This post is by Brendan Birth, a senior at Dickinson college, who is writing about the need for older women in the workplace, working with Transportation Alternatives on the needs of older pedestrians in New York City, and identifying capacity-building grant opportunities for the Gray Panthers.
I am interning for an organization (the Gray Panthers) that was founded on overt ageism. Indeed, the founder of the Gray Panthers, Maggie Kuhn, was forced into retirement by the Presbyterian Church at the age of sixty-five. While forced retirement is not as prevalent as it was when Kuhn formed the Gray Panthers in 1970, ageism is still around. In fact, personal experiences have shown me that there are lots of people who come across as ageist without even realizing it.
My personal awareness of ageism minimally dates back to the 2008 political campaigns. In 2008, there was an ad was for a United States Senate race in New Jersey. The ad focused on how then-Senator Frank Lautenberg will be 90 by the end of his term in 2014 (he ended up dying in 2013 at the age of 89), and that as a result, “it is time for a change” (probably not the exact phrasing, but I’m going off of memory here). I remember looking at the ad and thinking that it sounded ageist. At the same time, I also recall being surprised by the lack of backlash from the ageism present in this ad. I think that the lack of backlash happened for one reason: a lot of people didn’t even realize how ageist this ad was.
In all due fairness, many people probably don’t see ageism in phrases I’ve commonly heard, such as “this person is stuck in his/her ways” or “he/she should retire.” However, these phrases too seem ageist because they only get used against someone who is at (or near) the culturally accepted retirement age of sixty-five. These words don’t even get used against twenty-somethings (myself included) who can be “stuck in their ways” and/or need to find a different job. This, in turn, leads me to conclude that these phrases aren’t a critique of a person’s work, but instead a critique that the person is near retirement age and still working in the same job that he/she has been in for the last ten, twenty, or thirty years. This, in turn, appears to be ageist, even though many people probably don’t realize it.
But there are some phrases which take advantage of stereotypes of aging, even if they are not always directed at older persons. Namely, when I hear the phrase that “someone drives like a grandma,” it takes advantage of the feeling that the person behind the wheel is driving like the stereotypical grandma—in other words, slow and seemingly clueless. It is a shame that this is the stereotype of a grandmother who is behind the wheel, because I’m sure that there are a lot of speed demon grandmas in this world! It is also a shame that a lot of us have this stereotype and don’t even realize that such feelings are ageist.
Indeed, ageism exists, even though a lot of people often don’t realize this. Most people may be aware when someone makes a racist or sexist remark, but not necessarily when someone says something ageist. For that reason, ageism is a battle which needs to be fought in our society, and there is a long way to go before people are fully aware of the issue, let alone able to combat it.