On my last birthday I turned 50. It wasn't as traumatic as I thought it would be, or at least no more traumatic than any other birthday since age 21. However, my employers at the company I had been working at for four years chose that day to notify me that – due to downsizing – I was fired.
Now I'm not the only person I know out of work. In this economic climate, the youngest baby boomers are not booming as well as they’d like to be. And what makes this all much more difficult? The fact that people are reluctant to hire employees over 35. This, despite the fact that mature employees are likely to be more loyal, more experienced (my 3-page CV is available upon request), more reliable, less distracted by career goals and the needs of a young family – and we've still got another 15-20 productive years before retirement.
But youth has always been highly prized in Western culture. No one over 25 has ever lied about his age by adding a few years. The billboards and magazines still promote images of youth and sensuality as goal and ideal. Ironically, many older people, in order to work, are now taking the kinds of jobs they had when they first joined the work force three decades ago (for unfortunately the same pay) because not a high enough value is placed on the maturity, experience and the wisdom that comes with age.
This idolizing of youth is in complete contrast to the way Judaism defines aging:
"A 40-year-old attains understanding, a 50-year-old can offer counsel, a 60-year-old attains seniority…" (Ethics of the Fathers)
Age is valued. Age is an advantage.
Judaism values age because it means the person has had more time to garner wisdom and life experience. Judaism obliges us to honor the aged by standing up when they enter a room, giving our seat to an elderly person on the bus, etc. Age counts for a lot more than marking the passing of another year.
If job opportunities and pay scales were Torah-based, older people would be the pick of the unemployment crop. Someone who had seniority wouldn't suddenly become devalued just because circumstances dictated that he switch jobs.
But employers are not the only ones guilty of age prejudice. A recent bus ride taught me that no place is safe from the pressures of aging.
"Do you want a senior’s ticket?" the driver innocently asked me.
"Senior’s ticket?" I all but shrieked. "Do I look 65 to you?"
"A senior's ticket starts at 60," he informed me.
Over the next few days, I had to be assured by half a dozen people that I still look 40. But then it occurred to me: It doesn't matter whether I’m 50, 60 or 90 – we all look ancient to them! In Israel, where I live, 83 is the average lifespan for women (that means there are those who live longer). Moses took the Jews out of Egypt at age 80 and the biblical Miriam led the women in song at 86. I have another 30-plus years to go. So, Junior, who are you calling “Senior”?
“Senior” suggests that I should be sitting in a rocking chair.
Why was I so upset by the bus driver's faux pas and serious need for glasses? Because “senior age” implies that I look old instead of venerable; expendable instead of experienced. It suggests that I should be sitting in a rocking chair making out my will instead of looking for a job, a spouse or a new career.
From a Jewish perspective, aging is a source of pride, something worthy of honor.
Wine is the quintessential Jewish way to mark the passage of time – a bris, wedding canopy, holiday meals – because wine, like people, improves with age. We are judged when we leave this world at who we are when we finish our journey, not who we were when we were our most attractive, most energetic, or displayed our most potential.
Jews are people of the spirit and the mind – realms that are truly ageless. The body is just a vehicle to house them.
If that were the attitude today, I’d be thrilled every time a bus driver calls me “Senior.”