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- Sources of Prejudice
- Costs of Ageism
- Responses of the Elderly
Ageism has been called the third great “ism” (after racism and sexism), but it is different from its racial and gender counterparts in at least two fundamental ways. First, unlike racism and sexism, which target groups whose members are fixed at birth, everyone who grows old may become the target of ageism. Thus, everyone should have a personal interest in understanding and reducing the incidence of ageism. Second, while most Americans are familiar with the social phenomena of racism and sexism, ageism is a relatively new concept that many people have not heard of, much less understand. Research and writing on the subject have begun to accumulate, but only recently have comprehensive works on the subject been published.
As with other forms of prejudice and discrimination, definitions of ageism range from the simple to the complex and involve both feelings toward and treatment of the elderly. First, there is the matter of prejudice. Many persons have sometimes open but often unconscious negative associations regarding and emotional responses to the elderly. Second, there is the matter of outright discrimination—that is, negative or even hostile behavior. This type of discrimination comes from both individuals and institutions. Finally, as with attitudes toward women or people of other races, ageism sometimes takes on positive connotations: viewing the elderly as wiser or more compassionate. Discrimination can also be positive, ranging from such minor benefits as movie discounts to more significant ones such as eligibility for Medicare.
Moreover, while this research paper focuses on the United States, attitudes toward the aged differ greatly among societies and within various historical periods in a single society. Japanese society, for example, is known for its reverence for the aged. Generalization is dangerous, but it is fair to say that in more traditionally structured societies—those in which family interests are placed above those of the individual—the elderly tend to be respected more and treated better. This is partly related to the cultures’ inherent values; Chinese literature, for example, is replete with wise old men and women characters. In traditional, family-centric societies, the elderly often live with younger family members, and both common sense and sociological study show that proximity and interaction usually diminish personal prejudice and discrimination.
The United States in the twenty-first century is clearly very different from a traditional family-centric society. The differences in attitudes and behavior toward the elderly are manifested in two basic ways. First, the individual almost always takes precedence over the family. Culturally, legally, economically, and in a host of other ways, the individual’s wants, needs, and rights come first. Americans’ commitment to caring for other family members or deferring to their needs is weaker than that of more traditional societies. Thus, the elderly, who frequently have special needs and require special care, are often short-changed. This is not to say, of course, that the elderly are always treated poorly by their families in the United States. Clearly, however, Americans are more likely than traditional Chinese to place elderly family members into institutions such as nursing homes rather than caring for them in their own homes. (It should also be noted that, as the United States is a nation of immigrants, some populations differ from the national norm in their treatment of the elderly.)
Second, America is a nation obsessed with youth. While all societies value certain aspects of youth—energy, idealism, beauty—it is fair to say that few value it to the extent that the United States does. The media, in particular, emphasize the positive attributes of the young—as both a product and a means of selling products. Movies and television shows most commonly target younger audiences, typically featuring youthful characters and themes. At the same time, young persons are used to sell products in advertising. Turning the argument on its head, the elderly are generally excluded from the media, except as figures of amusement or ridicule. In advertising, elderly characters are usually relegated to a commercial ghetto, selling products specifically for use by the elderly. Moreover, as a glance at any health or beauty magazine reveals, a plethora of products and services —from cosmetic surgery to hair dyes—are designed specifically to eliminate, or at least postpone, the supposedly negative effects of aging on physical appearance.
Not surprisingly, then, given the country’s general obsession with youth and its prejudice against or ambivalence toward aging, American culture promotes a number of negative stereotypes about the elderly. The power and durability of these stereotypes is evidenced by the fact that many of them are contradicted by reality. One stereotype holds that elderly are too sickly and physically disabled to take care of themselves. In fact, more than 85 percent of Americans over the age of 65 are capable of handling the basic activities of life—eating, bathing, dressing, getting around—on their own. A corollary of this stereotype defines most elderly as either impotent or uninterested in sex. In fact, most persons over the age of 65 remain sexually active.
