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Fighting back against ageism

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Fighting Back Against Ageism

Ageism, discrimination based on your apparent age: how does it happen – and when? Ageism can surface overnight, or so it seems. Maybe it’s when a sales clerk compares you to her mother or when the cashier at the grocery store calls you ma’am, or maybe after years of carving out a successful career or two, you’re told you’re overqualified for a new role. Whether you label yourself or others do that for you, it seems ageism has raised its ugly head in these ordinary, everyday situations.

“Ageism is the most widespread and socially accepted prejudice.” – World Health Organization

According to William Chopik, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University and author of the recent study Cross-Cultural Comparisons in Implicit and Explicit Age Bias, “Older adults are one of the only stigmatized groups that we all become part of someday. And that’s always struck me as interesting—that we would treat a group of people so poorly that we’re destined to become someday.”

Although we know that aging is inevitable and a part of everyone’s life, Chopik found that your experience will depend on where you live.  Are you from a collectivistic culture like Japan, Portugal or China, which prioritizes group cohesion and family, or an individualistic culture like the U.S., Canada, Australia or Germany, which focuses on individual pursuits? The study revealed countries that focus on independence, like those from individualistic cultures, have greater age biases. Plus, individualistic cultures are more focused on maintaining active, youthful appearances.

Dr. Becca Levy, PhD, psychologist, epidemiologist and professor at the Yale School of Public Health, recently wrote, Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live, based on her ground-breaking scientific studies, often illustrated through stories. 

“There are a number of reasons for the prevalence and acceptance of ageism—first, the multi-billion-dollar anti-aging industry profits from promoting negative age stereotypes so consumers will buy their products,” says Levy. “Second, many younger people assimilate the negative age stereotypes from their culture without their awareness, which leads them to keep older persons at a distance—which in turn facilitates ageism. Finally, ageism persists because there has not yet been a large-scale grass-roots movement to fight it. As a result, older persons have not benefited like some other, better organized, marginalized groups. I believe, though, that we are getting close to a tipping point when such a movement could start to reduce ageism and promote an age-just society.”

Dr. Levy’s book, Breaking the Age Code.

Consider what is happening in the workforce in Canada. Currently, an age-just society doesn’t exist. As reported by the Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA), “Studies have also shown that women over the age of 45 can begin to experience gendered ageism in many different areas of their career. Due to these biases, older women are being forced out of the workforce through demotions, job losses and the inability to get rehired.”

Ellie Berger, associate professor in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario, has examined the subjective experiences of older workers in Canada and how they negotiate ageism within the employment setting. In her book Ageism at Work: Deconstructing Age and Gender in the Discriminating Labour Market, Berger takes it one step further and examines employers’ attitudes toward older workers.

Berger describes one such interview where “employers would physically assess a potential job candidate’s age and one even stated, “When you’re sitting down and you invite someone into an interview room … you start watching their physical abilities… if someone’s looking creaky and shaky … you don’t hire them.” It’s here she says, “the intersection of ageism and ableism suggests that being in poor health can make one appear older and consequently less desirable to an employer.”

Ellie Berger.

As shocking as it sounds — are we surprised? After all, generational stereotyping is not new. If it’s not physical appearance, grey hair and glasses that generate a bias, it’s the belief that older adults don’t cut it: they are unable to grasp new technology, wouldn’t fit the culture, are too settled in their ways, etc. 

Intergenerational workplaces can be more productive and innovative.

We know, of course, that these generalizations are just not true. But what is surprising is how pervasive this type of thinking is, in the workplace and in society at large. As with all social injustices, it will take more than just affirmative action on workplace issues to remove the stereotyping and discriminating beliefs that are the hallmarks of ageism.

It is likely that a large societal shift in attitudes will be the only way to completely solve gendered ageism in the workforce. While key decision makers are able to start creating this shift now by raising awareness about this issue and implementing programs that enable more older women to remain in the workforce, this change will take time.

