Ageism is a term coined in 1969 to describe a kind of discrimination that may be as old as time. Originally recognized as a bias that works against elderly needs and interests, age discrimination is regarded today as an issue that can affect people at many stages of their lives. Homespun advice to respect your elders, or that to spare the rod will spoil the child, reflect how deeply age-based roles can define a person’s status in society.
When gerontologist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Butler popularized the idea of ageism more than 40 years ago, he was describing a mix of stereotypes, habits and beliefs whose effects on seniors were comparable to the ways racism and sexism affected racial minorities and women. Public response reflected that analogy but also broadened the scope of discussion.
Fighting Back Against Ageism
In 1972, social activist Maggie Kuhn formally debuted the Gray Panthers as a national civil rights organization with an interest in age issues. Arguing that society undervalued the young as well as old, the group’s early members began enlisting high school and college students and pursued an intergenerational agenda that addressed topics from nursing home reform to the Vietnam War.
In the years since then, concerns related to age discrimination have been expressed by Baby Boomers, their Generation X descendants, and still later by the Millennials of Generation Y.
Ageism In The Workplace
The workplace has been the hub for many of these concerns, both in the United States and elsewhere. In 2000, University of Edinburgh researchers interviewing Generation X business students in the United Kingdom found many of them said ageism hurt their job prospects. Some said employers there set arbitrarily low cutoff ages, as young as 30, to qualify for starting jobs in white-collar careers. Workers who could survive that winnowing would still find promotions scarce after age 40, the researchers added. As America’s economy withered in the new century, older workers found themselves feeling targeted for cost-cutting layoffs. The number of work-related age discrimination complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission surged from 16,548 in 2006 to 22,778 in 2009, driven by complaints about firings.
Other age disputes center on personal freedoms, and still others on social mores. Setting state-level policies on issuing and restricting drivers’ licenses, for example, can easily become a balancing act weighing actuarial data about crash statistics for either teens or seniors against elderly needs for maintaining independence and young people’s needs to acquire new skills and freedoms.
Ageism discussed at YouDareToAsk.com and Dare To Ask
In contrast to policies handed down from government, many questions about ageism and proper behavior for any age are decided on the human level, one person at a time. These are the questions addressed most often by readers of YouDareToAsk.com and Phillip Milano’s Dare To Ask column, where website visitors and high-profile experts both contribute thoughts.
Dare To Ask: Kid, you’re listening to ‘my’ music
When a Generation Y teenager from Toronto described adults chastising her and her friends for enjoying Led Zeppelin and other classic rock the boomer adults considered “their music,” other young people related similar experiences. Milano sought input from rock music legends, who said those adults’ actions were short-sighted and counterproductive.
“Adults who say that to a kid must feel threatened,” concluded Rick Nielsen, lead guitarist for Cheap Trick. Reflecting on how young people traditionally responded to such warnings, Nielsen added his own plea: “Parents, tell your kids to quit listening to Cheap Trick! Maybe they’ll start to listen to us.”
Dare To Ask: She’s older? Ask her out, you stud
Yforum also addressed the growing evidence that more Americans are laying aside age rules in the sensitive and personal area of dating.
“Younger men/older women or vice-versa are nothing new or controversial anymore,” Ivana Trump, the socialite ex-model, ex-wife of billionaire Donald Trump, told Milano through a publicist. “The most important fact of life is that we live it, fully, daily and with no regrets,” Trump advised as she prepared to host a reality TV show about an affluent 40-year-old woman being pursued by twenty-something studs. It’s not just a Hollywood or New York thing, Milano found: A survey of more than 2,000 women between ages 40 and 69 by AARP The Magazine found that a third of those who were dating went out with younger men.
Dare To Ask: We’re old, so you must do what we say
At other times, Milano’s readers reflect the gap that still exists between in perceptions of how age should shape a person’s place in society.
When a teenager vented his frustration on Yforum.com that older people “use their age as a way to get what they want from a younger person,” a nationally prominent psychologist with more than 80 years of life experience shared a plea for younger people to, at some very modest level, respect your elders.
“Most seniors hurt in silence under all situations in which they don’t seem to count,” Nicholas Cummings, a former president of the American Psychological Association with a half-century of professional experience, told Milano by e-mail. “And the fact is that most younger persons look right through them as if the senior is invisible.”