What’s a prejudice? Treating people unfairly because of how we think about them—even when that opinion isn’t based on anything but unexamined feelings. Assuming, for example, that talking to someone much older or younger than you will be boring because they won’t really listen, or because you wouldn’t be interested in any of the same things.
That’s a mistake. It’s impossible to tell whether someone is bigoted or loves cats or reads sci fi on the basis of how old they are.
Prejudices are based on stereotypes: the assumption that all members of a group Muslims, dog-lovers, blondes, Republicans, you name it—are the same. Stereotypes are always wrong. They’re especially inaccurate when it comes to age.
Older people aren’t any more alike than younger ones. In fact, the longer we live, the more different from each other we become. Think about it: over the years, as we love and learn and flop and fly, of course we become ever more unique.
American society is growing more tolerant: less hung up on differences in things we can change about ourselves, like what we look like and who we love—and less tolerant of discrimination. Although we have a long way to go towards equality, it’s no longer acceptable to be racist, or sexist, or homophobic.
So how come no one even blinks when older people are described as incompetent? Or foolish? Or even disgusting? Because of ageism: discrimination on the basis of age. We’re ageist when we treat people differently because of how old we think they are. We all do it, consciously or not, because everyone is biased. And just as with racism and sexism, we have to work together to end it—in ourselves and in society.