Gendered Ageism in the Canadian Workforce –  report by the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness

So, how can we fight these attitudes towards getting older, including our own? A great first step is to stop comparing yourself to your younger self and start living your life. 

But what about changing the conversation? After all, ageism doesn’t just live in our heads. As Levy points out, “For better or worse, those mental images that are the product of our cultural diets, whether it’s the shows we watch, the things we read, the proliferation of negative ageist advertisements or the jokes we laugh at, become scripts we end up acting out.”  

In her book, Levy includes easy-to-learn, evidence-based tools to overcome ageism on an individual and a societal level. For example, she includes a section with ammunition to overcome 14 common and false negative stereotypes about aging that readers can use to discount these negative messages that we often encounter in everyday life, including on social media.

Anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, points out that we are bombarded with messages from the media and popular culture that aging is a problem. Unless we stop to question these messages, it’s easy for them to become part of our identity and for us to believe that we’re “too old,” or not valuable, or a burden to society. Research shows that these negative beliefs are harmful to our health. That’s why the World Health Organization launched a global anti-ageism campaign last year, Applewhite points out.

In her Let’s End Ageism talk at TED2017 in Vancouver, she said, “All prejudice relies on ‘othering’ — seeing a group of people as other than ourselves: other race, other religion, other nationality. The strange thing about ageism: That other is us.”

The first, hardest, and most important step is to look at our own attitudes towards age and aging, says Applewhite, because these are new ideas to people and we can’t challenge bias unless we’re aware of it. 

“Think about the way you use the words ‘old’ and ‘young,’” she suggests. “Start there. Or consider whether you tend to head for people your own age when you enter a room. Most of us do, and it’s a good habit to unlearn. Making a significantly younger or older friend is itself an anti-ageist act. Each of these acts, no matter how small it may seem, ripples outward, and that’s the way we change the culture.”

If you need a reason to join the movement, Applewhite’s book This Chair Rocks gives you permission, guidance, and plenty of encouragement. 

Older adults are one of the only stigmatized groups that we all become part of someday. 

Imagine, by 2030, one out of five people in the world, almost 2 billion people, will be 60 years and older.  “Longevity is this unprecedented global phenomenon,” writes Applewhite. “It is a fundamental hallmark of human progress and a tremendous achievement on the part of public health.”

The issue here is not a conspiracy against older people, but this is a new phenomenon at a mass level, and institutions and roles have yet to evolve to catch up. How we respond to that challenge will have an enormous effect, but there’s also an incredible opportunity we must recognize.

There will be millions more healthy, well-educated people in this late stage of life, and to shut them all aside would be a tremendous loss. In addition to the cultural and spiritual loss, how will we support ourselves if forced out of the labour market? As a society, we need to figure out ways to take advantage of this new stage of life. 

Are we prepared for this “grey tsunami”?

“A tsunami is something that strikes without warning, and that sucks everything out to sea — as [if] we’re supposed to believe old people are going to suck all our resources out with them,” Applewhite says. “The demographic wave we’re looking at is an extremely well-documented phenomenon washing gently across a flood plain. It’s not crashing on some undefended shore without warning.”  

On the contrary, this tsunami has been building for quite some time. It should not be a surprise that it has landed. It will wash over the demographic landscape for decades to come. It’s up to older people, and their supporters, to stand up and demand equality in the workforce and beyond.

As the song goes, “We’re not going to take it anymore.”


Cross-Cultural Comparisons in Implicit and Explicit Age Bias

Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live

Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA)

Ageism at Work: Deconstructing Age and Gender in the Discriminating Labour Market

Gendered Ageism in the Canadian Workforce

This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism

Let’s End Ageism

If you enjoyed this story, check out Living in a bubble: Deborah Grover.


Marylene Vestergom is a Toronto freelance writer who has reported at four winter Olympic Games for CBC and CTV. Her work has appeared in the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail and other leading media outlets. Her focus includes health, fitness and lifestyle trends.

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