Although the term “ageism” was coined around the same time as the word “sexism,” it has received substantially less attention from the public. But with the United States’ quickly growing older population and increasing life spans, it is time we start taking ageism more seriously.
Ageism is any sort of prejudice or discrimination on the basis of how old we think someone is. And while it can affect both young and old people, in Western cultures, where youth is fetishized, older people have many more negative stereotypes attached to them than young people do.
“In this society, we see old age only from the lens of loss,” said Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks and a leading voice in the anti-ageism movement. Ageism starts when we are young, right around the time that prejudice and racism form. We see ageism in children’s books and cartoons everywhere, and these stereotypes continue to develop throughout our lives. And while “unlearning is hard, especially when it comes to values, unless we challenge the belief that to age is to lose value, that becomes our identity,” explained Applewhite.
“Ageism is prejudice against our future selves,” she said. It pins us against each other and creates an “us versus them” mentality, which leads to all kinds of problems for older people, from health care to careers.
“Ageism cuts work lives short,” noted Applewhite. “Lives are getting longer, but work lives aren’t.” Engineers in Silicon Valley are so afraid of “being too old for the job” that they are getting Botox and hair plugs before their interviews — and these are rich white men in their thirties.
The problem is only intensified for older women who “experience a double whammy of ageism and sexism,” said Applewhite. There is a notion that age enhances men and de-enhances women, leading them to end up out of the workforce earlier than men even though they live longer.
Additionally, “ageism feeds into ableism (prejudice against people with disabilities),” to the point where people will often deny using a walker even if it means staying home all day, explained Applewhite.
Ageism doesn’t just affect how people treat seniors — it also affects how seniors treat and view themselves. In fact, a recent Yale study found that people who have more positive attitudes about aging are less likely to develop dementia, suggesting that ageism may actually be degrading to health.
So what can we do to promote anti-ageism behaviors? “Dismantling ageism will require nothing less than a radical social movement,” said Applewhite, so we need to get better at acknowledging “the need for help all through our lives.” She explained, “Make friends of all ages” because “an integrated world is, straight-up, a better world.” Lastly, remember: “You can’t fail at aging … I don’t even think there should be a term ‘aging successfully,’” she said. “If you wake up in the morning, you’re aging successfully.”