Earlier this year we published a post originally titled “Ageism in Coffee”, using the term metaphorically to discuss bias with regard to roasted coffee aging. While it was intended to be playful, in hindsight and with some friendly feedback we can now easily see that it makes light of a real issue that many people – at every age – experience.
Distilled down to its essence, ageism tends to come down to two main categories- either one is too young or too old to really understand. In coffee, especially in western culture, this takes on a multitude of forms, both from the outside and from within. On the retail side of the industry, we can see how we often associate certain roles with specific age groups and stereotypes. Baristas are young and fanciful, lacking in wisdom that comes with real world experience. Roasters are grumpy old hermits that can’t handle change, or young hipster disciples of <insert the latest famous coffee nerd here>. Owners are middle aged or older and out of touch with what’s actually cool. While these responses are reflexive and quite human, the limitations these gaps in perspectives create do us a disservice at their best. And, at their worst, can be incredibly damaging to the way we relate to each other, undermining the basic human respect required for meaningful relationships to unfold (ie: a true sense of community).
Back in my bar days, I can definitely recall applying this sort of bias to many of the customers I served as well. Based on age (among many other markers) I would often make assumptions about what kind of drink they would want. Or, how as a person in my 20’s working in hospitality, they might be inclined to treat me. Often, I would be proven ‘right,’ but, looking back 15 years later, it makes me wonder just how much my expectations were shaping my perceptions, behavior, and how much that influenced theirs as well.
Being in the middle aged category in coffee has been an adjustment. At 41, I am just starting to ‘get’ why a ‘midlife crisis’ is a thing. Being in the middle is a strange time, and nothing like I would’ve expected. Though I have learned in life to be mindful of what I choose to internalize, I would be untruthful if I didn’t admit that it has gotten to me from time to time. Coming of age on the barista competition circuit, I feel like I have gone from initiate to mentor in the blink of an eye. I am now old enough to be rapidly approaching ‘tragically unhip’ and irrelevant in its predominantly youth centered specialty coffee culture.
I am also too young, finding myself surrounded by people who see me, at times, as someone who is living in ‘lala land’, not being practical. I still feel the pity that “someone my age” deep into a coffee career, as though I must have somehow failed at life to end up here. All in all I would say that I am learning that, as my grandpa would say, middle age has a way of “getting you coming and going.”
I do make my best efforts to brush off these opinions- thankfully I am more consciously able to recognize that these are just our cultural inventions – but sometimes it still has its way of making me feel smaller – less significant, laying waste to my potential and questioning my relevance to society. And, I can not yet speak to being 50-60+ in this business, which very likely comes with a whole different set of experiences and concerns.
In these challenging moments I am reminded that, inside, there is still this ageless, eternal part of me that sometimes feels invisible to all but myself. That we are each whole, entire human beings, no matter our age or experience. This is the deeper reality and, while these experiences can definitely feel othering, I do not think that I am alone in this feeling, at all. Now that I am in the strange middle part of life – entering the paradox of being equally young and old – it is a great comfort to me to know that I am in good company with the rest of humanity. Right now I am fortunately able to relate fairly equally with either end of the spectrum at this point in my journey. Every age comes with its upsides as well.
There is much, much more to consider here, this I humbly know. So much so that what is posted here is only a fraction of what came to mind for me, mostly from my personal experiences. I would love to open the floor up to others – to hear about your thoughts on ageism in particular and starting a broader, productive discussion on how it affects us – our sense of community in specialty coffee and beyond, for better or worse. If you find that you have a lot to say, feel free to email us at email@example.com or DM @roastratings on Instagram.
And, as a little preview, In my next post I’d like to explore ageism’s relationship with the concept of our industry’s history.
Until next time, take care!