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Are you ageist and don't even know it?

As a society, we're aware of and working to address sexism and racism. Now it's time for ageism. Since the 1960s, there's been an effort to eliminate the negative stereotypes of and prejudice toward older people. The way we view older people is affected by history and culture. What served us centuries ago no longer serves us. We've changed and the world has changed. We're living longer and the old ways of looking at the old are no longer helpful or appropriate.

The term "ageism" was coined in 1968 by gerontologist Robert Butler. Ageism has been called the ultimate prejudice, the last discrimination, and the cruelest rejection. All societies use age and gender to classify their members, and they have different expectations for each category. But North Americans have developed a set of prejudices and discriminations against older adults that may be unequalled by any other society. Ageism also affects the young. Children should be particularly sensitive to ageism since being told "you're too young" is just as bad as being told "you're too old."

How ageist are you? Close your eyes and think of a college student. Draw a mental picture of what he or she would look like. Now imagine a recent retiree, a grandmother, and a first-time father. Compare your mental images to the following facts:

  • Each year, half a million people over 60 years of age are studying on college campuses.
  • Retirees from the military are typically in their 40s or 50s.
  • It's possible to meet a 35-year-old grandmother whose teenage daughter or son has a baby.
  • It's no longer surprising for men in second marriages to become a father for the first time in their 50s or 60s.

Most of us are more ageist than we are aware. Even a seemingly harmless comment like, "You don't look that old" (which is intended as a compliment), carries the message that "most people that old don't look so great."

Ageism can be positive as well as negative. It is just as ageist to say that older people "should" be healthy, engaged, productive, and self-reliant than to say they aren't. Much less attention has been paid to positive ageism than to negative ageism because positive ageism is less common and it's not perceived to be as harmful. There are at least eight positive stereotypes that many people associate with older people: kindness, wisdom, dependability, affluence, political power, freedom, eternal youth, and happiness. None of these are any more true than the negative stereotypes. For example, people who were unhappy when they were young tend to still be unhappy when they are older. And, although calling someone a "sweet little old lady" isn't negative, it does marginalize them.

A "generalization" is a valid understanding based on research. For example, it's a generalization to say that most older men have at least some balding. This is an accurate statement based on scientific knowledge. On the other hand, a "stereotype" is an untruth or oversimplification about traits and behaviors. It's applied to a whole group of people without taking into account individual traits. A generalization is helpful, a stereotype is not. Stereotypes are the basis for prejudice and discrimination. They don't allow us to see people for who they really are. We tend to make a snap judgment, put someone in a box and keep them trapped in that box.

Explore ageist stereotypes. How do young and old both face stereotypes and prejudices? Discuss each of the statements below. Does a statement apply to a teenager, an older adult, or any age? Why? Can you see an older person making the statement about a younger person? What about vice versa?

"They're so forgetful."
"They're rude."
"They're lazy."
"You can't depend on them."
"They just don't learn well."
"They think they know it all."
"They're never satisfied; they're always
"They have too much time on their hands."
"They spend all their time in the park or at
    the shopping mall."
"They're dangerous drivers."
"They're too careful."
"They're sloppy."
"They're too energetic."
"They're so slow."
"They're too trusting."
"They're so busy."
"They're always sick."
"They stick together and won't talk to
    anyone who's not their age."
"They're all pretty much the same."
"Why don't they act their age?"

What can and should be done about age-based prejudice and discrimination? Is there anything old and young can do together?

© SV Bosak, www.legacyproject.org




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