It can be argued that society is successfully tackling racism and sexism amongst other forms of prejudice. Well, in terms of the acceptability of explicitly expressed opinions at least. But what about ageism? Why has this remained immune to the societal drivers of change?
Older people are often portrayed as frail, forgetful and doddery but why do we not challenge these negative stereotypes as they represent only the minority of older adults in society today. In the media, older adults are frequently referred to as pensioners but when is a 30-something ever referred to as a salaried person? As a society we have fallen into traps, using heuristics and negative stereotypes to categorise older adults; but why? As a white British male, it is unlikely in the UK that I will encounter the same prejudices as a South Asian immigrant female. However, should I have the good fortune to live long enough I will potentially face the same age related discrimination and prejudice regardless of gender, race or nationality. With this being the case, why do we as a society not quash ageism? Some research suggests that we try to marginalise older people and create an ‘out-group’, maximising the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’. In doing this we maximise the positive attributes we associate with our youth ‘in-group’ and apply the opposite attributes to the aged ‘out-group’. Youth is still seen as the ultimate drive and goal, fueling the beauty and cosmetics sector, implicitly reinforcing this artificial barrier and the negative attributes associated with age. Further this acceptance is reinforced through comedy, through the medical model of ageing and the limited intergenerational contact experienced by most people. We are at a paradoxical juncture, extolling the virtues of wisdom yet deprecating the facets of age.
Ageism has many negative consequences. For the older adult, internalised ageism acquired through the lifecourse and from direct experience of prejudice can decrease physical and emotional wellbeing, increase incidence of depression and facilitate the withdrawal from community engagement. From a wider perspective, ageism robs society of a huge experiential resource as well as a pool of informal carers, volunteers and increases social and healthcare costs. As with other forms of prejudice, there are no benefits and many of the stereotypes it is based on are simply untrue. As gerontologists we are aware of the underlying opportunities associated with the ageing process and the contributions made by older adults. Through research and wider engagement we should be facilitating debate and challenging the assumptions associated with ageing. Fact: We are all ageing. Fact: Society as a whole is ageing. This is something we should embrace rather than run from. Through education and exposure we can help readdress the balance and set the score right and maybe, just maybe, we can turn the stigma associated with being old into the stigma of being ageist.