cast in roles as, for example, love interests. They are often paired with a woman much younger, though this is not as rampant as it was in the 90s. Even so, it is not uncommon for an older man to be cast with a young woman (i.e. Pretty Woman, Silver Linings Playbook, and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World), but if the roles are reversed, it is frequently only as a plot device in the film (i.e. The Graduate and The Reader). The point is that men’s careers often continue unhindered as they age, but this usually is not the case for women.
“I think sexism and ageism – as it pertains to women – definitely play a big role,” said Smith, “and I think all the stories coming out of the #MeToo movement are stark evidence of that. If you are a 56 year old man you are still considered a full-fledged member of society; if you are a woman you have to be 20 years younger for that kind of respect.” Both Smith and Brown referred to their experience as becoming “unseen” to society. Brown told a story of sitting at a restaurant with a young female coworker when they were approached by a young man. He spoke to her coworker without sparing Brown a glance. “He just talked to her,” she said, “and I was totally invisible.” She had to insert herself into the conversation to gain his acknowledgement. Brown credited this lack of attention to her appearance, stating that she realised this discrimination began to occur when her “looks were not as they were before.” She said, “I think in any society, if visibly you’re of no use to them, then you don’t feel acceptable and that’s not a nice feeling.”
Ms. Smith echoed a similar refrain when referring to her job search. “By the time I was 53,” she said, “I had my Masters of Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies and spoke 6 languages fluently and had years of experience living overseas, but it was as if I had suddenly become invisible.” Instead of receiving respect for being experienced, intelligent, and capable women – something men their age would likely receive without question – they were disregarded because of their age. The result of ageism, in many cases coupled with sexism, is often that women must turn to volunteering rather than paid work.
“It is common knowledge that women are used to working for free,” said Smith, referring to household work, childcare, elders care, and more. “So it seems a fair assumption that if the job market shuts these women out then they can be relied upon to do work for free.” She explained that during her search for paying jobs – “Why shouldn’t I be paid when most men at 56 are paid for the work they do?” – she found countless appeals for volunteers in roles that, in the past, would have been paid. Some examples are fundraising, activism, and teaching. “The people who apply for these positions are by all accounts well-educated, middle-aged, unemployed women,” she said.
This mirrored Brown’s experience. “I’ve met so many people, people with PhDs,” she said, “and they’re all so frustrated because they’re trailing their spouses here. Usually it’s the husband who gets the job.” Even with the highest degrees in education, these women must turn to organisations such as American Women’s Club, charitable causes or the PTA of their child’s school for something to do. These groups do important work, but it is unpaid. Meanwhile, if they do manage to obtain paid jobs, women are often forced to leave before they want to. Brown told a story of a friend of hers, who after a long time at a company, arrived at work to find her computer was gone. Until that point, her coworkers had made the work environment hostile to her by ignoring her ideas and speaking only in Thai during meetings. To avoid paying women severance fees, companies find ways to spur them toward quitting. These practices should absolutely be illegal, and yet they still happen. “The only way to successfully work as a woman here,” said Brown, “is to have your own company.”
But this is not a possibility for everyone. So how can we get rid of this toxic ageist environment? “Why does anybody have to know anybody’s age in the first place?” said Smith. “Or your gender? Or your ethnicity? If your training and experience make you the most qualified for the job then none of those things should matter.” In this sense, she agrees with blind recruitment, wherein applications omit all those details and are reviewed purely on experience, while interviews are also conducted blind. However, Smith pointed out that this would probably work in favour of “those who have all the advantages already” – that is, white men. Therefore, she asserted that she is also “a proponent of positive discrimination, or affirmative action, until women and minorities have been allowed to catch up with white men in job experience. This means legislating the opportunity for women and men to have both a job and a family and legislating the fair treatment of disadvantaged members of society.”
There are also actions individuals can take to stop ageism from manifesting in every corner of society. Brown stresses the importance of appreciating old people as real people, as legitimate members of our communities, and as valuable sources of knowledge and stories. “They’ve had their day that they contributed,” she said, “and they might still be contributing quietly, in a behind-the-scenes kind of way, not going out and shouting about it.”
It’s time that we view ageing as a benefit rather than a nuisance, especially in a time when people live much longer than they once did and are viable professionals long past retirement. Old people have seen and learned more throughout their many years than young people have. They are some of the most important people in our world, and it is time that we understand, acknowledge, and appreciate them as such – especially in the workplace.
When it comes to jobs, older people should be able to compete with everyone else on equal footing; they should not be weeded out by an age limit in an application. They should be assessed as applicants based on their training and experience rather than the year they were born, and they should be appreciated as vital employees for companies and organisations. This would take society a step in the right direction – toward a more balanced, diverse and accepting world.