Ageism involves negative beliefs about the aged that relate to prejudicial stereotypes and acts of discrimination. Stereotypes assume that what is true for some people holds true for an entire collective of people. Discrimination involves denying older people opportunities based on presumptive stereotypes. Being old is a deviant label, especially in youth-driven cultures where people tend to view the aged as an objectified social category of people. Current cultural conditions relating to economics, media representations, and gender variables heighten this process. The stigma of age is especially problematic for elders when seeking medical treatment.
Origins of Ageism
Few people considered discrimination and prejudice against the elderly until Robert Butler coined the word ageism in 1968. Butler was a chair for the District of Columbia Advisory Committee on Aging and went on to become the first Director of the National Institute on Aging. He was involved in public housing acquisition debates in the 1960s. In an interview, he responded to a question about housing issues and racism. He noted that people could not get fair housing because of age, not just race. Along those lines, ageism is distinct from racism and sexism. A racist will never be another skin color. A sexist man will never be a female. However, if they do not die, people will age.
Ageism is a direct product of social change. The young did not have negative attitudes toward the old years ago, because they needed the aged for practical purposes. The old were the most powerful people in many civilizations. A long life was a sign of favor from supernatural forces, but most important, people valued the old because they handed down valuable knowledge to younger generations. This changed with the creation of the printing press. A younger person in need of information could turn to a book for advice, but the old still knew things not easily found in texts. However, technology today is changing that and further decaying the tradition of intergenerational contact. Younger generations can gather advice, recipes, and even biographical information on dead family members on the Internet with no need to contact an aged loved one. The impact of the Industrial Revolution continues to have negative effects on the old. Factory-based jobs placed a higher demand on physical fitness for employment. As technology rapidly evolves, the old have less of a knowledge base and little experience to take part in new social trends. In a culture where assets define you, the old and poor carry less value in comparison with others. The elevated level of geographic mobility in society provides opportunities for young family members to relocate for their betterment. One unintended consequence of this is that younger people leave behind older family members in need of emotional and social support. Moreover, when those who relocate do not see older loved ones as much, ageist attitudes will be more likely to evolve.
It is possible that younger generations today have negative attitudes toward the aged because of an innate desire for psychological self-preservation. A perspective known as terror management theory argues that the aged remind the young that they are mortal. Younger people see older people, and it triggers anxiety and fear. Humans like to control their lives. Aging is inevitable. Humans cannot control it. Older people remind younger people of their mortality, so the young direct amplified amounts of negativity toward the old to calm their reservations about aging. It is a classic sociological example of one group stigmatizing another to increase its own sense of well-being. However, it also hints that intrinsic processes beyond our control might lead to ageism. From a biosocial perspective, scholars argue that when humans hear the word old, they automatically create cognitive connections to other negative trait words. In addition, studies used to test implicit ageism find that people of all ages have an unconscious motivation to view older people in a negative way regardless of experience. However, related studies do imply that people attuned to the influence of stereotypes who have a personality characterized by low prejudice have a better chance of fighting off innate feelings of prejudice toward the old.
It is important to note that not all younger people view the elderly in a negative way. Research shows that attitudes toward the elderly relate to two issues—discussions of the aged from a generic or personal perspective and one’s level of contact. Ageist attitudes shift when researchers ask subjects about old people in general versus old people they know well. When asked about older people in general, younger people endorse stereotypes about the old. When asked about specific loved ones, respondents refute stereotypes. With an increased level of contact, when younger people interact with older people more often, they are less likely to have ageist attitudes. This does sometimes relate to the perceived benefits gained from interaction. For example, research shows that if a younger person receives a highly valued benefit from interacting with someone older, such as money, the younger person will have a more favorable attitude toward the person who provides a benefit and the old in general.
Current Cultural Conditions
Three current cultural conditions facilitate problems associated with ageism. They involve economic dynamics, media representations of the aged, and gender variables.
Ageism does have a functional component. With the U.S. culture so oriented toward youth, products tied to antiaging have created a multibillion dollar per year industry. However, there is a considerable downside to aging and the economy—age discrimination. As the Industrial Revolution outdated the work skills of older generations, many elders struggled to maintain their place in the economy. Without the ability to work, some of the old became economically dependent on younger generations. By the early 1900s, as much as 50% of older people lived with younger family members. The development of pension programs helped mitigate this trend; however, very few large companies used them. Even for those who did, pensions were not a way to reward the old for a lifetime of hard work. Instead, pensions were a way to move elder workers out the door and make way for younger employees willing to work for lower wages. People started viewing the aged as a burden. By the 1930s, people were placing dependent elders in “old-folks” homes, which would later become the modern nursing homes. For decades, elderly citizens with a desire to engage in the workforce had limited opportunities. Primarily this occurred because business owners often made jobs unavailable for anyone over the age of 55. Reports indicate that by the 1960s, business owners made as many as 25% of jobs unavailable to people who were 45 years and older.
