Ageism refers to discriminatory or prejudiced behavior and attitudes towards people based solely on age. Ageism causes the systematic mistreatment and marginalization of people based on age alone, just as racism and sexism does so based on categories of skin color and gender.
Dr. Robert Butler, the first Director of the National Institute on Aging, coined the term in 1969 at a time when our growing recognition of racism and sexism was fueling social change. But he first recognized decades earlier when, as a young and idealistic medical student, he was horrified to witness his fellow residents and students routinely refer to older people as “geezers” and “old witches” and trivialize their very real needs. Since then, many activists and researchers have documented the pervasive presence of ageist stereotypes in social attitudes, practices, and policies.
Age-based stereotypes: what are they?
The most common ageist stereotypes are negative, reflecting the ageist assumptions that all or most older adults are demented, weak, incompetent, disabled, or cranky.
- How often have you seen someone speak to an elderly person as they would to a child? Or speak loudly assuming that all older adults have hearing impairments? Or assume that if a young adult loses forgets something, they are simply forgetful but label the same behavior in an older person as ‘senile’?
A few stereotypes are superficially positive, such as the “cuddly and cute little old lady” stereotype. But these stereotypes also disempower older adults because they discourage people from treating them as capable adults with the usual human range of complex capacities, attitudes, and needs.
The price we all pay for ageism
Ageism—which permeates our social practices, behaviors, polities, and attitudes—hurts all of us.
From an individual perspective, these beliefs and assumptions can ‘get under our skin’ and create the very outcomes we fear.
- A study by Yale researcher Becca Levy and colleagues followed several hundred older adults for more than two decades. Researchers found that people who had internalized more negative attitudes towards aging were significantly more likely to suffer impairments and need nursing home care, and died on average 7-1/2 years earlier than people with more negative attitudes towards aging.
From a societal perspective, ageism causes us to accept discriminatory practices as ‘natural’:
- Just as we ‘assumed’ (with lots of social training and cues) that housing and employment should be based on skin color, we accept that older people should be segregated in special housing (to “help” them) and fail to protest hiring practices discriminate against older adults.
From a generational perspective, ageism places enormous pressures on young people to achieve everything in the first half of their adulthood (and somehow save enough to fund a forty-year retirement) and prevents the full participation, potential for growth, and engagement of older adults in all aspects of culture.
Ageism prevents us from developing an affirmative vision for a full human life and a vital multigenerational society.
How do we change it?
Individually and culturally, we need to:
- Recognize ageism (in ourselves as well as in social practices and policies) by raising our own awareness and consciousness;
- Challenge ageist assumptions and stereotypes through education, advocacy, and protest;
- Develop new social maps that embrace our full human journey, including the second half of adulthood.