Diversity 101: Hidden in plain sight — the problem of ageism

“When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you, whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female or speak in a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone … describes the world and you are not in it, (it feels) … as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” — Adrienne Rich, poet

We live in a youth-oriented culture, so it should comes as no surprise to anyone who is even casually observant that America is an ageist society that lovesthe young and hatesthe old. The messages are everywhere. They are embedded in literary themes and characters, media images, public policy and cultural traditions. Ageism is a bias that is hidden in plain sight. And, for many different reasons, we choose not to talk about it even though, like other forms of bias, ageism is a diversity issue.

In general, educators tend to ignore the problem even though many experts agree that ageism should be considered the No. 1 diversity issue because it crosses all boundaries; it crosses the boundary of race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, language, religion, etc. Everyone ages, and everyone can be the target of ageism.

Ageism was defined in 1969 by Robert Butler as “any attitude, action or institutional structure which subordinates a person or group because of age, or any assignment of roles in society purely on the basis of age.” Even though ageism can include negative sterotypical attitudes toward any age group, generally it refers to negative sterotypes about older adults.

In America, ageism is so commonplace that it has been internalized and trivialized through jokes (“You’re 40? Some people have been known to live for weeks after that”), through language (“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”), through music (“Where’s that young Romeo?”). Our society has grown comfortable with these types of references, and consider them harmless or funny, so we laugh at the jokes, sing the songs, and close our eyes to the underlying problems ageist thinking conceals. But ageism is no joke, especially when research shows that it increases the damaging effects of other forms of discrimination. For example, it’s not funny that ageism, sexism and racism intersect, giving older black women the highest poverty rate in the United States, or that older women in general are twice as likely as men to live at or below the poverty level. According to psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum, “We all have multiple identities … When one is targeted by multiple -isms — racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, anti-Semitism, ageism — in whatever combination, the effect is intensified.”

It is ironic that although we now live in a social and political climate that is increasingly sensitive to issues of diversity and equity, American culture continues to provide fertile ground for the growth and perpetuation of ageism. There are many complex reasons for this. The most obvious is our tendency to revere youth and worship beauty. In this context, oldness has no place, no value and brings no joy.

The emphasis on youth not only impacts how older adults are perceived, but also how they perceive themselves. These attitudes are culturally transmitted, and the media helps to ingrain ageist attitudes by bombarding us with images that link a positive identity to physical appeal, and a negative self-image to aging.

The media’s preferred marketing strategy for older adults is to essentially ignore them, create negative portrayals, disseminate misinformation, and assign them minor or limited social roles. For example, older adults are usually used to sell products consistent with illness, physical decline, and pain, such as:

  • Geritol, a vitamin supplement.
  • Polident, a denture product.
  • Depends, worn for overactive bladders.
  • Wheelchairs.
  • Remicade and Celebrex, arthritis medications.
  • Caltrate, which helps with bone loss prevention.
  • Metamucil, for constipation.
  • Viagara, for sexual dysfunction.

How often does the media portray older adults participating in life activities that have nothing to do with age?  How often does the media depict older adults isolated from people of other ages rather than interacting with them in constructive ways, and when older adults appear as characters on TV and in movies, are they limited to stereotyped characterizations? These media depictions support a cluster of stereotypes about older adults and lead to widespread social acceptance of negative and/or patronizing responses to aging. For example, to be old is to be child-like, complaining and non-productive. Typical descriptors of older adults embedded in our language and culture include: “dead wood,” “over the hill” “30 and holding,” “ there’s no fool like an old fool,” “senior moment,” etc. Moreover, we tend to associate personality characteristics with age even though research by the National Institute on Aging and many other sources confirm that personality does not significantly change as one ages. Often in popular culture, to be old, is to be cranky, mean, intellectually diminished and sexually perverted, teaching us to glorify and cherish youthfulness and dread aging.

Another damaging media marketing strategy is to romanticize ageism by masking it as nostalgia. Commercials, and popular culture in general, often present older adults in a context where beautiful images and/or memories are things of the past. Imagistically, we see older adults associated with loss, emptiness, loneliness, and death via pictures of sunsets or night, coupled with recurring references to pain, melancholy, reminiscence, or physical decline. Often the older adult is an onlooker, not a participant in life. Frank Sinatra’s classic album “The September of My Years” is filled with this type of romanticization of ageism. Consider the implications of some of the titles and lyrics:

  • “The September of My Years” (September symbolizes decline, loss, melancholy, and unrecapturable happy times.)
  • “How Old Am I?” (The line “You kiss me and I’m young…” suggests a rejection of what one is, a form of self-loathing.)
  • “Don’t Wait Too Long” (“You are the beginning; I am the ending” implies a focus on death and dying.)
  • “Last Night When We Were Young” (“Life was perfect…” i.e. youth was perfect; being old is imperfect)
  • “The Man in the Mirror” (“Where’s that young Romeo?” suggests a search for lost sexuality and sex appeal. “Man in the looking glass, how’s your sacroiliac today?” implies that aging is painful and unpleasant.)
  • “It Gets Lonely Early” (When you’re all alone, it gets lonely early.)

The problem of ageism is further complicated by its distinctness. It is different from other -isms in several ways, and this may partially account for it being left out of the present debates surrounding diversity and discrimination. First, because everyone grows older with time, one’s age classification is not static. Throughout the lifespan, individuals experience different perspectives on aging and different responses to ageism depending on where they are in their individual lifespan. In other words, age is constantly changing, whereas the manifestations of race and racism and gender and sexism, for example, remain constant throughout one’s lifespan. Second, aging is a universal experience; therefore everyone has the potential to experience ageism regardless of his or her race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation. Finally, aging is the only form of bias that can be directed outward toward others during one stage in the lifespan, as well as inward toward oneself at a later stage in one’s lifespan. Because everyone is subject to the aging process, it is possible that as young people, we learn ageist attitudes and direct them at older adults, but when we become older adults, we can internalize these same ageist attitudes and direct them toward ourselves.

As a society, we often fail to equate ageism with other forms of discrimination. This reinforces the idea that we should marginalize rather than revere the older adults in their families and in their communities. This is a major concern since recent trends show an increase in multigenerational families, or families in which grandparents are primary caregivers. These family structures create new roles for both children and older adults and increasingly bring young children into contact with older adults with whom they must co-exist. Yet, if American children are not systematically taught to respect, revere and care for older adults, they are more likely to undervalue older adults or treat them with contempt.

If we allow children and young adults to harbor ageist attitudes, it can lead to a more insidious problem in the future. Since aging begins at birth, even children and young adults must anticipate a future beyond youthfulness; a time when they too will grow old. Ageist attitudes learned in childhood can become internalized and evolve into self-deprecation as they become older adults. In this way, the cycle of ageism will continue.

Dr. Gloria Holmes is a professor emeritus at the School of Education at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. Committed to promoting cultural literacy in schools and communities, she has worked as a diversity trainer for the Anti-Defamation League and has conducted anti-bias workshops for the Connecticut State Department of Education. Holmes is presently writing a book on school leadership and social justice, due to be published this year.