Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: How to Combat Ageism

The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.

? Jean-Paul Sartre

It’s no secret that our culture in North America tends to be quite ageist. Generally speaking, as we grow older, society treats us with less dignity and respect: we’re removed from our jobs in favor of someone younger, albeit less-experienced; we’re told we need to buy anti-wrinkle cream and dye our hair to hide the grey, and that we’re not as desirable as we once were. Ultimately, aging is seen as something to avoid, to fear, and to hide at all costs — the longer we maintain the illusion of appearing young, the longer we remain acceptable by society’s unrealistic standards.

Older women on a television
The media does not typically reflect older women in a respectful light.
Photo by Kimberly Bryant

Cultural influences

The idea that aging is bad is not based in any sort of fundamental truth, nor is it a universal perspective held by everyone the world over. Our attitudes about aging often stem from our view on death: do we fear it, or accept — and embrace! — it as a natural part of life? In the same vein, religion and spirituality are inextricably intertwined with how we feel about dying. Indeed, there are numerous cultures that revere old age. For example, in Korea, China, India, and many parts of Africa, elders are paid more respect than youth; being old is a position of privilege. In many Native American cultures, “elders are respected for their wisdom and life experiences,” along with long-held traditions that demonstrate this in practice. Meanwhile, in Korea it’s Confucianism that provides the driving force behind honoring aging members of families.

Even within Europe, the level of respect toward aging varies greatly. While the UK is unhealthily partial to youth culture, countries such as France encourage both women and men to age naturally, placing value on authentic beauty over store-bought “fixes.” Yet the UK is not the worst ageist offender: “Russia, Ukraine, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have more people who feel they have been ignored or patronized because of ageism.”

An elderly Ugandan woman.
In African culture, elders are generally respected and honored.
Photo by Kimberly Bryant

Ageism and gender

Inside our own North American brand of ageism exist more specific types of prejudices. Women are discriminated against to a much greater degree than men in regards to aging. In terms of romantic and sexual appeal, our media gives men the green light to grow old; men are like fine wine, we’re told — they only get better, and sexier, with age.

Women, on the other hand, are fed the message that to age is to become less desirable with each passing year. When our hair begins to grey, and our smile lines become permanent fixtures on our faces, those are simply signs that it’s time to call in the beauty industry to help us begin the never-ending process of hiding — not only who we are, but who we are becoming. It isn’t difficult to see how damaging this attitude can be to our personal sense of integrity and self-worth.

However, men aren’t completely off the hook. In fact, one of the most male-dominated industries — technology — is also one of the worst for ageism. In recent years, Silicon Valley has gained an unflattering reputation for hiring based on age, favoring younger employees. Older veterans in the field, with decades of experience and irrefutable success, are being tossed aside in favor of twenty-something men, fresh out of college.

Meryl Streep
Meryl Streep is a good example of a woman who refuses to be confined to North America’s ageist box.
Image source: Andreas Tai via wikimediacommons.org

A more age-friendly future

Because it’s so omnipresent, this ageist attitude is not easy to change. Embedded into virtually every aspect of our media culture, it sometimes feels like the rule, rather than the lie. However, we can absolutely work toward creating a culture with a healthy outlook on aging. Re-framing our individual perspectives on growing old is the first step. Consider for a moment how you view your own aging process: is it compassionate and accepting, or harsh and fear-based? There’s no right or wrong answer — but honesty is required if we are to move forward. Similarly, if you’re a parent: think about what you’re teaching your child by way of your own behavior regarding growing old.

And what about your own parents? Did they provide you with a healthy model of aging, or do your current values differ from theirs? It’s also quite possible that you don’t know anyone first-hand who authentically demonstrates a healthy attitude toward aging. If so, don’t be afraid to seek role models outside your immediate community. There is still a handful of people in the media who provide us with positive examples of aging gracefully, such as Meryl Streep, and the late Susan Sontag.

Most of all, take some time to consider how you want to feel everyday as your time on the incredible planet continues. Rather than approaching our aging process from a place of fear, and fruitlessly endeavoring to avoid it, each of us has the choice to accept and embrace the beauty inherent within growing older. We choose to welcome our natural evolution with open arms — and we hope you will, too.

Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.

?  Betty Friedan

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Institute on Aging

Committed to offering thoughtful discussions and resources to older adults, their families, and their caregivers.

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