Age discrimination is a silent, stubborn, cruel prejudice, especially when levelled against older people. Like all other prejudices, the widespread age bias against senior citizens is rooted in the idea that people who are somehow different are also somehow less, and therefore inferior.
Age discrimination against seniors is particularly objectionable because the older people who are subjected to it had – at some point – been as young as those who are criticizing them.
In turn, those who say older people are inferior simply because they are older will one day become old themselves, if they live long enough. They are, in a very real way, old people in the making.
- 1 What is Age Discrimination?
- 2 5 Ways to Counteract Age Discrimination
- 3 It’s Never Too Late to Start
What is Age Discrimination?
What makes age discrimination – or ‘ageism’ as it is sometimes called – against older people difficult to define and stop is that it is, to a large extent, socially acceptable. In fact, it is tolerated everywhere.
You see it in the supposedly tongue-in-cheek humour of birthday greeting cards for older people. You see it in blatantly-labelled “anti-aging” face creams and hair products to conceal grey hair in beauty boutiques – products that are frequently, and ironically, marketed for older women.
Subtle as the discrimination might be in these small instances, both the discriminatory attitude and the message conveyed are clear: To be old is to be irrelevant.
What has turned this shift particularly bitter for older generations is that the discrimination is explicit. Data from a 2017 study out of the University of Michigan indicates that younger people do not even bother to conceal it.
“The stereotypes resulting from ageism and discrimination are counterproductive and can even be dangerous, ” says UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who is 72.
Yet age discrimination has become so ingrained in modern culture and society that even seniors have age discrimination issues against themselves.
Bemoaning the annoyances of everyday life, it has become almost customary for older people to throw their hands out and declare, “I’m getting too old for this!”
Where Is Age Discrimination Coming From?
There was a time when younger people looked to those older than them for advice, guidance, and authority.
But this dynamic has shifted over the past decades and has now come to favour youth and freshness over longevity and experience. In 2021, the UN Global Report on Ageism outlined that half of the world’s population regularly discriminates against older persons.
The change in attitude is everywhere. It has invaded workplaces. It is deeply entrenched and commercialized in shopping malls.
You’ll see the discrimination quite openly accepted in popular entertainment. You see it in business establishments. You will even find it among family members.
For instance, most workplaces now have diversity, equity, and inclusion departments to deal with discrimination against race and gender. But even in those departments, little attention is given to open discrimination against older people.
But the most blatant kind of age discrimination against older people comes by way of the truly ignorant, and it manifests itself in a variety of ways. Some of them can be so shockingly silly as to be funny.
For instance, older people will sometimes come across those who insist that the best way to speak to a senior citizen is to speak loudly. Often, they will speak with a simplified vocabulary, as well – and, occasionally, with hand signals!
“Fourth street is just one block away,” is the startlingly loud response when you pull up to ask for directions. “You go straight, go straight, then, yes, straight, then turn left,” gesturing with the left hand. “You understand, Old Timer? Yes, left. Be careful turning left. Look both ways and don’t forget the turn lights …!”
Even if we choose to ignore the fact that the biological objective of survival in humans is to grow old, inaccurate stereotypes can feel deeply insulting.
Tech and the Half-Life of Knowledge
What has made age discrimination against seniors so pervasive? Some analysts say the increasingly rapid pace of technological change may be an important factor.
Research shows that, in the 1920s, the “half-life of knowledge” for an engineer was around thirty-five years. That means it took that long for half of an engineer’s technical expertise to become outdated.
By the 1960s, new technology had reduced that same measure to a decade. Today, many in the academe and the sciences suggest that the half-life of knowledge of the average engineer is five years.
There is telltale evidence of this rapid shift in the tech industry. In the past, it might have taken decades of experience in coding or engineering to successfully launch a startup.
With the faster turnover of knowledge and the advent of new technologies, entrepreneurs barely out of their teens are now launching successful startups left and right.
Sergey Brin and Larry Paige started Google when they were twenty-five. Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook at the age of nineteen.
The result is a progressively dismissive attitude toward older generations. “Young people are just smarter,” Zuckerberg once said.
How is Age Discrimination Affecting Older People?
To find out how age bias affects the health of older people, researchers at Yale University conducted a comprehensive analysis of the results of 422 studies on the subject.
The studies were collected across 45 countries and spanned research conducted between 1970 and 2017.
The collective data, encompassing seven million older participants, focused on age discrimination and its correlation with health outcomes.
Depression and Thoughts of Suicide
Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, conceptualized and led the massive endeavor. She had been studying the issue of age discrimination – which is also called ageism – at an individual level for years but wanted to learn more.
“We found evidence of ageism in every country we looked at, every year we looked at, and in every health domain we looked at,” says Levy. “The pervasiveness of it I found disturbing.”
