Ageism is everywhere. It’s on television, in the movies, at the workplace, or even around the community, and it can manifest in some obvious and some not so obvious ways.
You may have even uttered an ageist comment yourself. It’s important that we understand what ageism is so that we can work on eradicating it from our society.
What is ageism?
If you flipped open the nearest dictionary, or pulled up the app on your phone, you would find ageism defined something like this:
(n) any discrimination or prejudiced based on age.
This dictionary definition takes into account age-based prejudices against any age group, but in practicality, ageism refers to the stereotyping and discrimination that is leveled at the older adult population.
What causes ageism?
In a 2011 article on contemporary ageism, Dr. Wojtek J. Chodzko-Zajko, Head of the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, describes the modern view of old age:
“Aging is often portrayed as a challenge or even a threat to society. One in which the old are depicted as an economic burden. In short, aging is viewed as a crisis, a situation which will need to be managed before it gets out of hand.”
The pervasiveness of ageism in the United States is rooted in a number of misconceptions about senior life that combine with layers of intergenerational tension to create proscriptive attitudes toward age in three key areas, say Princeton researchers:
- Succession. Our society runs on the principle of passing the torch. We believe, however accurately or inaccurately, that we have a set number of years (typically late twenties through middle age) in which our best work is accomplished. Afterwards, we should step aside so that these opportunities, be they high-paying jobs or social roles, can be passed on to others who are more able (generally understood to be younger individuals). Older adults who don’t remove themselves from these elite positions are cast as selfish or greedy.
- Identity. The standards for fashion, beauty, and progressiveness are policed and upheld, if not entirely created, by the young. Older adults who keep up with fashion trends, frequent trendy locations, or are avid consumers of popular technology infringe on territory that has been claimed by younger generations and are censored for trying to “act younger than they are.”
- Consumption. In modern America, senior living is often seen as a financial strain or a burden on the healthcare system. In many ways it can be tied back to an inherent cultural current of work and reward. Many older adults who are receiving Social Security or healthcare benefits are not currently bringing in funds and are, therefore, not earning their keep. With the future of the economy still an uncertainty, Americans have become hyper-aware of where their money is going. This makes things like regular the withholding from paychecks for insurance or Social Security seem especially glaring.
What does ageism look like in day to day life?
Showy displays of bias are generally frowned upon, but the pervasiveness of some prejudices and stereotypes can make them seem commonplace. Some of the most common instances of ageism go largely unnoticed in day-to-day life:
- Comedians, talk show hosts, and other entertainers joke about “senior moments.”
- Doctors rob older adults of agency in their own healthcare by talking to adult children over the head of a senior parent.
- Younger adults who look for health and beauty products to “fight aging” as if it were a disease.
- Television commercial and other advertisements that depict seniors as hopelessly out of date, lacking knowledge about modern culture and new technologies.
- Paternalistic laws and regulations limit the independence and decision-making power of older adults “for their own good.”
What can I do to fight ageism?
According to the Fight Ageism organization, getting older adults to share their stories is the key to ending discrimination. When senior living is shown as it is, for what it is, the labels and stigmas attached to aging seem ludicrous.
Another local organization called the Council for Lifelong Engagement (CLLE) is dedicated to ending ageism while imparting the wisdom of elders to school children of all ages. At CLLE, many residents from ERH communities speak to grade school classes on a variety of topics, from art to education to business.
On a personal level, being more aware of the vocabulary you use to speak about seniors or getting older can help tear down ageist stereotypes.