In this age of ageism, spin a wheel of fortune for justice

Opinion polls and academic research confirm ageist attitudes all around.
Opinion polls and academic research confirm ageist attitudes all around.


In a largely conservative country that’s rumoured to revere age, it’s easy to assume it is not an issue.

One of the things that doesn’t make us squirm as much as it should is ageism, even though an India at 75 is surely mature enough to talk about and tackle it. The term denotes unfair treatment meted out to people for being considered too old. In a largely conservative country that’s rumoured to revere age, it’s easy to assume it is not an issue. Easy, but lazy. The World Health Organization’s Global Report on Ageism of 2021, which defines ageism as “how we think (stereotypes), feel (prejudice) and act (discrimination) towards others or ourselves based on age," calls it out as a major problem and classifies India among high-prevalence countries. Opinion polls and academic research confirm ageist attitudes all around, while corporate recruiters confide that a digital pivot explicitly favours younger profiles even for top positions now. As market logic dictates, candidates likely to be ‘with-it’ and less stuck in old ways are in demand. While this may make it seem like it’s only about reducing risk, what’s at stake here is far more basic. It’s about profiling—and justice.

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Apart from being an inalienable value of the Union, as encoded in the Indian Constitution, justice is also integral to peace and prosperity in the medium to long run and therefore a key factor in how we fare. But if ageism is especially glaring as a covariant of concern, pin it on what makes it so peculiar. Except those who are deluded about defying age or counting on technology wonders, we can all foresee ourselves ageing—and thus at the receiving end of it. Even if we allow for some life-cycle myopia, a stigma staring at everyone ought to evoke empathy enough to soften ageist attitudes. This should make age equity easier to attain, relatively speaking.

But then, another odd aspect of age is that society and law just won’t let it drop off as a data-field. No matter what one thinks of old legacy rites of passage, age serves as an apt bar for plenty of stuff on our way to adulthood. These age bars confer legitimacy on the idea of age-specific rules, enabling even irrational barriers to pass off as sensible. We have age gates for our civil services, for example, whose trail of impact includes birth records warped by families ready to fudge dates for a better shot at sarkaari sinecures. Until recently, when one could legally marry in India went by binary gender. Set now at 21 for men and women, it’s still a formula that’s more puberty-plus than maturity-minus. Cognitive studies say it typically takes 25 years for the human mind to mature in the sense of judging risk well. Even data on non-marital mishaps, like road accidents, argue for pushing several adult privileges forth to a safe point half a decade past the teens.

As creatures of age gates, we could blame a mix of apathy and habit for the arbitrary hurdles that Indian middle-agers encounter, like the need to get a fitness okay for a driver’s licence renewal, which is often the first intimation of one’s reflexes being held in suspicion by the state. With more indignities to come as the years roll by, an oxymoron called ‘artificial intelligence’ might even worsen age determinism, fed as it’ll likely be with ageist biases.

To tackle ageism, though, we should not take on particular practices, but the broad injustice of it. For this, I would suggest a mass campaign that entices people to play a mind game I call ‘Rawlsian Roulette’, drawn as it is from the ‘veil of ignorance’ proposed by John Rawls (1921-2002), a political philosopher. It goes like this: Suspend disbelief to imagine that a moment of magic is upon us; a grand wheel of fortune is to be spun, a revolution that will go ‘poof’ within a minute and turn each of us randomly into somebody else in the country. With our future identity unknown to us as we go in for this spin, what sort of rules would we choose?

The only rational response is to ask for the arc of history to bend towards the justice of equity. What works for a random Indian is what applies evenly to all, and what’s fair to everyone is also what serves everyone best, ultimately.

A campaign to arouse public interest in the well-being of others, at least in terms of how the law applies, would not only give us more bang for the buck than one that focuses on age inequities, it could also help raise the salience of what’s just and what’s not.

In recent years, reckless legislative moves have made falling in love across religious ruptures a hazardous enterprise in some states, even as central law-making has been failing the Rawlsian test. Take the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019. Under it, of all Indian residents whose proof-of-citizenship papers the state may deem dubious some day (as a roll call did to multitudes of all faiths in Assam), followers of India’s biggest minority faith are conspicuously denied a naturalization path kept open for other belief groups. This is otherization, frankly, so let’s not have it gas-lit as a welcome mat for subcontinental immigrants. A religion-based gap in access to citizenship should be put to scrutiny in every possible scenario, no sweat or high anxiety, and this could be egged on by an imaginary spin of the wheel that might send our luck reeling ‘the other’ way.

Could a Rawlsian Roulette undo our unfair rules? My guess would be too wild to count. But to set a clock ticking against ageism and other biases, justice may be the best bet to mount a pitch on.

Aresh Shirali is views editor, Mint.

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