Stereotypes tarnish 'golden years'

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Call it a duel between New Images and Old Stereotypes.

When the subject is retirement and aging, conflicting views abound. On one side stand the optimists, eagerly heralding New Images of activity in later years. Think of astronaut John Glenn, hurtling through space on a NASA mission at age 77. Think of Jacques Barzun, publishing another book at

93. And don't forget invisible older people who display an indomitable spirit by volunteering, traveling, and working.

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But on the other side these days are media pundits, gleefully dredging up Old Stereotypes. As the election recount in Florida goes on, so do their negative portrayals of retirees in Palm Beach who say they were confused by the butterfly ballot. Those images, characterizing older voters as lacking intelligence, have gone unchallenged.

Cartoonists and comedians are having a field day, joking about mall walkers, early-bird diners, and bad drivers. And a letter writer in the Chicago Tribune says she plans to compile a "Florida Voting Kit for Dummies."

A Boston Globe columnist ridicules seniors, saying that "their dinner hour falls just after lunch. And they think nothing of leaving their left blinker flashing during the entire ride back to their condos. And that turn signal may be the only sign of life inside the car."

In similar vein, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle writes, "If there's one thing Florida appreciates, it's a bargain. So who's surprised that several thousand citizens of Palm Beach voted for two presidential candidates for the price of one?"

If Broward County contained fewer retirees and minorities, would the characterizations have been less cruel?

Age discrimination takes many subtle forms. In the workplace it remains notoriously hard to prove. Just ask the 50-something worker who is passed over for a promotion or given a sweetened pension to leave.

In ads, older people remain largely invisible. Marketers target younger audiences, even though American Demographics reports that the 35 million Americans 65 and older control over 70 percent of the country's assets - $7 trillion.

John Jerome author of "On Turning Sixty-Five," recalls a conversation with the editor of a "feisty" new magazine. The editor told him that the publication's "smart-aleck tone was causing some subscription cancellations, but not to worry, they were mostly from old folks, and geezers did not represent the plummy market advertisers wanted." How did they know the age of the lost subscribers? Simple, the editor replied. By their handwriting.

Still, some signs of progress exist. A commercial for Best Western features a swimsuit-clad woman in her 60s jumping off a waterfall in Maui. Why? Because, the ad says, "you always promised yourself you would."

That attitude prevails among a growing number of current retirees. Already they're shattering stereotypes portraying retirement as a time of inactivity and withdrawal. And already baby boomers are putting the country on notice that they plan to redefine retirement - maybe by not retiring at all.

For now, all the cartoonists, columnists, and comedians getting laughs at the expense of Palm Beach retirees would do well to remember this: Someday they, too, will be over 65. Wherever they live, however they shape their lives, they can only hope that their future counterparts will view them more kindly, and find something fairer to write about than a turn signal or a budget-friendly dinner eaten at 5 p.m.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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