When the last parent died in 2017, I visualized their canoes heading over an immense waterfall. My partner’s and my canoes fell next in line. Gulp. Yet this scenario sure beats the alternative: outliving the younger people we love. Is it this inexorable succession that gives purchase to the notion that ageism is less problematic than other forms of prejudice? Many people seem to agree that while racism and sexism are inherently wrong, it’s acceptable for olders to be ushered offstage, whether or not they go willingly. Many factors—age segregation, the anti-aging industrial complex, the cultural narrative that to age is to fail—feed that idea.
In fact there is nothing acceptable about any group being isolated or silenced against their wishes. The wrong lies in giving any kind of discrimination a pass.
Here are some of the arguments people use to excuse age bias, explained and rebutted:
Straw man #1: Prejudice is hard-wired.
Neither the fundamental cycle of life nor our evolutionary history justifies one of the most common justifications for bias in general and age bias in particular: being prejudiced is a part of being human. We know that homo sapiens evolved with a proclivity to divide people into “us” and “them,” behavior that conferred survival benefits by making it easier and quicker to choose who to trust. But we no longer live in isolated tribes; “us” and “them” commingle, all over the world. Prejudice is ignorant, and we now have far more information at our disposal than our hominid ancestors did. We also no longer die young, and in a world of longer lives a bias against our future selves makes even less sense (not that any prejudice is rational). Are only the reproductively active of value in an information society? Are we still hostage to these ancient biases?
I don’t buy it, and science backs me up. “The assumption that groups are competitive, that it’s built on our evolution as a social species — it’s just not true,” says sociologist Marilynn Brewer. The current scientific understanding is that humans are hardwired to make distinctions on the basis of physical appearance, but not to act in any particular given way because of it. Prejudice (the rapid tendency to make us vs. them distinctions) is less controllable than discrimination (behaving in ways that foster or reinforce those distinctions). In other words, we all see race—no one is “colorblind,” and to pretend otherwise is to be blind to racism and privilege—but we can respond by thinking and acting in anti-racist ways. We can choose to become aware of our biases instead of letting them unconsciously drive actions that harm the less privileged. And we need to work to unlearn them, because being “woke” is not enough.
Straw man #2: Age segregation is natural.
These days, with the exception of family gatherings and large public events, it’s rare for Americans of all ages to mix socially. It wasn’t always like that. Well into the nineteenth century, many Americans didn’t celebrate birthdays or even know their birth year! Only during the Industrial Revolution did age become important. Age-specific institutions like orphanages and old age homes arose; age began to determine when people could work, drink, smoke, and have sex; and people began to socialize with age peers. Segregation begets discrimination: ageism reared its head alongside age consciousness.
I used to say that ageism subverted the “natural order of things” by fostering age segregation. I don’t any more, thanks in part to an astute comment on my blog: “it is wrong to infer that anything in the past is automatically the ‘natural order of things,’” the commenter wrote, because the phrase prioritizes returning to the familiar over adapting to the new. “There is no ‘going back’ to the old ways. We confuse the ‘what we need to do’ with the ‘how we need to get there.’”
The “there” I hope we reach is a world that supports people across the lifespan. We get there by acknowledging that aging is natural and ageism is not. We get there by exposing the reactionary voices that seek to persuade us otherwise. An ageist and sexist world finds older women’s bodies repulsive; an anti-Semitic one is repelled by Jews; an ableist one wants the disabled out of sight; a white supremacist world finds people of color unworthy of equal access to power and resources. Those values are socially constructed. In other words, we make them up, and we can unmake them and embrace different ones.
What does “natural” mean, anyhow? People with severe disabilities used to die young. Not that long ago it was considered “unnatural” for people to be physically attracted to the same sex, or for privileged women to work outside the home. Culture change is slow: interracial marriage was banned in California until 1948. These struggles are ongoing: abhorrence of “race-mixing” and the threat of “white extinction” fuels currently resurgent white supremacy. But none of this stigma is “natural” and none of it is fixed.
Ageism persists for the same reason as other forms of oppression: not because it’s human nature but because it sustains existing power relations . Feeling alienated from older people and apprehensive at becoming like us is not “natural” or appropriate or inevitable. It is the result of social forces—ageism, sexism, and capitalism.
