Ageism Goes Both Ways

Having worked for many years in geriatric health care, I believed that ageism, age-related discrimination, happened most often towards older adults. It was only when I began my interview project “Our Thoughts on Aging” in 2010 that I realized that ageism can happen towards young people too. As I interviewed people from their 20’s into their 90’s, young adults shared their stories about ageism and people reminisced about ageism that had happened to them when they were young. It seems that as we move through life, there are ages and stages when we can find ourselves more vulnerable to ageism: adolescence, young adulthood and then again later, past the safe zone of “regular adulthood” when grey hair, wrinkles and frailty become visible.

Ageism runs both ways in the life cycle. You can be told you’re too young or too old. 

A close friend, Julia, shared with me a vivid incident that happened to her when she turned 13. She recalled an exchange with Laura, a friend of the family who was like an aunt to her. At the time of her 13th birthday Laura had said to her, “Now you’re thirteen, you’re not a child, not yet an adult. You’re a non-person.”

Julia remembered thinking, “It’s not true. Just because I’m a teen does not make me a non-person. How could she call anyone that? It’s so wrong!” She realized later this was Laura’s personal belief and attitude about teenagers.

Laura’s notions conflicted deeply with what Julia felt was the truth about herself and about being a teenager. Although she rejected Laura’s belief about teenagers, it still left a vivid mark. What if this had been someone closer or more important to her like her mom or dad? She may have slowly come to believe it and internalize this belief about herself. It was her first experience of ageism.

Laura had said something that is usually kept silent. What Laura had spoken is what many people say through action.

Do or did you ever feel like a non-person as a teen?

It seems that the shielded safe-age zone — the time when you’re free from potential missiles of ageism — is that time in-between pimples and wrinkles, between freshness and sageness. And when you’re in this “safe-age zone” of adulthood, it’s less likely that you’ll hear “you’re too young” or “too old”. You’re in the middle — protected and safe-guarded.

In the ageism zone, missiles are launched towards youth and seniors, sometimes from one to the other, sometimes it’s those in the safe middle launching active missiles at the others:

Kids these days!

Seniors are so slow. They take forever.

She’s become really old-timey.

Teens today think they know everything.

When was the last time you rolled your eyes or said something negative about the young person texting or attached to their iPod or on Facebook — again? I know I haven’t had the most complimentary thoughts! Or noticing the senior taking a long time walking across the intersection with their Rollator walker and hoping that it won’t be you someday?

And what to do with internalized ageism, those mixed messages that tell us that we are worthy if we look fresh and youthful, have a history of work experience, are married, own a home or have a sizable bank account?

What can we do about it? Consider these ideas:

  • Notice when you say “I’m too old” or “I’m too young” to yourself, or others who say that “you’re too old” or “you’re too young” to do something — it may not be the truth. It may be internalized ageism.
  • Find meaning and value in leisure. Too much leisure can leave people, at any age, feeling like they have little sense of purpose or value in their lives and in society. Too little leisure can create a sense of dispirit in one’s soul. If you’re interested in exploring this further, click here to read my blog post The Power of Leisure.
  • Find meaning in your aging. Read how other people find meaning in their aging process in Our Thoughts on Aging interview project.
  • Experience a balance of work and leisure throughout your life. Explore various kinds of work: school or academic work, personal growth work, volunteer work, house work, community work, philanthropic work, advocacy work, creative work, project work, and of course, work for money.