A second stereotype concerns mental capacity. While most people do experience a diminishing capacity to remember as they age, this decline is by no means universal. More important, the process is not nearly as deleterious as generally believed. The fact is that except for the very aged most elderly persons retain enough mental agility to take care of themselves. Indeed, most elderly die with their mental capacities still largely in functioning order.
That the elderly live in desperation and loneliness is yet another stereotype. Financially speaking, this is not so. The vast majority of persons over the age of 65—some 90 percent—live above the federal poverty level. The rate of poverty among those under 65 is greater. As for loneliness, nearly two-thirds of all elderly live either with their family or, more typically, a spouse. Just 4 percent of all elderly live alone and have no contact with family members or friends, and most of these extreme cases had experienced social isolation for much of their lives. Finally, major depression is more prevalent among the young than the elderly. In a recent study by the National Council on Ageing, roughly half of all elderly persons interviewed agreed with the statement “I am just as happy as when I was younger,” and fully 44 percent concurred with the statement “These are the best years of my life.”
By comparison, younger persons hold far more negative attitudes about the quality of life among the elderly and, by implication, for the senior years that lie ahead of them. In the same National Council on Ageing survey cited in the preceding paragraph, more than 50 percent of the nonelderly answered the question “What are the worst years of a person’s life?” with the years after the age of 60. A study conducted by psychologist Carol Seefeldt showed that even American children are prejudiced against the elderly. Presented with a series of pictures of men of varying ages and asked which one would they prefer to be with, some 60 percent chose the picture of the youngest man in the series.
Given the prevalence of such prejudices among Americans—and that prejudicial thinking often leads to discriminatory behavior—the extent to which American society treats its elderly negatively is not surprising. As noted earlier, discrimination takes personal as well as institutional forms. The former can be assessed by the extent of abuse and neglect of the elderly. Indeed, studies show more elderly persons are harmed in the home than on the street—that is, by family members who are supposed to take care of them. Individual prejudice may also affect the elderly when they become sick. Even in this age of advanced medical science, some health care professionals believe ailments and afflictions are natural and inevitable in the elderly. The result is that many eminently curable diseases or conditions are left untreated.
But it is the institutional forms of discrimination that inflict the greatest harm on the elderly. Despite such legislation as the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)—which prohibits changes in employment status or compensation based solely on reasons of age—discrimination against the elderly in the workplace remains quite common. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—the federal agency responsible for eliminating workplace discrimination—more age discrimination suits are filed than suits claiming racial or gender discrimination.
Sources of Prejudice
Unique in some ways, the sources of prejudice against the aged have much in common with sources of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice. The path-breaking sociologist Theodor Adorno finds prejudice is often associated with the “authoritarian personality”—rigid outlooks, intolerance of ambiguity, and a need to control others while holding weaker individuals in contempt. As the elderly are, by and large, physically weaker than younger persons, they are particularly vulnerable to individuals with the authoritarian personality.
More widespread, however, is the practice of selective perception, that is, the tendency to see what one expects to see. The tendency to perceive evidence that confirms prejudices and ignore what contradicts them is especially significant in shaping attitudes toward the elderly. Simply put, when we define a person who is physically or mentally feeble as elderly and a vigorous person as youthful. The accumulation of such perceptions leads to prejudice, which then reinforces those perceptions. Ignorance contributes to this phenomenon; various studies show the less people know about the basic facts of aging (e.g., that most elderly persons are physically and mentally capable of taking care of themselves), the more likely they are to be prejudiced toward the elderly. And, finally, there is death anxiety. People in many societies fear death to some extent, but youth-obsessed Americans are particularly vulnerable to this fear. As scholars of prejudice point out, people dislike what they fear and discriminate against what they dislike.
