Fear of dying is human; fear of aging is cultural
– Ashton Applewhite, writer and activist against ageism.
Ageism goes both ways, against youngsters as well as people who are generally over their fifties. This leaves us with a fork of population in their twenties and before their fifties that, luckily, seems to be spared from this discrimination. From a more economic-like approach: people within this "safe" fork are considered productive and capable of generating value. However, everyone will be affected by ageism at some point, as we all have been or will be in our twenties, and we all will, hopefully, pass our fifties.
Even though aging is inevitable, modern societies have not yet been able to accommodate the fact that age should not be a problem when a person has the knowledge or expertise to accomplish something.
Ageism is defined as “prejudice or discrimination against a particular age-group and especially the elderly" (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). Ageism discrimination is prohibited under laws of many countries, as well as at an international level. However, the legal protections do not prevent communities to silently discriminate under age reasons (this article focuses on the ageism that is directed toward the 50+ community).
Golden Cosmos. (n.d.). [woman's face seen through a computer which adds her several years] [Illustration].
Studies from international organizations, like the World Health Organization, reveal that 1 out of 2 people are ageist towards older people. It also reveals that people over 50 are twice as likely to suffer from long term unemployment than people below that age—the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the surface a sad reality: people over their 50’s who lost their jobs during that time have struggled longer than people below that age to find a new one. They are also more likely to be offered and accept early-retirement.
It is shocking to think that after having dedicated so much effort in studying, acquiring considerable experience and skills in the process, while potentially raising families, paying bills, and most importantly, surviving, people who reach their 50's are completely left out of the equation. It looks like modern societies associate age with negative connotations once it has crossed the arbitrary threshold of 50. But today, most of the people over that threshold are feeling as strong and capable as ever. The only difference being that they feel as if they have become invisible to.
How are we allowing this to happen? Well, by keeping this reality under silence.
The World Health Organization released in March 2021 its Global report on ageism which provides a comprehensive overview on this topic and offers strategies to prevent and counter ageism—i.e. to implement new policies and passing stronger laws (the many existing ones do not seem to be enough…), as well as implementing prevention through education and institutional discussions, etc.
Surely, anyone can think about one or two age-discriminative situations they have witnessed or experienced themselves. To put an example, Lucy Kellaway, journalist and teacher, wrote an example in an article for the Financial Times that illustrates how much ageism has gotten under our skin:
“In The Atlantic last month was an article bemoaning the fact that America no longer generates big ideas in culture, science or business. One reason for this, said the writer (35), was that the people in charge were getting older—and older people were not so good at coming up with new ideas. If he had said that women were less creative, he would have been cancelled on the spot. But this aspersion, which he made little attempt to stand up against, sailed through all checks and balances and, once published, caused minor grumbling rather than full-on fury.”
The New Yorker (n.d.) [A man over fifty having a job interview] [Illustration].
The most flagrant consequences of ageism go straight against ground concepts such as human dignity, sense of worthiness and belonging, and self-esteem. These concepts go to the core of the human essence and are a must for any person's health and happiness. Here are some negative consequences of ageism:
Economic loss: This jeopardizes financial stability and security, which is linked to a sense of independence and worthiness—bills, mortgages and debts do not magically stop when passing 50’s. Although there are not enough specific data about economic loss due to ageism, a WHO reports that it costs millions of dollars every year to country economies. It also increases the risk of poverty and dependency.
Physical and mental health problems: Ageism reduces people’s quality of life, tending to increase social isolation, and consequently, a sense of loneliness. Also, poor physical and mental conditions lead to an increased dependency to health system, touching a more general public health issue.
Let’s not forget that we will all age. As writer and activist Ashton Applewhite brilliantly puts it: “Ageism is a prejudice against our own future selves”. How arrogant and paternalistic of us to even think for a second that people who have lived and worked before we were born may no longer be capable of contributing to society, beside of taking care of grandchildren, explaining stories and struggling with new technologies and concepts.
There is a lot to live once we reach our 50’s, and a perfect way to honor our seniors is giving them the dignity to remain independent by earning a living. From an economic perspective, preventing the elderly to access financial and professional independence actually causes financial loss and deprives society from a valuable workforce—i.e. pensions, expenditure potential, less pressure on the public system.
Senior Living Foresight. (n.d.). Intergenerational photography.
Out of all the discriminations out there, ageism would probably not be the first one discussed in a family gathering. Despite the importance of regulations and laws, a bigger focus on dialogues and education is needed to guarantee effective changes.
Public institutions should invest more resources and efforts to discuss this issue within the educational and public arena, in order to acknowledge a largely unspoken problem. However, more research is needed, alongside specific data and accurate economic figures, in order to tackle this issue.
Discrimination based on age is usually not deliberate. In fact, most people do not know they are doing it. Raising awareness and fostering discussion will give people the right tools to act against ageism.
Hill, A. (2021). Over-50s who lose jobs much more likely to stay unemployed, study finds. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/jan/18/over-50s-who-lose-jobs-much-more-likely-to-stay-unemployed-study-finds
Kellaway, L.(2021). Why is it still considered OK to be ageist? Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/04e5a914-a250-43b3-9e3b-8ab46397b764
Thompson, D. (2021). America is running on fumes. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/12/america-innovation-film-science-business/620858/
Callaham, S. (2021). Why Ageism And Ableism Should Be Front And Center In Diversity, Equity And Inclusion Strategy. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/sheilacallaham/2021/06/27/why-ageism-and-ableism-should-be-front-and-center-in-diversity-equity-and-inclusion-strategy/?sh=44312426f7e3
Span, P. (2019). Ageism: A ‘Prevalent Insidious’ Health Threat. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/26/health/ageism-elderly-health.html
Global report on ageism. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2021. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240016866
Cogent. (n.d.). Employment ageism. Dreamstime. https://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photography-employment-ageism-concept-image-depicting-discrimination-people-over-fifty-selective-focus-road-text-copy-space-image31262817
Golden Cosmos. (n.d.). [woman's face seen through a computer which adds her several years] [Illustration]. https://www.golden-cosmos.com/works/ageism/
The New Yorker (n.d.) [A man over fifty having a job interview] [Illustration]. https://www.newyorker.com/cartoon/smaller-2009-08-03
Senior Living Foresight. (n.d.). Intergenerational photography. https://www.seniorlivingforesight.net/intergenerational-relationships-can-transform-our-future/