Originally published at Winnipeg Free Press

Ageism, plain and simple, is discrimination against older people. Most of us recognize that discrimination is nasty stuff in all its forms, and I’m not about to lecture or scold anyone here. But there are some curious aspects of ageism that make it different from other “-isms”.

Generally, when we discriminate against others, we cast them as the “out-group,” with negative features that separate them from us, the “in-group.”

But with ageism, we actually shun a group that we plan to join later in life. That’s right — when we’re young, we discriminate against our future selves.

Social researchers are fascinated by this phenomenon and refer to it as the out-group paradox. Most of us consider getting older as preferable to the alternative, and since we can’t alter the journey, we opt to reimagine the destination. We rationalize that we are of a new age, and won’t have the same traits as today’s seniors when we get there.

No, sir — none of those quirky old-people characteristics. Dr. Robert Butler, an eminent gerontologist, reportedly coined the term ageism in the 1960s, but the practice seems to have been around for as long as we’ve had older adults in society.

Perhaps more perplexing is research indicating that it’s the middle-aged, rather than the young, who are the worst offenders.

Research published in the journal International Psychogeriatrics tells us that middle-aged people tend to see old age as right around the corner and feel the need to maintain their own self-image by denigrating those who are older. Not surprisingly, people in this age demographic also judge the onset of old age to occur much later than younger people do.

Finally, we can’t let older adults themselves off the hook when it comes to putting down the elderly, since they also show prejudice within the out-group. What’s going on there?

First, let’s understand that no one is more aware of the stereotypes around seniors than they are themselves. Second, there is a wide continuum of functionality — physical and mental — among older adults that is more pronounced than in other age groups.

All of this may lead some seniors who consider themselves at the functional end of the continuum to want to distinguish themselves from less competent “old people” at the other end.

It’s bad enough that we find all age groups complicit in ageism, but we also treat ageism as more socially acceptable than other “-isms,” which explains why we see it everywhere.

Consider the basic birthday card: whether it’s your 30th or you 90th, you’re likely to get a card with disparaging quips about the loss of your hair, teeth, figure or memory. Granted, this is all benign fun, but somehow the realization that we’re all in this aging thing together gives us justification to take liberties with ageist digs. It’s a slippery slope from there.

Some may argue that society is more tolerant of difference than in previous times, and there is likely evidence of this if we examine racism or sexism today versus a century ago. But ageism, by contrast, may have worsened in modern times.

Dr. Todd Nelson of California State University points out that older adults were regarded as wise teachers in traditional societies, custodians of accumulated knowledge and institutional memory.

He argues that two historical events have conspired against seniors to lessen their status in society. The first was the advent of technologies such as the printing press, which enabled the preservation and dissemination of accumulated knowledge at the expense of the elder’s role. The second was the industrialization of society, which demanded mobility in families to go where the jobs were, and left out older adults who may have been less adaptive.

Whatever the roots of today’s ageism, people of all ages appear to be both the perpetrators and, eventually, the victims. Remediation of the ageism paradox is not easy.

It is dependent on either our collective efforts to reconstruct the image of older adults as competent, productive, social beings, or at least on recognizing seniors as being no different from the rest of us — quite simply, young people who have grown older.


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