It’s a curious thing, getting old. When I was younger I thought it would feel like slowly walking into a blank future, a kind of nothingness. Instead, it feels like life is sliding out from under me as it races backward. I’m not moving; I’m staying exactly the same. It’s my context that keeps changing. I continually find myself in a completely new environment but I’m the same person: from the inside, I think I look the same, I’m the same eternal (but indeterminate) age, I have the same values, and I live by the same rules.
That’s why it’s such a shock sometimes to look around me and see others aging. My daughters are all over 30 now. My grandson is almost 12 already. But me? I can’t quite grasp the fact that if others are getting older, so am I.
I went to an office party the other night and I was the oldest person there by almost 30 years. I didn’t feel out of place, but I afterward I wondered if the others felt funny being around me. When they looked at me, were they thinking: this woman could be my mother! When I opened my mouth to make a comment or tell a story, did they brace themselves for something irrelevant and stuck in the past? Do I seem as old to them as a 90-year-old person seems to me?
I was reading a book the other day where one of the characters referred to a 40-year-old woman as “middle-aged.” Wait a minute, I thought, that’s not middle-aged. I’m middle-aged. But by some guidelines I’m practically a senior citizen. Now that I’m almost 59, I don’t think you should be considered a senior citizen until you’re 70.
What bothers me the most about aging is the presumption that I don’t know anything, when in reality the older you are, the more you know. I at least know what it’s like to be young. But young people don’t know what it’s like to be old. That gives older people an edge when it comes to life-wisdom. Old people have lived through almost everything. The only thing that’s new for them is new technology. Even history repeats itself.
Young people think they’re changing everything, but in reality, they’re only reinventing the wheel. Every old person remembers what it was like to drive the older generation crazy. It’s only the particulars that have changed. What our parents thought was shocking may seem old-hat to our children and grandchildren, but the feelings of shock were just as real as the shock that they will feel when the next generation comes up with its own brand of language, art and fashion.
What does this have to do with feminism? I started thinking about this when I read the chapter about the feminist generation gap in Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women by Rebecca Traister. That chapter, titled “All About Their Mothers,” encapsulated all that’s ailing about the feminist movement today: the friction between Second Wave feminists and Third (or even Fourth) Wave feminists. Both groups feel alienated from one another because of their differing outlooks on life. Younger feminists don’t appreciate the older feminists and the struggles they went through to achieve the gains for women that we have today. Older feminists feel judged by younger women as irrelevant and out of touch with present realities.
When I write these posts I have to walk a fine line between the feminism I grew up with and the feminism that is needed for today. As a Second Wave feminist, I feel that I have a lot of insights to offer younger feminists, but at the same time I have to try to view the world through their perspective. A lot of the battles the feminist movement fought in the ’60s and ’70s have been won and I need to accept that and move on. But at the same time, I fear that younger feminists are missing the undercurrents of sexism and misogyny that still flow through our society.
What makes this all the more challenging is that I don’t feel like an older woman. I’m always surprised when young women express their impatience with older women. “Don’t they realize that we know what they’re going through?” I wonder. “Don’t they know we’re on the same side?”
This is the dilemma that all older people face in a society that worships youth. We can’t seem to get it through young people’s heads that they’re going to be where we are someday and it will be sooner than they think. Not only that, but that we’re uniquely positioned to help them navigate their way through life, because we’ve already been there.
And yet, I remember what it was like to be dismissive of everyone over the age of 30. To feel that I had a unique perspective about life exactly because I hadn’t been beaten down and disillusioned.
The truth is, both sides of the generation gap have a lot to learn from each other. Older people need the idealism and energy of the young and young people need the wisdom and patience of the old.
If only we could learn to listen to each other.