Ageism and Career Stereotypes from the Intern

By Cathy Goodwin

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It was the last day of my vacation in Seattle and I suggested to a friend that it might be fun to go see a movie, something light and fun. And since I have a career blog and am concerned with issues of ageism, The Intern seemed a perfect choice.

Well, The Intern is light and does have some funny moments. But mostly the movie recycles one stereotype after another.

The writers needed a premise to get Robert De Niro into this start up tech company as an intern. So instead of having him apply for a position based on skills, they had the company create special senior intern positions to raise their image; the Robert De Niro character gets assigned to the Anne Hathaway character for the unlikely purpose of softening her edges.

When Robert reads his application letter, I whispered to my friend (I rarely talk in a movie but this was a horror show), “This guy needs a career coach.” His letter was all about him: he was lonely and isolated and wanted to work. His forty-plus years of business experience? Irrelevant to him … and sadly, to the company as well.

The stereotypes continue when Robert wears a suit and carries a briefcase, reinforcing the notion that seniors prefer traditional formality and refuse to adapt to corporate culture. The stereotype confuses aging effects with cohort effects: today’s sixty-year-olds grew up with a casual culture.

And of course Robert doesn’t know how to use Facebook. I know 70-year-olds who are not only active on social media but also setting up WordPress blogs and editing movies. And I know thirty-year-olds who can barely handle their emails.

The Robert character knows how to make himself useful in a new corporate setting, even if he’s ignored. He’s got business savvy, although the analyses he performs are pretty simplistic and the Hathaway character should be getting reports automatically. His people skills are so strong I’m afraid a new stereotype has emerged: the over-60 set now has to be wise and kind as well as humble, heroic and kind to children. He even hops into an unfamiliar car and drives easily all over New York, something most people can’t do whether they’re twenty or ninety.

Meanwhile the Hathaway character has turned into a helpless, whiny stereotypical old-style female. Her life is out of control. She shares personal information inappropriately. But she’s got the main qualification to be taken seriously and run a company. She’s young and attractive.

The movie’s ending reinforces the worst stereotype of aging. Robert began his internship eager to work. Like many people, he derived his life’s purpose from meaningful paid work, not volunteering or “leaving a legacy.” In our society, you don’t get taken seriously till you get paid for what you do.

Unlike other interns, Robert won’t be rewarded with a paid position in this company or anywhere else. Older adults – and “older” starts at forty-something in most places – just aren’t wanted. Employers might complain about their lack of technology skills, but they find reasons not to hire “mature” graduates of boot camp tech courses.

In fact, at the end, we see Robert heading back to retirement, relieved to re-join his morning tai chi class. He fits the stereotype. If he were a real person? Give him about 2 weeks and he’ll be wishing his internship had turned out to be a real job.

Imagine a movie with a gay hero who swishes onto the basketball court wearing makeup and discovering he can indeed make three-point shots … although he was brought onto the team as a gesture to diversity and a way to get livelier press coverage.

Imagine a movie with an African-American heroine who’s hired as an office temp, then uses her house cleaning skills (honed by years as a maid) to make the boss look good, serves watermelon on coffee break, introduces an office hip-hop competition (“got rhythm”) and insists on wearing African dress to work.

Ludicrous? Offensive? Yes. But so are movies about older people who can’t use computers and hang on to a 90s wardrobe.


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