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 anyone being segregated 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.
with the exception of family gatherings and large public events, it’s rare for
the generations 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,’” they 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 differently abled 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.
“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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.