The Age of Ageism

Senator Diane Feinstein received a lot of criticism yesterday for calling the hypothetical retirement of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer “a great loss.” She is quoted as saying, “My general belief is if a person serving with integrity and working hard and producing for whatever the constituency is, that’s what these jobs are all about.” At age 82, some Democrats are urging Breyer to retire now, just in case the Senate majority reverts back to Republican hands – namely Sen Mitch McConnell’s – in 2022. Fair enough. But others argue that Breyer, and Feinstein, should retire to “give their jobs to someone younger.” I wonder how these critics would feel fifty or sixty years from now if someone younger said this to them.

Perhaps I’m biased… My mom, an attorney for the federal government, did not retire until she was 79yo. Frankly, I never thought I would hear the words “retirement” come out of her mouth. But my mother had worked in the same office independently for 30 years, and suddenly a new, much younger solicitor was micromanaging her.

As a 55yo about to turn 56, I admit ageist comments sting personally. I think it’s safe to say most older adults don’t feel anywhere near the age they look. In fact, I often facetiously ask why everyone around me keeps getting older. Through no credit of my own, I happen to look younger than my age, but I still cringe every time I get complimented for it.

Older Americans may not appear as sharp as they used to be. Their movements may be slower. But consider the parable of the cracked pot: everyday, a woman carries two pots back and forth to the river. One is in pristine condition. The other has cracks in it, causing it to lose water. Over time, however, the side of the road that receives the water grows an array of beautiful flowers.

I think many confuse age with outlook. To assume that all older adults beat to the same drum is like assuming all young people think alike. Take Donald Trump and Joe Biden, for example. These two men couldn’t be anymore dissimilar than Cain and Abel! We are all a product of our experiences, not our age.

Like any other life challenge, how people respond to aging depends on their coping skills, but society certainly doesn’t help. Ageism is woven into our culture – so much so that Americans don’t recognize it. The only adults treated as part of the mainstream population are the ones able to keep up. The first time this hit me was when I was attending a wedding. There was an elderly couple at our table with whom no one was talking. My first thought was, “It’s as though they’re invisible!

I have a hearing impairment which requires wearing aids, so I took notice of a radio commercial which asks, “Do you avoid wearing hearing aids because they make you look old,” as though looking old is something to be avoided. Cosmetic commercials tout the benefits of this or that cosmetic for keeping skin “youthful looking.” Young people are increasingly seeking cosmetic surgery because they don’t like the way they look in selfies. Of course, Hollywood is one of the worst culprits of age discrimination, where youth is valued over talent. I suspect the reason is because they’re trying to establish an emotional connection with the audience and it’s easier to accomplish through superficial means.

Such cultural norms reinforce the dependency between youth and self-worth. Meanwhile, the US population as a whole is getting older.1 In 2019, the AARP wrote that “35 percent of the population is now age 50 or older.”2

So, what’s the solution? Well, to begin with, we need to acknowledge and normalize our fears of old age. You can’t solve a problem if you won’t admit you have one. Most Americans fear getting older means loss of independence and productivity, unemployment, poverty, poor health, loneliness, and/or irrelevance. Rather than ignore these fears, Americans need to identify what’s in our control to prevent these outcomes. As Mickey Mantle famously said, “If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”

Recently, a family member was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. As he debated what to do, I inquired of his “worst case scenario.” Whether or not we admit it, we all harbor catastrophic fears. Through some probing, he admitted being afraid of “ending up in a nursing home, in a wheelchair with drool coming out of [his] mouth.” After assuring him we wouldn’t let that happen, we problem-solved what was in his control to avoid this: researching treatment options; enrolling in trial studies; utilizing his Medicare benefits. We now hold regular virtual meetings to monitor his treatment. In other words, by specifically identifying his fear, we were able to come up with concrete solutions to prevent it.

Americans also need to advocate for social change. We need to establish an infrastructure that supports an aging population, rather than forcing families to isolate their loved ones. We need to recognize the strengths that older Americans bring to the table and create incentives for employers to hire them. We need a national clearinghouse specifically to help older Americans find employment. We need to create opportunities for younger and older Americans to interact. We need to reject ads that stigmatize aging and demand more positive roles for older actors.

We all get old – if we’re lucky. To fight or deny this reality is not only individually self-destructive, it’s detrimental to our society. Despite many cultural messages to the contrary, self-worth doesn’t come from appearances. It comes from the way we treat others and the positive impact we have in the world.

1 The U.S. Population Is Getting Older, Richer and White | National News | US News

2 Age Discrimination Still Thrives in America (aarp.org)

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