Ageism: An -Ism That Can Hurt All Races, Ethnicities and Cultures

Ever since the Black Lives Matter movement took the world by storm last summer, we have become increasingly aware of the oppression and discrimination deeply embedded in society. Racial and ethnic discrimination has lost its status as a taboo or off-limits topic as we, both as a country and as a global community, have begun facing these complicated, deeply impactful and intensely emotional topics.

In a world that is learning to become sensitive to the oppression of others, we have an opportunity to address discrimination in all the shapes and forms it takes. Right now, we associate discrimination closely with gender, race and ethnicity, yet people also commonly experience discrimination based on their age.

person comforting old man Matthias Zomer

This semester, I began a minor in aging studies, and several of my courses have discussed the experiences we have when aging and when we reach senior citizen status. These classes have caused me personally to wonder what my later years of life will look like, but they have also shown me that, on a global level, older individuals live in a world that is biased against them. This discrimination is one form of ageism, which affects people of all genders, sexualities, races, ethnicities, religions and cultures.  

Ageist attitudes, which are detrimental to the way we view older individuals, are prevalent in thought and culture in today’s world. For instance, have you ever noticed...

  • That marketing and advertising sells clothes, jewelry, cars, and the bulk of consumer goods to the young, and that the majority of actors in these ads are young? Yet, when you see an elderly person in an ad, it's most likely for a medication?
  • That most characters in movies, TV shows and films are young, attractive, powerful, etc., but that when elderly characters are present, they’re often grumpy, slow-witted, or otherwise negatively portrayed?  
  • That we use common sayings that discriminate against the elderly, such as “I forgot; I guess I’m having a senior moment,” or “young and in-love” (implicitly suggesting that older people don’t date, find love or re-marry)?

Our world is rife with suggestions that older people are unintelligent, unable to learn, inflexible, weak, unsociable, irritable or incompetent. Let me share a couple of interesting studies on how ageism manifests in advertising, film and common language.  

Rihanna on Vogue magazine Photo by Charissie Kenion from Unsplash

Advertising

A 2016 AARP study found that individuals 50 years or older owned 83% of the wealth in America. So, you would think there’d be a lot of advertising geared toward this audience, right? Wrong. In a study of 1,116 images used in ads run by popular brands, only 15% contained images of older citizens. Moreover, the images tended to feature older individuals as removed from the workplace, either receiving medical care or home care, or living a leisurely retirement. This fails to capture the fact that older citizens make up a large percentage of the workforce! In 2016, individuals 55 years and older held 1/3 of US jobs. Also, people 55 years or older make up a larger percentage of US workers than the 16 to 24-year-old age group.

 Long story short – it’s a huge mistake to write off senior citizens as “unproductive” people who have “nothing to do.”

colorful Photo by Jakob Owens from Unsplash

Television and Film

What about beloved TV shows – do they show ageist biases? A study conducted at the University of Southern California by the college’s Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiate analyzed episodes from 72 of the most popular shows among those aged 18-49 and those 65+. They found that shows watched by both age groups featured ageist language, including derogatory comments about elder persons’ mental capacities, memory, physical fitness, wrinkles and the like. Also, older people were underrepresented – less than 10% of speaking characters in the shows were 60+ aged characters.

A girl with white nail polish holding scrabble letters spelling the word SENIOR Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Discriminatory Language

In the above study I talked about, of the 39 shows with an older main character, 41% of the show episodes contained one or more ageist remark. Something the authors of the study said that stood out to me is that these kinds of negative comments wouldn’t be tolerated on the basis of other demographics, like gender, sexuality, race or ethnicity. Yet somehow, we give ageist comments a free pass, as though we think all older people are too hard-of-hearing to notice.  

Maybe, at this point, you agree that we as a society could do better in representing older citizens in media and culture. But let me bring up two more reasons why ageism matters and why you should care:

1. Population Aging

For the first time in history, we are seeing a massive demographic shift. Predictions show that, due to lower fertility rates and the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, countries will see rises in the number of older people in society. How many people, you ask? The Population Reference Bureau predicts that the 52 million older Americans (those 65 years and older) in 2018 will almost double by 2060, reaching 95 million elderly Americans. I hope that at least by the time we have 100 million senior citizens, we are no longer making harmful and unfair assumptions about them. 

2. Ageist Remarks Harm the Elderly

Just like racism, sexism, misogyny or other demeaning attitudes, ageism can erode the well-being of older individuals. The World Health Organization says that people who have a negative outlook on their own aging and have absorbed these negative ageist attitudes are less likely to recover from injury and, on average, will live seven and a half years less.

Grandma baking with granddaughter Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

We can’t deny that there are inevitable physical and cognitive changes that occur across the lifespan – for instance, having an increased risk of osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s or dementia. But the fact that the elderly face more health, economic and social barriers shouldn’t be a reason for us to laugh at or ridicule them. God-willing, when I am in my 70’s or 80’s, I know I will want people to treat me as an equal. When I was little (maybe seven or eight), I hated when people “talked down” to me because I was a child, so I know that I also won't want to be stereotyped as a “helpless old lady” when I am elderly.  

So, I encourage you to challenge the assumptions you have about older adults. Let’s ensure that we challenge not only discrimination against genders, sexualities, races, ethnicities and cultures, but also ageist beliefs – beliefs that hurt people of all those previously mentioned groups too. Let’s be the generation that extends inclusivity to the elderly and encourages them to thrive and live their best lives – no matter what stage of life they are in.