Beyond the personal, social forces are also at work in the prejudice and discrimination directed at the elderly. Modernization—the constant development of new technologies and the new skills needed to use and cope with them—tends to diminish one of the elderly’s main assets: their experience. At the same time, the developed world is getting older as the percentage of elderly citizens is increasing. While this problem is less significant in the United States—with its constant influx of younger immigrants—than in Europe or Japan, it is still a concern. The struggle over scarce resources such as funds for Medicare versus education is likely to become even more politically acrimonious when the “baby boom” generation begins to reach retirement age in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
Costs of Ageism
The costs of ageism can be grouped into two general categories: personal and societal. The personal costs of ageism are more difficult to quantify, although that does not make them any less potent. Perhaps the most pervasive cost is loss of self-esteem. As students of all forms of prejudice have observed, victims of prejudice and discrimination often adopt the dominant group’s negative image of them and behave in ways that conform to that negative image. In the case of the elderly, many accept society’s view that they are rigid in their thinking and physically frail, creating passivity, fear, and immobility. Younger persons may also lose out because of ageism. If they see the elderly only in negative terms, they are less likely to turn to the elderly for advice and wisdom, missing out on their valuable experience.
Ageism is most prevalent in the workplace—from which many elderly are excluded. In other words, the most pervasive form of societal ageism is employer discrimination. In the United States today, more than 5 million persons over the age of 55 say they are willing and able to work but cannot find a job. This corresponds to hundreds of millions of lost workdays annually and hundreds of billions of dollars in lost income.
Responses of the Elderly
The elderly’s responses to ageism fall into four general categories: acceptance, denial, segregation, and struggle. Acceptance involves absorbing the prejudices of society and manifesting them in behavior. Acceptance can be both a harmful and a positive coping mechanism. Some elderly persons express satisfaction in quiet withdrawal from social and other activities. Others, however, may grow apathetic, becoming depressed about their disengagement from society at large. They may feel imprisoned in what the gerontologist Ernest Burgess calls a “roleless role” but believe there is little or nothing they can do about it. Such individuals, for better or worse, have accepted society’s unspoken command to “act your age.”
Denial in the face of ageism is not unlike racial “passing,” whereby light-skinned blacks pass as white to escape the hardships of prejudice and discrimination. The aged “pass” by denying their elderly status and trying appear younger. This can take the form of lying about one’s age or dying gray hair and undergoing cosmetic surgery to appear more youthful. As with acceptance, denial can take positive forms as well, such as pursuing an exercise program for good health or engaging in activities like dancing that make one feel as well as look younger.
The third response is segregation, or physical avoidance of the rest of society. Again, segregation has both positive and negative manifestations. When motivated by fear—such as concerns about being victimized or abused—it can lead to restrictive, unhappy isolation. Similarly, if it is motivated by aversion to the slights of younger persons, it can lead to angry withdrawal and chronic contempt of others. The isolation in such cases may be more than physical, leading to alcoholism, drug dependency, or mental illness. On the other hand, segregation can also have more positive motivations. Many older individuals, for example, choose to live in retirement communities to be with people who share similar capacities for physical activity, interests, and experiences. Here they can live fuller lives by avoiding the limitations society imposes on them.
Struggle, the last response to ageism, involves seeking to reduce personal and societal prejudice and discrimination. While perhaps less common than other responses, struggle against ageism has increased in recent years. The Gray Panthers, an organization formed in the 1970s, has used rallies and demonstrations to oppose age prejudice and discrimination. In the years since, the struggle against ageism has become increasingly institutionalized, with the rise of the AARP (founded in 1958 as the American Association of Retired Persons) and its immense lobbying power in Washington. But the struggle against ageism also takes more personal forms, such as pride in one’s age and daily confrontation of prejudiced attitudes and behavior.
The question of ageism is only going to become more critical in the coming years, as American society continues to age. The growing number of aged and retired persons is likely to further exacerbate current conflicts between the elderly and the nonelderly over such general issues as health care, education, and taxes as well as specific programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
The nonelderly may come increasingly to resent the elderly if taxes are raised or nonretirement benefits are reduced to support the growing percentage of the population who are retired. Indeed, some political scientists predict that age may surpass race and gender as the defining factor in Americans’ voting behavior in coming years.
At the same time, the growing elderly population—particularly the active baby boomers—may have a positive effect on personal and social attitudes toward the aged. As the elderly become more prominent in society, prejudice and discrimination against them may diminish.
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