Ageism is the stereotyping and discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age. This may be casual or systematic. The term was coined in 1969 by Robert Neil Butler to describe discrimination against seniors, and patterned on sexism and racism, but is not unique to seniors. Ageism occurs when anyone of any age is discriminated against based purely on assumptions about their age.

Statue of Old Woman

We live in an aging society — ten thousand people in the United States turn 60 every single day and yet aging is still widely considered to be an undesirable event in life.  We fight against aging with pills and creams, plastic surgery and wasting diets, until we are so busy fighting getting older that we forget how to celebrate midlife, and then suddenly we are old, only we don’t know how to be old.

Aging, in general, is described negatively in many commonly used terms such as being ‘out to pasture’ when referring to retirement, and being ‘over the hill’ on your 40th birthday, or referring to someone as no longer being a ‘spring chicken’ or being an ‘old fuddy-duddy’ if they act as a voice of reason.  With such negative connotations, it is easy to see how naturally the term ageism applies to the elderly, but that’s not everyone that it applies to.

Adults reprimand other adults, chiding “don’t act like an adolescent.”  The saying “youth is wasted on the young” implies young people lack wisdom (or impulse control).  We apply concepts of ageism when we don’t let teens drink at age eighteen, but will send them to war.

If you have ever referred to a child being in the ‘terrible twos’ you made an ageist statement.  Have you ever been frustrated with someone else and admonished them “oh, just grow up?”  Ageism at work again.  And, as you defend your position by noting that children do behave differently than adults, you’d be correct, but as soon as you utter “kids these days…” you revert back into being an ageist.

We best overcome discriminatory practices when can first identify them.  Denying privileges or opportunities to someone simply because they are deemed too old is discrimination based on ageism and there is no denying that the practice is widespread.  But rather than the obvious victims of ageism being the focus of this article I wanted to point out that those of us who commit ageism also cheat ourselves.

Adults in midlife are vital; they make up the majority of the population in the U.S. and in certain age brackets, are overwhelmingly women.

In 2014 the U.S. Census Bureau report estimated the entire United States population to be comprised of 125.9 million adult women and  119.4 million men.   There were almost twice as many women as men (4 million vs. 2.1 million) age 85 and older.  People under the 21 years of age made up over one fourth of the U.S. population (27.1%), and people age 65 and over made up one-seventh (14.5%).  The national median age was 36.8 years in 2009 which means the majority of the U.S. population is either over the hill, or about to head over the hill.

If we begin discount human value as we age, not only are we perpetuating discrimination and stereotypes, but we are doing it against the population’s majority.  One cannot help but wonder at what cost to society does that come?

Boomers (who are all now considered ‘over the hill’) contribute enormously to the economy and STEM fields; they are inventors, dreamers, athletes, celebrities, caregivers, and more and more are raising their own grandchildren.  Without our aging population we would instantly lose most of our professionals including professors, doctors, lawyers, and even most of the politicians running this country.  We also lose the majority of investors, consumers, and corporate workforce.

But even more troubling is that when we dismiss someone based on their age, we devalue them and all they have to offer.  We stop listening.  We stop listening to their wisdom and experiences; we forget family traditions and lore; and we miss out on their wit, humor, and companionship.  We stop learning from their mistakes and so we make them ourselves all over again.

To dismiss the abilities and gifts of anyone, either young or old is ageism.  You may be young enough (or sheltered enough) that you have not been subjected to it yet in life, but to deny ageism exists is juvenile thinking.

Dang. There it goes again.

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