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Ageist birthday cards. Are they harmful? Or harmless fun?

Updated: Nov 15


Black and white illustration of an old man complaining about his ageist birthday card

Ageism is rife in the world. I’m not surprised. There are a lot of us old buggers around.


I’m in my mid-60s and our age group is rapidly increasing. In 2015 901 million over-60s were wandering around the world. And by 2050 the number of over-60s will reach 2.1 billion.


That’s a lot of old folks complaining about aching muscles, whinging about how things were better in their day, and wagging their fingers at bewildered youths for walking on the grass.


Infographic of the global population of the over-60s. Source: ons.gov.uk

Pah! The younger generation. That’s how they see us. Well, it’s a bit rich coming from them.


They’re too engrossed in themselves: their heads two inches from a phone, TikTokking meaningless drivel, being snowflakey, laughing at us for being unable to download an app.


On top of all that, they’re self-righteous, vain and needy.


See what I did there?


Ageism is stereotyping. But we can’t stop ourselves from doing it


We all love a good stereotype. We can’t help it.


Our brain, it seems, doesn’t like processing detailed information for too long. And in certain situations, we have to make a decision quickly. It helps us to survive.


So stereotyping distils everything into a simple, clear message. This helps us make a decision within a fraction of a second.


Most of the time we get it more or less right. You wouldn’t, for example, ask a small child to explain the EU common fisheries policy, and you wouldn’t ask someone in a wheelchair to help move your double mattress up the stairs.


But sometimes it can go a little awry.


When stereotyping goes wrong


Stereotyping is over-generalising. And there are few groups in the world more stereotyped than the older generation.

Infographic of the stereotyping of old people. Funny Venn diagram of stereotypes of teenagers, and parents

The problem with all this stereotyping is that this so-called older generation doesn’t feel old at all. They’re healthier and live longer than ever before.


In the Western world 60-65 is generally seen as retirement age, but those within this age bracket don’t see themselves as old. Most feel as fit as a butcher’s dog.


Now there’s a thing called RLE (remaining life expectancy), more commonly known as prospective age, which is based on the number of years people are expected to live in the future.


This is supposed to give a more accurate picture of our ageing population. A person would be considered old when their life expectancy is 15 years or less, or when they start to show signs of ageing, such as putting on an overcoat on a hot summer’s day or liking Barry Manilow songs.


This prospective age varies from country to country. Japanese women, for example, have the highest life expectancy in the world, at the age of 88. That’s a heck of a lot of noodles they’ve slurped.


With this calculation, a Japanese woman wouldn’t be considered old until she’s 73.

Going by 2017 UK figures, a man aged 70 had an RLE of 15 years, while a woman had an RLE of 17 years.


So the concept of when old age begins needs to shift forward a few years. Perhaps 70 is the new 65?


But to some people, old age begins at 40.


Are we dinosaurs? Some people think so


A few years ago IBM fired tens of thousands of staff over the age of 40, referring to them as ‘dinobabies’ and that they should be made an ‘extinct species.


Their aim was to lower the average age of the company to make them appear 'a cool, trendy organization’, as a former IBM vice president of human resources said in court.


There’s nothing cool or trendy about shafting talented people, no matter what their age.


To embark on such a selfish exercise simply to make yourself look appealing is wholly unappealing.


It beggars belief, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise as tech companies with their youth bias are prone to such misbehaviour.


HubSpot’s CEO and co-founder, Brian Halligan told the New York Times that ‘in the tech world, gray hair and experience are really overrated’. And this comes from a grey-haired man in his fifties.


Imagine if you replaced his words with references to race or sex. The HubSpot offices would be set alight. And you can start with Brain Halligan’s grey hair.


So people’s idea of old age varies. And it’s no different with birthday cards.


Are these cards really ageist? Or are we being overly sensitive?


Stereotyping is not harmful in itself, though some academics think otherwise, even about positive stereotyping. But I think it all depends upon the situation and in what context.

Collection of ageist birthday cards. Rosie Made A Thing. Emotional Rescue.  Wrinklies Cards.

They also don’t depict reality either. And people get this. In birthday cards, stereotyping is a form of hyperbole.


When someone receives a birthday card from their best friend referring to them being wrinkly, they know it’s a joke. They don’t take it personally.


When someone loses their job because they’re too old, that’s not a joke. They take it personally. Age discrimination in the workplace is pernicious.


Being fired for being a dinobaby is far more damaging than a birthday card calling you wrinkly.


But some people are deeply offended by these cards and want to do away with them completely.


Ageism in cards - a time for change? Maybe, maybe not


There’s a movement in Colorado called Changing the Narrative. It sees too many cards in Colorado as ageist. Maybe because there are a lot of ageing folks in Colorado.


It’s one of the healthiest places to live in the USA, and it’s where you’re most likely to live the longest. It must be all that fresh mountain air John Denver kept on singing about.


Changing The Narrative sees ageist cards as damaging and detrimental to one’s health. According to them and some other commentators, older people internalise all this negativity over the years and so adopt an older self-image.


Really? I don’t.


It’s all about how you see yourself. When I see these ageist cards, they don’t affect me as I don’t internalise them. It’s water off a duck’s back.


These ageist cards are for specific people with a specific outlook. By their very nature, they’re designed for a particular person in mind, and for someone the sender knows intimately, as highlighted by two of my Etsy customers:

Funny and rude 80th birthday card by Rusty Pencil. Ink pen calligraphy on yellow background.

‘I’ve been struggling to find a suitable abusive card for my Dad’s 80th (do card makers think 80yr olds don’t appreciate a giggle anymore?) and this is just the thing.’


And:


‘Luckily my Nan has a sense of humour! Laughs all round, thank you!’

Witty 90th birthday card by Rusty pencil. Card about being deaf but not dead. White font on red background.

These customers were suitably impressed and left 5-star reviews. Then again, you could say there’s no accounting for taste.


So for some, these cards are perfect. But, to put it bluntly, if you don’t like them, don’t buy them. If the message doesn’t apply to you, you shouldn’t be offended.


Having said that, what I’m offended by is the lack of originality. Freshness of thought is sparse. Plagiarism is commonplace. The same lines about being old tiresome.


There’s room for some fresh, intelligent ideas. Maybe even for some that highlight age but done in a witty, uplifting way. I’m working on it.


Reframe, reset and reject ageism in the UK


Ageism is the most widespread form of discrimination in the UK. It’s everywhere: in the workplace, on the TV, in advertising, in the media, in local and central government, and in other places where it matters.


Interestingly, no one mentions cards. Maybe they don’t think birthday cards matter. And perhaps, they’re right. They are, after all, only pieces of folded card that celebrate an event.


Yet despite efforts from encouraging and positive sites like the Centre for Ageing Better, Saga, Age UK and Restless, the world is riddled with stereotypes of old people.


There’s still a persistent view that when you get to a certain age you become incapable of doing anything worthwhile or of any use.


This is complete tosh. And everyone knows it. We need to keep reminding people of it.


Only recently a Japanese man sailed solo nonstop around the globe. He’s 83.


With age comes opportunities


There are good things about getting older: the chance to try new things, to enrol in further education, to rediscover an old passion and make it into a business or embark on a new career.


There are barriers to all these, but in the grand scheme of things, I think ageist birthday cards are the least of our problems.


Fighting ageist attitudes in the workplace and other crucial areas is going to be a long, hard battle. We need to carry on being ourselves and do what we do best, and hopefully, these younger folks will see the light.


After all, these very same people, who are practising and indulging in ageism, one day will be seen as old and cranky themselves.


Now that’s funny.