Moving America Forward

I’m Ageist. Here’s Why That’s A Problem

September 18, 2018
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I’m Ageist. Here’s Why That’s A Problem
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It's time to stop making assumptions about people based on age. Photo by Alys Tomlinson/Getty Images
We all make snap judgments about people from other generations. Here’s how to stop.

In my early twenties, I was in line at a grocery store to buy a 12-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon when a man in his 60s tapped me on my shoulder. I had my headphones on and connected to my Zune, and I hesitantly — and likely dismissively — asked what he wanted.

“Do you actually like that beer?” he asked me. I said yes, but mainly because it was all I could afford.

He then told me that PBR was the only beer he and his friends could get while they were serving in Vietnam. The beer being shipped over kept going bad, he said, and PBR was one of the few American domestics that the Viet Cong had stocked up on locally.

“And there was no way we were going to drink Budweiser,” I remember him saying.

I was so enamored with the story that my Safeway run-in turned into an hour of sitting in a Starbucks parking lot drinking cans of PBR in the Arizona sun. And I was shocked at how I had initially dismissed this man simply because he was so much older than me.

It’s estimated that by 2050, as the baby boomer generation continues to age into retirement, the number of Americans over the age of 65 will double to 83.7 million. The number of people over 85 will jump to 19 million in the same time period — over 400 percent larger than the same sector of the population in 2000.  

Despite those figures, we are still surprisingly ageist. And the problem isn’t only with millennials throwing shade at boomers. Boomers have had it out for the young, as well. But what can we do to recognize when we’re being ageist? And, more important, where can we find similarities across all of the generations?

I realized I was ageist years ago. And even though I recognize my biases, it’s still a problem. I choose to live near Williamsburg, where younger people tend to live, and I actively seek out places where I know I won’t be the oldest person in the room — and at 30, that’s become an ever-increasing challenge in Brooklyn.

Most of my aversion — or, arguably, fear — of the elderly is backed up by science. In 1986, three social psychologists found that our awareness of the inevitability of death makes us afraid of our elders. The assumption, dubbed the Terror Management Theory, is that humans are motivated to quell the “terror” inherent in the human awareness of mortality by investing in worldviews that imbue life with meaning, and the individuals who subscribe to them with significance. One can argue that shows like “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” is an example of our perverse obsession with youth and beauty. And when we encounter people who are older than we are, we associate them with our fear of dying.

Another reason for our ageist attitudes may come down to how much time we spent with our parents as kids. According to different studies, our relationships with our parents help influence our attitudes toward the elderly.

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Having a quality relationship with your grandparents can help reduce ageist biases.Photo by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

That fear has trickled into the way we work with those older than us, such as passing on older workers to do more complicated assignments, or viewing age as a liability, where workers are “too old” or “overqualified.” Studies have also shown there is a perception that older work applicants are more pitied, or are given lower ratings scores in job applications when compared to youth of similar backgrounds.

It’s even affected funding for national science initiatives and grants.

One very visible manifestation of ageism is the way we communicate with each other. When speaking with an elderly person, if you notice you use the words like “honey” and “babe,” or if you speak slowly and omit words from your regular vocabulary, that’s a sign you’re being ageist. Social scientists call this lexicon “elderspeak,” and it’s similar to the way we talk to infants.

“Some aspects of elderspeak do compensate for natural changes in the cognitive skills of our elders. But most of the time, it is actually confusing and even harmful to talk this way,” reads a report from the University of Kansas’ Merrill Advanced Studies Center. “Most aspects of elderspeak actually decrease comprehension….These cultural tools do not have a basis in the science of communication.”

But just as we hold biases against those older than us, research shows that it’s a two-way street.

Ever wonder why millennials are killing, literally, everything? (Most recently, we’ve killed mayonnaise). It’s ageist media gold, and absolute clickbait that perpetuates the myth the youth are lazy and entitled.

“When we advocate for ending ageism against elders – while simultaneously writing off youth – we actually exacerbate ageism toward elders,” writes Laura Beck on the Eden Alternative Blog. “How can we expect youth to appreciate the contributions of older people, when we turn around and disrespect theirs? It only deepens the gulf between the two.”

So how do we solve for ageism between the generations? One way is to simply stand up for yourself.

“Know that you are worthy of honor and respect! Stand tall, feel your power, speak out,” writes Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle, author of “Aging with Wisdom.”

Advocates for seniors argue that speaking up for oneself might help others realize they’re using ageist language.

And don’t let your own limiting language set you back, writes Holly Parker, author of “Your Future Self.”

“Take a moment and consider what limitations you place on yourself because of age,” she writes in Psychology Today. “Have you ever thought that you were too old to do something that younger adults do and then stopped doing it purely because you accepted this belief?”

To combat ageism in future generations, studies have shown that some of the best ways to reduce bias is to encourage young children to respect their elders. In a study released last year, Belgian researchers found that pairing toddlers with their grandparents for quality play time resulted in more positive stereotypes of the elderly.

“The most important factor associated with ageist stereotypes was poor quality of contact with grandparents,” says Allison Flamion, a doctoral student who lead the team. “We asked children to describe how they felt about seeing their grandparents. Those who felt unhappy were designated as having poor quality of contact. When it came to ageist views, we found that quality of contact mattered much more than frequency.”

And, most importantly, recognize when you’re doing — or saying — something that might demean another person.

Take it from me: If you ever get a chance to crack open a few cans of PBR with someone from a different generation than yours, go for it. You might be surprised at what you have in common.

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