In the episode of Friends in which the group celebrates Rachel’s thirtieth birthday, Rachel cries about her “being old,” believing she can no longer do the things she had hoped she would accomplish by that birthday. By the end of the episode, she has broken up with her not-yet-25-year-old boyfriend, Tag, because she had set a goal that she would be with the future father of her children by that point in her life.
Throughout my twenties, I thought about that episode. Now, I can’t help feeling like maybe it’s too late for me because I am 30, too, despite also recognizing that that belief is at least hyperbolic, if not completely nonsensical.
The fact is, ageism is a real and present fact of our society and many others. We see ideals of youth and beauty everywhere. We fetishize objects, ideas, and people who seem to defy the aging process and perpetuate the myth that once we hit a certain age, it’s all over. Old is bad, we are taught to believe, and young is good.
What is ageism, and how does it pervade society? Find out the impact this form of discrimination has on everyone and how it is perpetuated.
Ageism is a form of discrimination or mistreatment of someone because of his or her age. It can affect many aspects of people’s lives, including work, personal life, general everyday treatment, interactions with family, friends, and strangers, and more. It appears in the media, and many people encounter it regularly: when women reach a certain age, others ask them why they haven’t gotten married or had children yet; senior citizens can be dismissed as non-contributing members of society and “past their prime;” even family members regard older people differently.
Ageism in the workplace is unfortunately common, too. People working in a variety of industries may even be terminated solely because of their age.
There are a number of stereotypes associated with aging, which, of course, is a process that happens to everyone. Common stereotypes include:
• Older people can’t learn new skills.
• Older people become senile.
• Older people have less value than younger people.
• Older people are depressed.
• Older people can’t adapt to new situations, such as technologies.
• Older people are lazy.
• Older people have nothing to do and don’t want to work.
In fact, workers over 65 constitute the fastest-growing category of workers in recent years. Still, the stereotypes and discrimination against older workers persist. And older can mean different things to different people, companies, and industries—for some, it’s as young as 40. For others, it might be even younger than that.
Ageism is often the result of societal perceptions. In contrast to American society, many countries and cultures celebrate and deeply respect their elders. For example, in her book, On Becoming Fearless, Arianna Huffington describes how even the vocabulary connotes respect for elders in Greece:
"Ten years ago I visited the monastery of Tharri on the island of Rhodes with my children. There, as in all of Greece, abbots are addressed by everyone as 'Geronda,' which means 'old man.' Abbesses are called 'Gerondissa.' Not exactly terms of endearment in my adopted home. The idea of honoring old age, indeed identifying it with wisdom and closeness to God, is in startling contrast to the way we treat aging in America."
In Korea, children of aging parents have a duty to take care of them, and, based on Confucian philosophy, young people are expected to show deference to older members of society. Similarly, in many Native American tribes, elders are considered wise, and younger members learn knowledge from them.
Ageist stereotypes come from a variety of sources, including cultural norms and media. According to the Law Commission of Ontario, there are many types of age discrimination, many of which result from a compilation of other forms of discrimination—in other words, ageism may be more likely to occur against people who belong to other minority groups. The Law Commission also suggests that level of education and economic status play a role in age-related discrimination because of their perceived value or lack thereof; as adults cut back on work, they are no longer “contributing” economically.
Retired professor Jean Carette opines that sometimes older members of society are used as scapegoats for economic woes, blamed for having privileges and leaving later generations in difficult circumstances.
Unconscious biases, beliefs about groups of people that are outside awareness of people who harbor them, play a strong role in ageism. These beliefs may be ingrained early on after repeated exposure to stereotypes in society, the media, and other resources.
We all have certain unconscious biases. For example, after noticing that an elderly relative, such as a grandparent, is repeatedly forgetting things, a child might take the belief that seniors are senile into adulthood.
When unconscious biases affect people in a larger way, such as in the workplace, they can quickly become discrimination. It is illegal to fire or terminate someone because of his or her age, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen—even overtly. In fact, accusations of ageism are the bases of many lawsuits, some of which are described in further detail below.
But even if ageism in the workplace doesn’t result in the extreme of terminating an employee, it can manifest in other ways. Take, for instance, an older employee who is not trusted to use a new technology correctly because “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Perhaps she even laughs at herself, saying she is terrible with technology.
Unconscious bias can also show up in hiring practices. When searching for new roles, older people may encounter difficulties. Perhaps the hiring managers believe they are close to retirement and will leave soon anyway. Maybe they think that they will be unable to learn new skills, even if they have a good deal of experience in their industries and have presumably adapted to a wide range of new tools, technologies, and practices over the course of their careers.
Whatever the reasons, older people do often face discrimination when it comes to finding and keeping jobs. If you are looking for new work and worried that your age will get in the way, check out I’m 60 and Applying to Jobs – How Do I Beat Ageism? Women Weigh In.
Ageism appears in many places and takes on a wide range of forms. Here are some examples of ageism in the media and everyday life.
In 2010, a lawsuit that spanned 10 years culminated in a $70 million settlement awarded to thousands of TV writers resolving 19 claims. The group of 165 writers said that networks, studios, and talent agencies had pushed out people older than 40 in an effort to engage younger viewership. The group established a “Fund for the Future” to help older writers in their education and careers with about $2.5 million of the settlement.
In 2017, researchers from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism studied the 50 most popular series for viewers ages 18 to 49 and 65 and older respectively. There was some overlap in viewership of popular shows, but the findings were consistent: adults 60 and older constituted less than 10 percent of the speaking roles, and of the 39 series that did have older characters, 41 percent included one or more ageist comments. This was true even in shows more popular with senior viewers.
A still unsolved case, the FBI labeled a man described to be in between the age of 60-70 in 2011 who conducted a series of armed robberies “Geezer Bandit,” poking fun at the criminal’s—who had committed dangerous offenses—age.
There are a number of behaviors and stereotypes in everyday life that are ageist, such as:
• Birthday cards that describe ages as “over the hill” or crack other jokes about age
• Products that claim to defy the gaining process, such as creams and lotions
• Jokes about dementia and Alzheimer’s
• Behaving as though older people aren’t there or can’t hear
Everyone ages. Everyone is aging right now. In The Guardian, Caroline Baum describes this form of discrimination as a “prejudice against our future selves,” reminding us that everyone was once young. Unlike many other minority groups, senior-hood is one of which we will all eventually be a part (barring, of course, death, the only alternative to aging).
Of course, being complicit in perpetuating ageism and ageist stereotypes is really a form of fear. Because we fear growing older, which does, in fact, impact us in a number of ways and brings some challenges, we lash out by discriminating against those who are a real manifestation of these fears. Recognizing that these attitudes and behaviors affect and have consequences for everyone can help us become more comfortable with others and, ultimately, our mortality and ourselves.