A story that appeared recently on Next Avenue shared the author’s attempts to find clothing through Stitch Fix (Are Sites Like Stitch Fix Ageist?). The author shared her growing frustration with the curated clothing selections that online retailer sent her. Frumpy, unflattering boxes of “stretch pants and loose flowing tops.” Her solution? She changed her age in her profile to 15 years younger, and started getting the kinds of items that she had wanted in the first place.
Author Ashton Applewhite’s Yo, Is this Ageist? invites people to post examples of ageist language, cartoons, ad campaigns and policies that perpetuate stereotypes and discrimination about older people. And, last year, TikTok and Twitter were filled with eye-rolling comments from people under age 30 responding to clueless, insensitive or condescending comments about the millennial generation with the phrase, “OK Boomer.”
Of course, it’s not only the Baby Boom generation that feels persecuted. That example above about the frumpy clothing selections from Stitch Fix? The author is member of Generation X. She was looking for something to wear to a friend’s 50th birthday party. Gen X, the “baby bust” between the Boomers and the Millennials, have been derided as slackers, apathetic or cynical. Generation X never got to be the “most” of anything, and are outnumbered in the workplace by both Boomers and Millennials. In January 2019, a CBS new story on “generations” skipped people born between 1965 and 1980 entirely. Twitter erupted for a minute, but the response on most of social media from Gen X was, “so what else is new?” The generation of “latchkey kids” has gotten used to being on its own.
And then there are the Millennials. Derided as soft, entitled “snowflakes” with fragile egos, weak wills and short attention spans. They are caricatured as detached from reality, over-protected and entitled. But they are also a generation that experienced 9/11, the Great Recession and now the pandemic. “OK Boomer” came in response to criticism from older folks complaining about “those kids,” and the work habits, fashion choices, music or political opinions, often in the form of memes or Facebook posts.
Boomers, who once railed against the establishment, now defend it. It’s nothing new. "The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them.” If you agree with that sentiment, you’re not alone. It’s a quote from a sermon by Peter the Hermit, who said it in 1274.
So, it may seem natural, and normal, for age bias to exist. But doesn’t mean we should accept it. Ageism can cause real harm. Especially for older adults.
Employment: Age discrimination in the workplace is prohibited by law, but more than two thirds of workers age 57 and above believe they face age discrimination in the workplace. Older, experienced employees are often targeted in efforts to downsize a company. Or, they are not considered for promotion or advancement opportunities. Losing a job in the US often means losing health care insurance as well. Workforce protections against age discrimination have been weakened significantly since 2009, when a Supreme Court ruling, Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc. made it much harder to prove age discrimination by an employer.
Finding work as an older adult can be a challenge. According to a report from the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), “older workers who lose a job have much more difficulty finding a new job than younger workers.” It may take an older worker up to three years to find a new job, and the resulting financial loss may cause that worker to delay retirement plans. Job placement coaches and search firms often advise clients to construct their resumes in ways to avoid identifying the applicant’s age. An AARP report in 2019 showed ways that companies use online hiring tools and other practices to screen out applicants over the age of 40.
Health: Nowhere is the effect of ageism more evident than in the fields of health and health care. A number of physician authors have written books addressing the lack of dignity or person-centered thinking in health care for older adults. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal is filled with examples of how to provide better care and better meet the needs of the individual. Both Louise Aronson’s Elderhood and Tia Powell’s Dementia Reimagined explore how health care providers’ and health systems’ attitudes toward aging affect quality of care and health outcomes.
The American Society on Aging devoted an issue of its Generations magazine to the issue of ageism. Ageism includes attitudes of care providers, who may see age as equivalent with decay and decline. If depression or pain or fatigue is perceived as “just part of growing older,” it may affect how people are perceived, how patients are diagnosed, and how ailments are treated. This may lead undertreatment (“it’s just part of getting older.”) Or, it may lead to overtreatment (too much medication, an over-use of diagnostic testing or too much reliance on surgical procedures.)
Ageism in health also happens among older adults themselves, who may have negative attitudes toward aging. Pessimism, or fatalism, may lead some to see frailty or disease as inevitable. “What’s the point?” If everyone you know is diabetic, or obese, or has heart disease, it may seem such outcomes are inevitable, and unstoppable. This in turn can impact adherence with medical plans of care: diet, exercise and medications. The older adult may not ask their doctor about it. The physician may not inquire about it. And the quality of life of the individual suffers as a result.
Ageism is not only for older adults. At Benjamin Rose we work with family caregivers of all ages. The informal (and uncompensated) caregiver is key to ensuring long-term supportive services are available for people in the community. The challenges of caregiving occur for caregivers of all ages. It affects working adults, parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren. Caregiving is not only an aging issue. But how often do you hear it discussed outside of a discussion about older adults?
Ageism in community: I live in a neighborhood with an active block club. Many of my neighbors are long-time residents of the community. One reason I know this is that many block club discussions of new residential or business permits, crime watch or volunteer opportunities will include a question or comment that begins with, “I’ve lived in this neighborhood for thirty years and….” Part of the experience of living in an urban area is the dynamic of diverse and eclectic people and traditions. It provides a sense of energy, place and character. But the fact that long-term residents express their tenure in the community is, in part, a reflection of their concerns of being left out of the considerations and conversations about the place where they live. Does “vibrant” mean “not old”? And, is there room for the older adult in a community plan that aspires to lure young professionals to call it home? Older adults are at times the “invisible” in their own homes and neighborhoods. This may result in public policy, community planning or amenities that, intentionally or not, exclude the needs and wants of older residents.
The good news is that we have a variety of tools available to address ageism in our society. All of us, regardless of our age, are better off when ageism is addressed. Greater public awareness, education and dialog go along away. Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging participates in a variety of coalitions that promote age-friendly communities, dementia-friendly communities, and policies and initiatives that address social determinants of health. There is still much to do. And the benefit is a better community for all of us, at any age.
Learn more about ways to be involved:
Dementia Friends Ohio
Age-Friendly Health Systems