Straw man #3: People reject olders to avoid thinking about their own mortality.
Another rationale for gerontophobia(fear of aging and aversion to old people) is that olders are closer to death, and, well, who wants to go there? The dearth of meaningful rituals around death and dying in American culture doesn’t help. Compare it to Mexico, where the culture embraces death as part of life, and celebrates the Day of the Dead as a time to honor and connect with those who have passed on.
Fear of dying is human; it’s why we have religion, and Mozart’s Requiem. Fear of aging, however, is cultural; plenty of societies venerate their older members and keep them in community. It is an ageist world that conflates the two. It’s why bookstores have shelves labeled “Aging and Death,” and why you can get a graduate degree in “Older Adult/End of Life Care.” Yes, older people are reminders of mortality; our canoes are closer to the waterfall. But aging is a lifelong process: to age is to live and to live is to age. Dying, on the other hand, is a distinct biological event that happens only at the end of all that living, as anyone who has witnessed a death can attest. People may think I’m ancient, but they don’t think I’m dying.
The conflation of aging and dying also annoys Mike North, a professor at New York University who studies older workers and who provided the academic term for it: mortality salience. It derives from a field called . . . wait for it . . . “terror management theory,” which asserts that fear of dying drives almost all human activity. North isn’t buying it. “How does mortality salience explain forcing 50-year-olds out of the job market?” he asks. Or bias against younger people? I’m not buying it either. Ageism cuts both ways, and aversion to confronting our mortality does not explain or justify it.
Straw man #4: Ageism isn’t as problematic as other “isms.”
What’s my least favorite rationale for giving ageism a pass? That discrimination against olders is somehow more excusable than other forms of prejudice: bias lite, as it were. The government declined to add age to race and sex as a protected category under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The burden of proof is higher in age discrimination cases, too. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor set age apart “because all persons, if they live out their normal life spans, will experience it.” But as age scholar Margaret Cruikshank has pointed out, not only are older people a minority of the population, there’s no comfort in the fact that some escaped unfair treatment when they were young. Ageism is different from other oppressions in that each of us will encounter it, and unique in that we move into and out of age privilege, but those attributes don’t make it more problematic than other “isms”—or less so. All discrimination is wrong.
More importantly, trying to determine which prejudice does the most damage or which group is the worst off— getting sucked into the “oppression Olympics”—is counterproductive and divisive. This way of thinking keeps us from uniting against the structures and systems that benefit from all forms of prejudice. “In pitting one ism against the other, we serve those in power,” counselor and anti-ageism advocate L.C. confirms. “All isms are reprehensible.”
Nor are these oppressions are the same, or experienced equally. “Ageism looks differently on Blacks and people of color, because we are united with and affected by all the other isms,” L.C. continues. “As an African American woman I cannot divide myself into pieces.” Uncomfortable with the way a group of white cops were placing an older black man into an EMT truck, she asked them not to harm or kill him. “I was told to mind my business. They did not see their grandmother nor mother. They saw the color of my skin, without value in this society.” Just as humans cannot be divided into pieces, neither should efforts towards a more equitable world for all. As the T-shirts say, none of us is free until all of us are free. It’s all one struggle.
A better world in which to grow old is also a better place to be female, be queer, to have a disability, to be from somewhere else.
Just as different forms of oppression intersect and reinforce each other, so do different forms of activism: when we chip away at any form of prejudice, we chip away at the ignorance and fear that underlie them all. Because aging is the one universal human experience, ageism is a perfect target for compound activism. Undoing ageism, in turn, requires anti-ageists to join forces with other groups who are marginalized because of what they look like, how their bodies work, who they love, and how and where they grew up.
Building an intersectional and inclusive movement against ageism will be take longer, but it’s the one I want to be part of. The movement that emerges will be stronger, more resilient, more radical, more sustainable, and more joyful. It’s the way to eradicate ageism in all sectors of society. Activism of any kind is more effective if it’s intergenerational. And only by coming together at all ages against all oppression will we create the more equitable world we all hope to live long enough to inhabit.