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The stale, pale male and the challenges of aging

I was listening to a conversation on the radio the other day about the dominance of men in journalism and politics. The phrase ‘stale, pale, male’ was used to describe the predominantly white, older men that tended to be found in positions of power. As a bit of a wordsmith I found myself torn between admiration for the genius of the phrase itself and cringing discomfort over the derogatory nature of it.

Sure, those older, white guys have had it too easy for too long but if phrasing of that nature had been used in almost any other context to describe any other social group, there would have been a backlash. They can no more change what they are than I can stop being short, or having rubbish eyesight.

And then I wondered if I was being too sensitive. Pale, if not generally used in a flattering way, is merely a description after all. I’ve now come to the conclusion that there are two things that bother me about this phrase. One is that it makes a pat categorisation of a whole bunch of people and puts them in the same box. Not all stale, pale, males are domineering dictators with a thirst for power. I hope. I’ve met some. They sometimes seem quite nice.

But the second one was the use of the word stale. Now I am assuming that that word is meant to denote someone older. Perhaps that’s my bias. Perhaps it was just meant to denote those who are stuck in their ways or unable to think outside the box we had firmly put them in. Probably a bit of both.

Hold that thought for a minute. Because what I then thought about was my own experiences of getting older and some older men I had met in business. I thought about those stories I had heard about managing directors who didn’t know how to send an email and who always had their secretaries do it. Yes I am that old.

While I hate certain online systems (usually ones that actually require you to read the instructions) I have not neglected social media, as it’s part of my job. Ignoring social media is not a luxury I can allow myself. But I have met many people in the veterinary industry, younger than me, who are proud of the fact that they don’t understand social media. It makes me think of those MDs that people spoke of in disbelief.

With the ‘wisdom’ of age I can look back and see that those MDs were not dinosaurs – they were people with great expertise and knowledge and they were using those skills in the best way to bring greatest value to their business.  They were busy doing other stuff. It’s not that they wouldn’t have been capable of learning how to email but that the time passed when it would have been acceptable to ask for help. Rather like asking someone to show you how to butter your toast (that’s sure to have happened to some aristocrat somewhere along the line).  It will be the same for those people who are social media denyers in a few short years.

It’s frightening that your public persona can suddenly become as outdated as a geriatric hard drive when people switch on to what you can’t do, rather than appreciating what you can. It’s like asking the politician about the price of a loaf of bread to illustrate how out of touch they are. Frankly, I want my politicians concentrating their efforts in the boardroom rather than the bakery. They only ask this because it’s important to the ‘housewife’ (seethe) and perhaps that says more about how out of touch some journalists are with modern day women.

Vilification of the elderly puts it too strongly; I think this is maybe more about the world of younger, more junior people not overlapping with that of the older generation. My younger self could not have conceived of the kinds of decisions I would have to make in a more senior role. You have to wonder if, as the sneers about an inability to send an email ripple through junior employees, the older employees join in an Emperor’s new clothes kind of way. Until the older, previously respected manager, is viewed as ..…stale, out of date, past his sell by date.

I can’t help thinking that this is all happening so much faster than ever before and that while we can embrace age, we should not allow ourselves to become stale in either thought or deed, nor abrogate responsibility for learning about new technologies or new anything. But neither should we belittle anyone for doing so.

Returning to that place where you were holding your thought: what I didn’t mention and you have perhaps assumed anyway is that the stale, pale, male conversation was taking place between educated women talking about equality.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a very interesting conversation and raised many excellent points. But I think what I am uncomfortable about is having a discussion about equality that seeks to raise one group above another by presenting them as somehow a superior alternative. The clue is in the word: equality. Surely that’s what all sensible people hope for?

Have I let my passion for a nifty phrase overwhelm me? Am I reading waaaay too much into this?  What do you think about aging? Has it affected how you are perceived in the workplace? Maybe you are proud to embrace your stale, pale, maleness. Go on have a rant and share your thoughts…