“That is no country for old men,” the poet W.B. Yeats wrote more than 70 years ago, referring wistfully to the country of the young. He was not so old when he wrote it, either, barely in his 60s, but he knew that his age automatically excluded him from much that interested him — chiefly heedless sensuality at that point, although he did his best to keep up. If he were around today, however, he would find whole new tracts of country sporting “keep out” signs.
Things have actually improved greatly since Yeats’ time, at least with respect to the shelf life of sensuality and the physical health and fitness it depends on. When it comes to interpreting those loaded terms “old,” “elderly” or “aged,” the bar has been raised irreversibly. Not only are people in all developed countries living longer, they are staying active longer. James Doohan, Scotty in the original “Star Trek”, may be pushing the upper limit with last week’s announcement that he is to be a new father at the age of 80. But in most other spheres, from work to recreation, people who just half a century ago would definitely have qualified as doddery tend to see themselves today — and are generally seen — as occupying the latter stages of a graceful and vigorous middle age.
So elastic has the concept of middle age become, in fact, that it is now virtually open-ended, a change registered in moves both here and abroad to raise the official retirement and pension-eligibility age. This mainly reflects the fact that, with dipping birthrates, the pool of financially dependent senior citizens is rapidly outgrowing the pool of workers whose taxes must support them. But it also reflects the accurate perception that the word “elderly” needed redefining anyway, and not just as a means of averting social crisis: The average 65-year-old today is simply not the same human being as his or her counterpart of 50 years ago. Most are quite capable of supporting themselves — and indirectly, a few authentic old-timers as well — for another five or even 10 years.
Given this trend, it is all the more startling to note the apparent growth of another, opposite trend, especially evident in the still embryonic field of information technology. It is not new in itself. Yeats knew it — the brutal truth that “an aged man is but a paltry thing” — and we know it too, despite the “middle-aged spread” described above. In our era of -isms and political correctness and sensitivity to human rights, we call it “ageism.” It has long been around in Japan, as any glance at the help-wanted advertisements will confirm, often implicitly intertwined with genuine sexism in a request for photos, but mostly just plain old equal-opportunity ageism. This newspaper’s own employment columns every Monday feature numerous ads specifying an age cap of 30 or 35.
What is new, though, is the kind of blatancy that surfaced last week in a news report from India, where a leading IT company called Infosys Technologies announced that it had banned employees over 35 from speaking at its annual conference. “This is ageism. We do not dispute this,” a company senior executive was quoted as saying. The decision was attributed to the founder and chairman’s conviction that “youth invigorated a company” and that the global software sector was changing so quickly that only people of “mental agility, innovation and high energy” — read youth — could reasonably compete in it. Putting his money where his mouth is, the 56-year-old CEO, one of only four Infosys employees over 50, retired last week; average employee age is just 26.
This has nothing to do with executives’ preferences for young, pretty secretaries or value-for-money concerns about hiring older workers. Rather, it makes chillingly explicit the perception (already apparent in such countries of the young as California’s Silicon Valley) that if you are even a hair past the biblical midpoint you just won’t make it in the fast-changing world of global technology and electronic commerce. Even Mr. Bill Gates, at only 44, retired recently as CEO of Microsoft.
It is to be hoped, though with not too much optimism, that the trend will be self-correcting. Those under-35s may be quick, innovative and ludicrously energetic, but there is much to be said for caution, conservatism and getting a good night’s sleep as well: the constituent qualities of the wisdom that flows from experience. Any company, even a high-flying, superconfident dot-com, would be better off cutting some of that into the management blend. Besides, what are all the whiz kids going to do after they turn 35 and find they have three or four decades to fill in before they even start to look old? The intergenerational war ignited by that sort of discontent could get surprisingly fierce.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.