Why Doesn’t Anyone Care About Ageism?

It's the one form of discrimination that is likely to affect us all

February 28, 2023 6:00 am
A digitally generated image of beach chair with a sun hat on it against a blue background.
Old people are living longer and growing in numbers. Disregarding them isn't just bad behavior — it's bad business.
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Patti Temple Rocks is still angry about the Covid pandemic — just, in a very particular way.

“I can’t believe that there was a period when there seemed to be this big collective sigh of relief, like, ‘Oh, it’s really just affecting older people who are ready to die anyway,’” she recalls. “The pandemic was terrible in many ways, but one downside was how it amplified the notion of old people as fragile and weak. That’s true in some cases, but not most. And nobody was looking forward then and thinking ‘Uh oh, we might run out of workers without them.’”

Rocks is a business consultant, campaigner and author of the recently-published I’m Still Not Done, a sometimes-personal analysis of what she, among others, suggests is set to become the civil rights battleground of the next few decades. While we’ve held important conversations on sexism and racism, ageism has remained overlooked. That’s somewhat odd, considering it’s the one form of discrimination that is likely to affect all of us. (Not that that should be a qualifying reason for justice.)

“Covid saw preemptive lay-offs disproportionately affecting older workers,” Rocks says. “Then we saw ‘The Great Resignation,’” she notes, with people older than 50 taking early retirement. Now, employers are scrambling to figure out how to coax them back into a workplace that has too often seemed stacked against them. “It’s strange: talk to people in HR about whether they’re addressing ageism in the workplace, and often the reaction suggests that they haven’t even recognized that they need to,” Rocks adds. 

After all, demographics are undergoing seismic shifts: longer, healthier lifespans mean there are more older people not ready to quit work or who need the money to live out that longer life. “But the workplace just hasn’t worked out what to do with that older cohort,” Rocks says. “Why don’t we give the same support to people at the end of their careers as we do those starting out?”

The workplace is only the tip of ageism’s spear. It’s where it can be felt most pointedly, and where, while ageism is hard to prove, legal action is more likely to follow. The likes of Google, IBM and other industry giants have learned this the hard way. A survey by the American Association of Retired People found that a large majority of people older than 45 say they’ve either been personally affected by age discrimination or know someone who’s faced it at work. A more recent study suggests that the chance of someone older than 50 being laid off and then finding new employment at the same rate of pay is virtually nil. 

But as Peter Kaldes — CEO of the American Society on Aging — notes, that’s hardly surprising, given how deeply ageism runs in a culture in which the default position is to to hide rather than celebrate our older age. “We’re faced with having to turn the clock back on 200 years of the kind of ingrained mindset that has us still telling people they ‘look good for their age,’ whatever that can possibly mean,” he says.

If racism and sexism are taboo, it remains socially acceptable to denigrate a huge swathe of the populace simply for having successfully avoided dying. If you’re old and a woman, expect some extra vitriol, as Madonna recently discovered upon announcing her greatest hits tour.  

It’s not just advertising, which has privileged portrayals of youth since the late 1960s, when the gerontologist Robert Butler coined the term “ageism.” Kaldes says that the idea that “older people are less relevant” has infected the wider media, in the imagery and language it uses in relation to older people (which is something the ASA recently advised the Shutterstock photo agency about). It’s also seeped into business, healthcare, academia and politics.

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Corrosive anti-age standpoints are often heard in discussions on identity (the old shouldn’t ‘act young’ and certainly never sexually), on succession (older people need to move aside to make way for the allegedly more capable young) and on consumption (they shouldn’t use up rare resources, or voice their opinion on a future in which they would have a lesser part). 

Kaldes argues that while there are more community-minded cultures around the world — notably Asian and Mediterranean — in which old age is revered as a fount of wisdom and experience, industrial nations (and the United States especially) have been built on the spirit of individuality. We tend to value the individual as more or less useful based on their age. As Mark Zuckerberg noted in 2007: “Young people are just smarter.”

But this point of view is looking increasingly stupid, Kaldes argues, if only for economic reasons. Those older than 60 now account for some 70% of global consumer spending. They represent the fastest growing market for all sorts of products and services, from smartphones to dating apps to riskier financial investments. And there are only going to be more older people, both outside of work and in it; one in four U.S. workers will be older than 55 by the end of the decade, and one fifth of the world population will be older than 50 by mid-century. The world, in short, is getting older. 

