I had an encounter some months back at a McDonald’s store. A lady in her middle age had called out to me in Chinese then.
You see, McDonald’s had progressively installed self-order kiosks in all outlets in Singapore. This lady was trying to order from the kiosk, but did not know how to navigate the screen. I knew the reason immediately. This lady does not know English and the kiosk has only English instructions in it.
The irony was that to her right there was a McDonald’s staff who could help her. Yet she chose to ask me for help. The reason? This was an elderly staff – I presume the lady assumed that she would not be familiar with the technology employed.
Even though I could converse in Mandarin and could operate the self-service kiosk, I could not help this lady. I could not understand what she really wanted to order. I knew she wanted a packet of French fries, but she wanted to order that from the kids’ menu. I got confused.
In the end, it was the elderly staff who understood what this lady wanted and helped her with the order. This lady went on to pay cash at the counter.
This episode came back to my mind recently when my mother was looking for a job. What I was concerned about is if ageism is prevalent in society.
My mother resigned from the job she held for a good ten over years, as she could no longer endure the subtle pressure her boss was exerting on her. From hints that she was not keeping up with technology (and hence her productivity is low) to gripping about how my mother is ‘expensive’ and hence should go part time, to overt hints that my mother should retire because she is getting old, you cannot blame my mother for thinking that she is discriminated.
After she tendered her resignation, her boss had (sarcastically?) suggested that she not look for a job, given her age. I was really disturbed by such comments and wondered if my mother would really be able to find a job.
Within a few weeks though, my mother landed a job similar to her previous one. It was a factory production job where my mother’s role was to make sure the printing of materials was done accurately.
I thought that would be the happy ending, except that shortly after her employment, my mother told us how there is an elderly colleague in the factory who would deny all responsibility and attribute failures to everyone (including the boss!).
She cannot endure that kind of ranting in the factory and decided to give notice after about two months in the job. The boss was sad to see her go though. On hindsight, I think leaving is a good choice for her sanity.
By some coincidence, my mother found her next job (with her preferred work conditions) by asking a friend of mine for leads. My friend recalled an opening in a school canteen run by another friend and asked me to check it out. Now my mother is working happily with my friend in the school canteen.
Was there ageism in play in both accounts? I think so. The middle age lady probably thought the elderly staff would not be able to comprehend her request, and turned to me for help. My mother’s former boss had unwittingly discriminated against my mother for her age, citing lack of IT knowledge as an excuse to send her off. I think ageism was present in both instances. And by turning to English as the default language for its kiosks, McDonald’s may have inadvertently omitted a segment of non-English speaking consumers.
Yet these two incidents also revealed how ageism can be countered. The elderly staff at McDonald’s had mastered her scope of work well, using the self-order kiosk to serve the lady well. My mother had demonstrated her worth in her new workplace within a short span of time so much so that the boss was reluctant to let her go. And my mother knew how to tap on networks to get her next job too.
So while there could be ageism present, how one deals with it is important. Never let the idea that an obstacle can be a stumbling block to your plans.
There is one other thought I would like to explore in this post, and that is the idea of who is left behind in today’s society.
When I was younger, I held onto the idea that the youth represents the future. It is important that our ideas get surfaced and amplified.
I don’t think this is a wrong attitude to hold. It is part of what makes up youthfulness, I suppose. After all, most if not all of us assume that we have a certain length of time ahead of us when we were younger.
I think this thinking carries another notion along with it; the older generations may not have much to contribute. If the young have lots of brimming ideas to contribute, a parallel thought could be that the older generations may not have ideas considered relevant for today’s age.
I say this with a bit of candidness: some of the older folks I met in my earlier years would tell me this exact thought in my face, while at the same time saying that the world belongs to the young ones. When said frequently enough, it would seem even the older generations would agree subconsciously that their ideas are irrelevant in today’s context.
Again there isn’t a right or wrong to this. But I think this also allows for ageism to occur. Once an attitude becomes common, it becomes a predominant mindset, creeping into the language and tone used by people.
I think that people who hold this view (regardless of age) are those who will be left behind in society. It is because holding this attitude is an indication that they only benchmark themselves against others based on a physical concept of time, yet do not consider the learning ability of people, which is limitless.
So the middle-aged woman I wrote about at the beginning of the post could be the one left behind, because she does not know English and is not sure how to use the self-service kiosk. If you don’t take the trouble to learn a language or navigate a device, chances are you may not be any more useful or valuable as another who is capable of these, despite being much older in age.
I hope you do not want to be left behind. Reflect and ask what you would do to combat ageism and how you can adopt a lifelong learning attitude.
Have you ever had similar experiences like myself it may mother? How would you handle your boss if you were my mother? Do we discriminate some people subconsciously? What do you think is a good way to manage ageism in society?