Serving Amidst Ageism

Living in intentional community is not an opportunity that many people my age have had. Despite my age having the potential of labelling me as naive and inexperienced, my encounters with different forms of community living have developed my sense of self and have strengthened my ties with those having come from other generations than my own.

I have been struck by conversations I have had over the course of my volunteering career: I am either expected to be entirely confident in my career path and have gained wisdom beyond my years as a cause of taken a “path less traveled,” or, on the extreme opposite side of the spectrum, leeching off a program as a result of not having life goals and too young to make these decisions on my own.

Being a twentysomething is not easy these days. I do not mean to make “woe is me” my mantra, I have definitely been blessed with a close network of immediate family members and loving friends. I grew up in a church where I could say, with a decent amount of confidence, that I would be taken care of. I was fortunate enough to have had a great overall high school experience. Never was I threatened, never was I afraid for my safety. It was a safe, comfortable childhood of which I led. I have, however, faced and have been challenged by ageism. Specifically, over the course of my two and a half year volunteer stint, I have come to realize that the willingness for young people to serve can sometimes be accompanied with a quiet suspicion from those observing.  One conversation near the end of my one year term with Mennonite Voluntary Service Adventure produced the following responses from someone close to me:

“I’m not convinced that you are passionate about [going to college/university] and going into social work, like you said. You don’t seem excited about it at all.” (Once I mentioned that more volunteering may be in my future before university, all of a sudden my interest in social work was put into question.)

“You know that you are just volunteering, right? That this isn’t real life? You need to get the ball rolling and get your life started already!”

Upon hearing the news that I was going to continue volunteering for another year a family member came up to me, grabbed my shoulders, and directly told me to “get a job already!”

I am twenty years old. I am a young person who is engaged with a program specifically aimed towards young persons who yearn to make a difference and gain valuable life experience. Too often, however, are we faced with the message that our generation is out to get whatever we can, fast and cheap. We are marked off as greedy, impulsive and shallow. I have specifically been faced with those I love wondering whether I am merely doing this program because I am too lazy to live in the “real world” and find a “real job.” Even considering a second year of service at this stage of my life led to questions regarding my authenticity and integrity — whether or not I was backing out of making “adult” decisions by remaining dependent on other people’s generosity.

This is something that should truly trouble us. This seesaw of give and take, of responsibility and failure, of independence and dependence: they do not apply specifically to any age group and should not be our main points of reference. We cannot clump a group of people to fall on either end of the seesaw. In my case, my decision to be dependent on other people has been a difficult and humbling one. I have been given the chance to see North America through a different lense: through simple living. This includes the challenge of asking for help. That is what community is, reaching out and seeing the love of God pour out through the hands of others. To trust. And to embrace. I have learned that, regardless of age, we are prone to failure. We do not know what we are going to do when we “grow up.” And we trust God and others to gently guide us along the way.