All of us—young, old, middle-aged—whether we like it or not, practice ageism, at least to some degree. It’s far less obvious than most other prejudices, but it is nevertheless there in how we think about others and, most importantly, how we think about ourselves. The idea that we’re too old (or even too young) to do something is rooted in our own prejudices about the limits that age imposes—limits that are reinforced by the broader ageism that permeates our culture.
Unlike sexism, racism, and other “isms”, ageism is not static: whether we’re dishing it out or taking it depends on where we are in life. Take ,for example, the situation where an older person is waiting to see a physician:as soon as this “very” young doctor enters the examination room, the older patient begins to question his competence because he’s “only a kid”, and he feels perfectly justified in doing so. Yet on the way home, when an impatient young driver behind him yells out the window, “The light’s green, you old goat!” (or something worse), he is outraged.
Not surprisingly, studies have shown that age bias decreases dramatically through regular contact with older people. We can break through our own wall of ageism by choosing to widen our social circles to include people who are 10, 20, 30, 40 or more years older than we are.
A gerontology professor I once had was fond of saying that ageism in the only prejudice that eventually claims its perpetrators as victims.
I saw this in action a few months ago as I was conducting a focus group as part of workforce development initiative targeted at providing employment for mature workers. When the topic of technical training came up, one of the participants said emphatically, “Why would anyone what to want to spend the time and money to train an old guy like me?” If he had not been a victim of his own ageism he might have responded, “I enjoy playing around with the computer and would like to learn more—just don’t put me in a class with my grandkids!” Which attitude would be more likely to interest a potential employer?
It’s a fact that the ageism you practice will become the ageism you experience. If you’ve always tended to think of others as being “too old”, that’s how you going see yourself when the time comes—and it will, because everyone who lives long enough gets old.
But awareness of your own ageism can also motivate you to take steps to change your attitude before it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Steps to Changing Ageist Attitudes
- Be sensitive to the language you use to describe yourself, and to the belief systems that support it. The word “old” is a moving target. Some people speak of “getting old” as they approach their 30th birthday, while others in their later years don’t think the word applies to them at all. I know a woman in her early 90’s who, when discussing her dour, irascible brother-in-law, who was only a few years older, said, “I hope when I get old I can laugh now and then!” The words you use to describe where you are on the spectrum of age are entirely your choice.
- Listen to how others talk about age and be aware of what they are saying about their beliefs. We reveal ourselves in our “pet” phrases: a woman in her late 70’s who is a member of an organization I belong to is treated with respect for her accumulated wisdom by the other members of the group, yet, when she shares her ideas, she almost always qualifies them as “coming from one of my tender years.” The ageism that enters the room at that point is completely hers. Being cognizant of the way that these beliefs work in others can help you to root them out in yourself.
- Recognize that ageist humor is not funny. Ageist humor—birthday cards, “over-the-hill” parties, black balloons, etc.—is not innocent fun. It points directly at the thing which I believe is driving ageism: the fear of death. Unlike Eastern culture which sees death as part of a continuous cycle of renewal, Western culture sees death as a affront and does everything it can to run away from it. The stereotypes presented in these cynical social expressions reveal a deep-seated revulsion to the aging process, which, despite dramatic increases on our life spans, continues to be linked in our youth-oriented society with death. To me, they are as offensive as racist or sexist slurs. I don’t buy them and if I receive one I speak up about what it is really being said by them and say how I feel about it.
- Cultivate elder role models who are living productive lives. Not surprisingly, studies have shown that age bias decreases dramatically through regular contact with older people. We can break through our own wall of ageism by choosing to widen our social circles to include people who are 10, 20, 30, 40 or more years older than we are. Finding older people you admire and learning about their lives makes war on ageism in the best possible way because it directly counters the false premise that quality of life decreases with age. Having older role models, helps you break away from our society’s fear-based stereotypes and overcome ageist obstacles to living your own life to the fullest extent possible.
The choice to fight your own ageism is the choice to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Breaking away from the bondage of ageism not only paves the way to a fuller life, it also allows you to send a different message about aging to succeeding generations.