Things changed with the passage of the Age Discrimination Employment Act of 1967. It made discriminating against any person between 40 and 65 based on age illegal. In addition, it prohibited demotions, firings, and salary reduction for any older person unless an organization has legitimate cause to do so. Current laws do allow employers to dismiss an older employee for drawing disproportionately high salaries and gaining exceedingly high pension credits. Moreover, employers continue to dismiss older employees to reduce costs when they show a decline in productivity and experience chronic work problems. They typically frame such firings in a way to avoid legal obligations. When an elderly person ends up unemployed, it takes him or her longer to find a new job than a younger person. The older unemployed also are more likely to take significant salary reductions when finding new positions. However, salary concerns often weigh less than health insurance worries. Sometimes older workers who do not qualify for Medicare find themselves uninsured.
Analysts point out that the tension between younger and older adults may increase in the coming years as money designated for social security faces a reduction. Social security, which is a pay-now distribute-now social program, will experience a lack of balance as the baby boomer population gets older. There will be fewer workers paying in and more former older workers expecting to receive benefits. In response, proposals reflecting desires to increase the normal retirement age from 65 to as high as 70 exist. Aged voters will no doubt battle plans to lower the retirement age, while younger voters will demand legislative action to ensure social security exists for them once they reach old age.
Age conflict related to economic issues is already occurring. While the U.S. economy is going through an economic downturn, employers are creating new jobs. Most of these jobs are part-time positions offering no fringe benefits. Traditionally, these jobs went to younger people just entering the workforce. However, financial security for some older people is a myth. Currently, many cash-strapped elderly needing to supplement their incomes after retiring are going back to work and taking part-time positions, leaving younger people desiring part-time employment frustrated and angry.
From an early age, culture saturates people with stereotypical images of the elderly. School textbooks portray the elderly as frail and dependent. Consider the classic image of the old woman needing help to cross the road. Cultural learning involves a socializing acceptance of stigmatizing words describing the elderly. Consider words such as codger, geezer, dirty old man, old maid, and old fogey. One part of society analysts focus on with the socialization of ageism involves the media. Research shows different forms of media portray age differently, though over-all media representations of the old tend to be negative. For example, television police dramas display a high level of intergenerational cooperation between young and old actors. Conversely, comedies often feed off generational differences to produce laughs. Commercials rarely represent the old unless they are marketing an antiage product. Even products designed for the elderly foster stereotypical images of dependence where old people have fallen and cannot get up or need a clapping device to turn their lights on and off. Newspapers and magazines often have stories relating to the elderly only if they have a sensationalized victimization slant. Greeting cards notoriously portray the old in a less than favorable fashion. The one exception to negative media representations of the elderly is fiction stories, where authors tend to portray the old in a positive manner.
Though trends related to metrosexuality have changed some standards, society still tends to evaluate women based on sexual attractiveness and men on occupational status. Old men are distinguished. Older women are just old. Moreover, research finds that when people see images of elderly men versus elderly women, people are more likely to perceive elderly women as less assertive and less willing to take risks. These stereotypes are harmful not only to women but to men as well. For example, widowers perceived as strong and independent often fail to receive needed emotional support compared with widows.
The phrase new ageism is becoming popular. It implies that old forms of ageism will be less problematic as baby boomers gain a stronger presence in society. It also focuses on what some scholars call compassionate ageism. Examples include speaking loud and slowly to an older person with the assumption that he or she is hard of hearing or cognitively impaired. Another example involves infantilization. This is a process where people speak to elders as if they are small children. Research implies that medial contexts such as nursing homes regularly facilitate aspects of new ageism. Moreover, analysts believe that when nursing home employees infantilize older, dependent people in nursing homes they are more likely to view residents as work objects, subsequently lessening the psychological guilt associated with neglect and abuse. Other forms of age discrimination exist in medical environments. They involve ageism and medical services. Analysts argue that medical professionals sometimes believe the aged do not deserve advanced medical care since they are naturally closer to death than younger patients.
Jason S. Ulsperger
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Ulsperger, J. S., & Knottnerus, J. D. (2011). Elder care catastrophe: Rituals of abuse in nursing homes. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.