Some questions about ageism


This week I gave a mini-presentation to my colleagues at Yale’s Information Society Project. Below are some of the broad questions I put to them.

Stereotypes underlie all prejudice. As I point out in my Introduction, we call out racist and sexist attitudes but seldom question descriptions of older people as confused or feeble. In fact, variability is a hallmark of older populations. Why are ageist attitudes given a pass?

Most older Americans live independently and are healthy and happy. Yet younger generations equate old age with dementia, depression, and dependence. Why are these misconceptions so persistent?

Race and gender are fixed at birth, but everyone ages. How else is ageism different from racism and sexism? The “ism” part is about denigrating the “other” to justify exploitation. Do we denigrate older people to render them more “other?” Does the fact that the old become less exploitable as workhorses make them expendable?
—    note that ageism is inherently sexist. Women perform most of the world’s unpaid, ill-paid, and/or discontinuous labor. The resulting economic disadvantages pile up in late life, by which time women significantly outnumber men.

How are people of all ages complicit in ageist stereotyping? Older people are no exception: they internalize expectations of helplessness and insignificance, which become self-fulfilling prophecies.

What purpose does ageism serve? Presumably it justifies the allocation of resources to the young. This reasoning is intuitively appealing but ethically problematic (to say the least), especially given the unprecedented aging of the global population. One way to frame these difficult questions is to consider their effect on practical decisions about the kinds of housing and transportation systems we build, healthcare priorities, the cost of end-of-life care, and other issues that affect people of all ages. Most importantly, can we balance the needs of the old against those of the young — where partnership should be natural — instead of pitting them against each other?