Ageism is an issue that plagues society on both ends of the spectrum. The elderly are condemned for their age and the stereotypes that come with it by the young and the young are condemned by the old for their youth and inexperience. It would seem that whatever part of the spectrum you fit into, someone is going to hold it against you.
Ageism is one theme that appears regularly in the Dystopian genre. This genre, which is typically populated by younger characters seems to have little use for the old. We could go through a whole list of examples of Dystopian literature and there would be very few times when the elderly would appear and if they did, it is likely in the role of the villain.
If we go back to one of the original Dystopian stories, The Giver, the elderly (and problematic individuals) are ‘released.’ That is, they are exterminated. Why are the elderly released? It could be for a variety of reasons. They cannot contribute as equals to the society. They require a lot of resources to care for and providing those extra resources to those individuals would mean that they are getting special treatment which is a no-no in utopian society. The Divergent Series operates along a similar vein. In the Dauntless faction, the elderly are encouraged to leave the faction when they reach a certain age. Even their headquarters and home-space are designed to deter the elderly with steep hills and other hindrances to navigating the area. Every person in this faction (provided that they live to old age) will at one point become ‘factionless.’ This is not something that the Dauntless advertise when they are trying to obtain new recruits.
Dystopian literature typically features younger heroes and heroines. Granted we are now seeing exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, the young rule this genre. The Hunger Games, The Giver, Divergent, and many more feature younger characters who rise up against those in power in order to make a difference. They challenge the status quo and typically, their adversaries are older which suggests that an older person is one who is entrenched in the status quo and are thus incapable of change. They are old and set in their ways. There is no hope for them.
One series which is challenging this concept is Wool by Hugh Howey and I find this to be exceedingly refreshing. The first character you meet in this story is Jahns, the mayor and a woman in her sixties. The main character you follow through to the resolution of the story is Juliette, a woman in her thirties. Other characters, such as the sheriffs also fall into the 50s/60s category. As far as Juliette goes, she is nowhere near old. A person in their thirties is by no means OLD, but in the worlds of Dystopia, a character in their thirties would likely be considered as such. This book is also unique in that it seems to straddle the post-apocalyptic and Dystopian genre. In my opinion, Dystopian literature expresses scenarios with which we can still relate like a governing system. Post-apocalyptic literature does not have any recognizable government. This is how I distinguish between the two, but not everyone may agree with that assessment. This book is described in multiple places as being post-apocalyptic and while the setting is definitely such, the presence of the government lends me to describe the story as Dystopian.
So, why are the old destroyed or kicked out of the collective when their wisdom is something that could be utilized in so many Dystopian settings? Well, as I stated above, the elderly typically require greater care and in a utopian society, giving someone else better care or more attention is unacceptable because no one is meant to be special in such a society. The very young, such as infants, also require a great deal of care. But the difference is, they will likely pay back the care that was required to raise them as they reach the extent of the autonomy that they are allowed. The elderly are, theoretically, no longer able to give anything worthwhile to society and are thus a burden.
The subsequent question is why is ageism a popular theme in this type of literature? Well, the simple answer is: the main audience (younger readers) are often the victims of ageism themselves. Beyond that though there is also a lot of ageism against the elderly in real life. The young view the elderly as if they have failed to incite change or make a difference in the world. The young are a bit naive in that they think that they are the first ones to have their eyes open and to think that everyone else around them is asleep. They are the only ones who are aware of the injustices of the world. This is something that many generations go through. Thus, since this literature is targeted at the youth and is about an uprising, it makes sense that the elderly are pushed out.
There is also something to be said about our society’s tight grasp on youth and equating youth with beauty. With fifteen-year-old super models and wrinkle creams and anti-cellulite treatments, our world is obsessed with beauty. And just as being a waif is currently thought to be the preference, so is youth. With age may come wisdom, but it also brings wrinkles and the disdain of pop culture. Of course everyone wants their book to get a movie deal, so a young and attractive hero/heroine is a good way to go. Movies that feature older people as the main characters are much fewer than those that feature younger people in leading roles. There are exceptions of course.
Lastly, why Wool? Why did Hugh Howey do this? Why did he go against the norm? I for one would like to shake his hand heartily and thank him for doing so. Older characters allow for more sophisticated plots which create a much more intriguing story line. Youthful characters have their own advantages of course, but they also have the major disadvantage of not being very good at life simply due to their lack of experience. They can, and often are, very whiny. Maybe I think this because I am not a seventeen-year-old girl. I, of course, flit from genre to genre. But when I read Dystopian literature, I don’t expect anything with sophistication. Wool surprised me in a pleasant way.
Ageism is a problem that goes both ways. I personally have experienced ageism as a young person on a number of occasions. Even now, because I am lucky to look younger than I am, people are pretty surprised when I tell them I am almost thirty-one years old. That ageism manifests in our literature is not surprising. It is a part of our every day experiences, no matter our age. We either are a victim of it, we perpetrate it or we watch it being perpetrated against others. It is in our media and in nearly every commercial that flashes on the screen. Even commercials that are targeting people who would fit in the ‘old’ category feature people who no one would describe as old.
The issue of ageism absolutely exists in Dystopian literature, though it is not actively responded to by the writers in their stories. The exception being Wool. I would be interested in seeing a Dystopian story that addresses this issue head one simply because I think it would be an entertaining read. Perhaps I’ll pick that one up once I clear a few projects off my plate. Though, that will likely be a few years down the road.
What do you think of ageism in Dystopian literature? Or in any type of story?