In 85 percent of the papers included in the study, researchers found evidence associating age discrimination in instances where older people were restricted access to – or even denied – necessary healthcare treatments.
In 95 percent of the research reports, researchers presented convincing evidence to show that ageism has detrimental effects on the mental well-being of seniors.
In fact, the studies demonstrated a consistent pattern year after year: ageism contributed to an increase in depressive symptoms over time among older individuals. The impact was particularly apparent in psychiatric issues like depression and thoughts of suicide.
5 Ways to Counteract Age Discrimination
Not all the findings of the Yale study conveyed bad news. Levy and her colleagues also found some evidence suggesting that countering ageism helped to reverse many of the harmful consequences of age discrimination.
The researchers noted that the studies suggest that a more positive perception of old age helped seniors experience less anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
The collective data also suggests that improving education for healthcare providers about age-based bias could mitigate some of the negative health effects of age discrimination against older people.
“To combat ageism, we must shift our mindsets and challenge the narrative of older people as frail, dependent and vulnerable,” says Commissioner Bachelet.
Given that general goal, below are 5 ways to counter age discrimination against seniors.
1. Build Strong Intergenerational Bonds
Building connections between different generations can be a powerful way to combat age discrimination. By engaging in face-to-face interactions with individuals from different age groups – including family and members of your local community – you break down stereotypes and help others see beyond their preconceived notions.
Learn the opinions and values of younger people while you share your own experiences and viewpoints. This kind of exchange can reveal similarities in beliefs and lifestyles, or varying attitudes toward technology. Remember to keep an open mind.
2. Take on a Mentoring Role
Devote yourself to mentoring role by participating in mentorship programs and online mentorship services. Share your skills, education, experience, and knowledge with younger individuals.
This act of passing on wisdom and guidance will not only benefit the young but also help you establish a sense of purpose and fulfillment, which ultimately helps you build your personal resilience.
Establishing a meaningful connection with younger individuals can create a more inclusive environment, as well.
Your connection will demonstrate the value of diverse perspectives and experiences and prove that age need not prevent young and old from learning from each other.
3. Address Discriminatory Remarks When and Where You Encounter Them
Countering age discrimination against older people involves actively challenging stereotypes. When you hear someone perpetuating age-related stereotypes, it’s essential not to let those remarks pass unchallenged.
You can counter stereotypes by calmly educating the biased. If someone says old people cannot learn new things, tell them how learning new things keeps you sharp and clever.
If a work colleague suggests that older people are technologically inept, point out how older adults use technology every day, whether to stay connected through social media, by mastering smartphones, or by using technology at work.
Be calm. Don’t be hostile or combative. You can play a vital role in shifting perceptions by reminding friends and family that older individuals lead vibrant, active, and fulfilling lives.
4. Defy Stereotypes Associated with Old Age by Being More Pro-Active
Challenging age-related stereotypes goes beyond speaking out against them. You should also strive to demonstrate a different message through your actions.
Strive to maintain your independence across various aspects of life. This could mean organizing outings or activities with close friends, engaging in hobbies that bring you joy and fulfilment, and making decisions that build your sense of autonomy.
Enrich your social connections by organizing regular gatherings, whether it’s meeting up at a local coffee shop or planning trips with your closest friends.
Defy the stereotype that older adults should lead sedentary lives by embracing active hobbies. Activities like gardening, camping, biking, or swimming not only keep you physically active but also promote mental well-being by providing a sense of purpose and fulfilment.
5. Focus on the Positive
Shifting your mindset away from negative beliefs about ageing becomes challenging when you concentrate on what you’ve lost rather than what you’ve gained. To combat these negative perceptions, focus on the positive.
For example, instead of dwelling on what you might perceive as losses due to aging, make a conscious effort to acknowledge and appreciate the advantages that come with getting older.
Have you become more assertive, decisive, and patient? Have you learned how to handle stressful situations better? Reflect on the skills you’ve learned and mastered over time.
It’s Never Too Late to Start
We began by saying that age discrimination against older people is a stubborn prejudice. It is stubborn because it is hardwired into – and deeply embedded in – our new youth-worshipping culture.
What makes age discrimination against older people an alluring stance for so many of the young and successful is that it helps them diminish a troubling reality with a soothing fantasy. As they say, a sweet lie is better than a painful truth.
Age discrimination helps the prejudiced young to forget that they will one day become old, too. Plain and simple.
Still, changing harmful biases against older people is going to be a long process. But in the US, at least, it’s starting to produce small but meaningful results.
Seniors should challenge, defy, and overcome age discrimination in others whenever they see it. More importantly, they need to try to get rid of their own self-defeating notions against old age. No, you’re never too old to try.
What do you think?