“Business is going to run out of people to sell to [if it maintains its stereotyping towards older people],” he stresses. And he’s not talking about selling more anti-aging products to ‘fix’ signs of those passing years.

“It’s as though there’s been this toggle switch thrown from seeing old people as some kind of disease to run away from, to ‘oh my god, they have all the money!’” laughs David Stewart, advertising photographer turned founder of We Are Ageist, an agency specializing in advising brands on how to speak to older demographics. “The fact is that not re-thinking our attitudes to age is going to be economically untenable. And because older people have all the knowledge and may be at the height of their intellectual powers, ignoring them will increasingly come to be seen as dumb too.”

“It’s also way more complicated than addressing sexism or racism because what age means, and our self-perception through age is constantly in flux from person to person and generation to generation,” Stewart adds. “You know, the most ageist people actually tend to be older people — they’ve internalized 50 years of negative messaging about themselves.”

But most people don’t notice just how insidious ageism can be. “All those outrageous comments by those in the public eye during Covid, asking whether a cull of older people would be such a bad thing — just switch out ‘older’ for, say, a skin color or religion and we’d recoil in horror,” says Ken Bluestone, the head of policy at the UK-based Age International. The organization campaigns for older people across 33 countries, and its studies suggest that half of us have ageist views. “Ageism has become an attitudinal problem, yet it’s so strange that we feel it’s okay to say such things about what is a universal experience.”

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Age International argues (as does the World Health Organization’s 2021 Global Report on Ageism ) for a stringent legal framework, in which ageist thinking is challenged on a more day-to-day basis. This could build awareness and drive change, following a similar blueprints for how we changed attitudes and defined duties around disabilities in many countries. 

“To draw that parallel, it’s not disability that defines someone,” Bluestone says. “It’s how society responds to that disability in a way that allows that disabled person to thrive. The same principle holds for aging. It’s not chronological age that defines an individual, but how we treat that person. And it needs to be clear that we do all have the rights not to be treated differently because we’re of a certain age.”

“The tragedy of old age is not the fact that each of us must grow old and die, but that the process of doing so has been made unnecessarily and, at times, excruciatingly painful, humiliating, debilitating and isolating through insensitivity, ignorance and poverty,” Robert Butler wrote back in 1975. Are we in a better place almost half a century later? Certainly there’s resistance — a generational blurring in dress, hobbies, cultural preferences, political views and so on. But it’s hard to be convinced that we’ve moved forward much. 

As Kaldes puts it, look around the world, and some governments may be setting up departments to ponder age-created policy. But all too often this is sidelined as a welfare matter or as a means of driving only legal solutions, rather than (as he suggests is necessary) looking at the situation holistically. He’d like to see popular culture play a more dynamic part in confronting ageism as, he says, it has so successfully driven a change in attitude towards homosexuality. But Kaldes adds that we’re going to have to get to a place where “boomers, and those younger, simply don’t stand for this anymore”.

Might the pandemic even prove to be some kind of tipping point? Ashton Applewhite, ageism campaigner and author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, reckons it exposed an issue that had previously been pushed into some dark corner and ignored. “Clearly this isn’t some niche issue, either,” she says. “Nobody is talking about ageism as something that’s stupid or marginal anymore…raise the idea and nobody is opposed to tackling ageism. It’s more that they just haven’t thought to actually think about it. 

“I don’t think we should be aiming for a society in which older age is applauded — you don’t get applause just for having breathed more,” Applewhite chuckles. “But I do think we should aim for a society that’s age-neutral. Age is real: being young is different to being old. Age is part of our identity. But we give it far more value than it deserves. It’s just a data point. And the older the person is, the less it says about them because the less homogenous we become.”

Yet, Rocks suggests, it will need something of a push to build momentum. Yes, through her work as an advisor on age-related matters, she finds that, very slowly, ageism awareness is making an impact. Yet where, she asks, is a more vociferous, full-blooded uprising? “We’re yet to reach the level of indignation at which people are more motivated, at which there’s a kind of Me Too movement for ageism, which would see a load of people ‘cancelled,’” she laughs. “It’s still hard to see that people are getting angry about this — there are still no marches against ageism. But they will come.”

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