What can the film The Intern tell us about age at work?
Let me start by saying that I have seen this film so that you don’t have too.
Not that it’s wholly bad. There are a few laugh out loud moments (well , maybe one). But really?
OK, so the premise is that Robert de Niro’s character Ben is 70 and has been retired for a while (widowed but very comfortably off) and is finding that he doesn’t know how to fill his time. He misses work. So he applies to join a ‘senior intern’ outreach programme with an online fashion company, run by CEO Jules (played by Anne Hathaway). There are three other interns who start with Ben: an older ethnic minority man (we never see him again), an older white woman (we definitely see her again – see below) and a younger white male (we see a lot of him).
So, given the organizational context, cue all kinds of ‘jokes’ about older people not understanding new technology. There is a particularly excruciating scene where she introduces him to Facebook.
But there are more subtle age (and gender) stereotypes at work here. The film’s tagline is ‘experience never gets old‘. Ben’s popularity with his younger co-workers seems to depend on him having desirable vintage accessories (leather briefcase, cotton handkerchiefs, silk ties – all deployed at useful moments); still being able to demonstrate virility (“hey, you’re not as old as I thought you were“) and sexual attraction; the financial wherewithall to be able to offer a spare bedroom in his spacious and luxurious house to a fellow intern; and good manners.
The older female intern re-appears in the film for no other purpose other than to highlight Ben’s competence at a particular work task (driving the CEO between her home and various work appointments) through her own absymal and dangerous attempts. (An age/gender stereotype about older women drivers, I guess).
What I found most troubling, however, is the way in which more subtle age/gender stereotypes are set up in the plot only to be questioned by the characters as if this dramatic flourish suddenly renders them non-stereotypes. I’m thinking here of the CEO’s marital woes and the linkage between being a young career woman with a family and not deserving a loyal husband. This operates as a framing device and it’s the same technique we have seen, and sometimes commented on, in various websites that look at age at work issues. An example was Katrina’s commentary in this piece about a People Management edition which gave stereotypes so much dominance and then hid away the comment that recognised the problems such stereotypes (of all ages) raise?