Why is ageism acceptable?

A brief look at ageism and its effects

In an era where we no longer tolerate racism, sexism or prejudice in any way, why is it still acceptable to be ageist?  

Earlier this year, Saturday Night Live (SNL) aired a widely shared, very popular spoof commercial for Amazon Echo Silver. The commercial featured Keenan Thompson and other SNL regulars as seniors struggling with a version of Amazon Echo created specifically for seniors, because the "latest technology isn't always easy to use for people of a certain age." The skit was a lighthearted spoof, of course.  It was also immensely popular earlier this year and has been viewed over 13 million times on YouTube.  But this would almost certainly not pass as funny if it was targeted at any other group. In this day and age, SNL would never similarly mock any other group of people such as LGBQT, obese people, disabled people ... but older people seem to be fair game for the outright ridicule in this skit.

The people portrayed suffer from various disorders associated with aging, including memory loss and hearing loss. They’re also stereotypically suspicious of children who are "just playing across the street." They’re prone to long rambling stories, and they otherwise rampantly display unbridled ageist stereotypes. Is that okay? We might be taking a late-night spoof too seriously… but perhaps we should take it seriously as an example of attitudes that would be utterly unacceptable toward any other group of people. Watch it for yourself, below, if you haven't seen it. 

Ageism as a societal norm

recent Facebook post from uber-hip io9 opens with "Old people: they're mostly garbage." Why is this acceptable? Eventually, commenters have reproached the author of the post, but most early comments on the post completely ignored its troubling, brash ageism. 

Facebook post from io9

On another account, why is it acceptable that ageism is normalized in the tech industry? Many articles have been written about this, but John McDermott’s LinkedIn post suffices as a good overview. As Michael North says in that article, “Ageism is the most socially condoned form of derogating someone based on social category.”

Writing in Forbes magazine last year, Lexy Martin notes that research reveals that “Gen Xers (age 34 -51) in tech are being hired 33% less than their workforce representation.” (If you are approaching your mid 30's, ageism is already going to soon affect you.) 

Granted that we are talking about some different variations of ageism (the SNL spoof and io9 post exhibit prejudicial attitudes, while discrimination based on age is a different element of ageism).  But, really, none of these examples should be acceptable. 

Ageism legitimizes inequalities

For one thing, we have to start seeing ageism for what it is.  Ashton Applewhite, an anti-ageism writer, provides a good description of ageism:

Like racism and sexism, ageism serves a social and economic purpose: to legitimize and sustain inequalities between groups. It’s not about how we look. It’s about how people in power assign meaning to how we look.

Ageism isn’t rooted in some objective truth that old people are slower or more stubborn or more prone to illness or possess any other expected weakness. Those are all generalizations made by a group who collectively views themselves as “not old” and legitimizes their perceived power through those generalizations.

If our culture does not allow people to define someone from a certain gender or visible minority by a stereotypical weakness or set of weaknesses, we should stop doing so for older people.

  • It should no longer be acceptable to denigrate older people in any way.
  • It should no longer be acceptable to generalize about older people.
  • It should no longer be acceptable to discriminate against older people in any way.

And we should change our cultural attitudes about aging. For the good of all of us.

We're all aging

Ageism is rooted in a cultural belief that aging is all negative. It’s bad to age, we believe, just like in a certain time it was bad to be black, or a woman, or handicapped. But we have to change that attitude.

It’s not bad to be older, in fact it’s better in a lot of ways. As you age you get wiser, you learn from mistakes. Many people acquire patience, tolerance and yes, even wisdom, as they get older. They lose insecurities and youthful egotism. Here’s one thing that not many people realize, even those who are there: many people become nicer as they get older. There’s a hundred other things that make it great to be aged. Many cultures throughout time have propagated great respect for elders.

For another thing, we have to see that, like those other isms, ageism really hurts  us all. We’re all in this together, really.

It shouldn’t be any more acceptable to look in the mirror and hate yourself for getting older than it would be to hate yourself for being black or being a woman.

Our population is aging. People are not having as many children as they used to. People are living longer. Millennials who read (let alone say) things like “old people are mostly garbage” and accept that at face value should realize that they might someday be 100 years old (given current trends). Many of them will make it even further. It makes no logical sense to hate something you are going to one day become.  When you realize those “indiscretions of your youth,” you’re going to regret them. And when you do, you ought to be glad for the wisdom you have gained through aging.

- Jim Huinink


Further reading

12 examples of everyday ageism. startribune.com.

Ageism. wikipedia.org.

Ageism. How are the elderly represented in the media?

Ageism in our society. New York Times.

Ageism: the last acceptable form of discrimination. huffingtonpost.com.

Growing old isn't the problem. Ageism is. sociologyinfocus.com.

The liberation of growing old. New York Times Online.

Report: Ageism in the tech industry. Blog.indeed.com.

Surviving as an old in the tech World. Wired.com.

We're tired of these stereotypes of older people in the media. Telegraph.co.uk

Why ageism is the most 'acceptable' form of workplace discrimination. HRDive.com

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