Discrimination against the Elderly
American society has been described as maintaining a stereotypic and often negative perception of older adults. This negative and/or stereotypic perception of aging and aged individuals is apparent in such areas as language, media, and humor. For example, such commonly used phrases as over the hill and an old fart denote old age as a period of impotency and incompetence. The term used to describe this stereotypic and often negative bias against older adults is ageism. Ageism can be defined as “any attitude, action, or institutional structure, which subordinates a person or group because of age or any assignment of roles in society purely on the basis of age”(Webster 25). As an ism, ageism reflects a prejudice in society against older adults. The victims of bigotry and prejudice are generally referred to as minorities. This is not because they are necessarily fewer in number, but because they are deprived of the rights and privileges of the majority (the Aged 4).
Ageism, however, is different from other isms (sexism, racism etc.), for primarily two reasons. First, age classification is not static. An individual’s age classification changes as one progresses through life. Therefore, age classification is characterized by continual change, while the other classification systems traditionally used by society such as race and gender remain constant. From this we can conclude that denial of old age is a principal source of bigotry against those who are old now (the Aged 4). Second, no one is exempt from at some point achieving the status of old. Unless they die at an early age, they will experience ageism. The later is an important distinction as ageism can affect an individual on two levels. First, the individual may be ageist with respect to others. That is they may stereotype other people on the basis of age. Second, the individual may be ageist with respect to self so ageist attitudes may affect the self-concept.
We live in a culture that reveres youth. To be young is to be alive, sexy, and full of energy. To be old is to be “senile,” “worthless,” and having “one foot in the grave”(Online 1). This is the attitude most often seen in modern society. In general there are at least nine known major stereotypes that reflect prejudice towards senior citizens. These include illness, impotency, ugliness, mental decline, mental illness, uselessness, isolation, poverty and depression(Ageism 20). This discrimination allows the rest of us to separate ourselves from older people and view them as less than fully human(Online 1).So how old is old? Where do we draw the line? Well, around the 1900s in the United States old age began in ones thirties because the life expectancy was about forty-seven. In todays society most younger people define old age as somewhere in the sixties. When people get into their sixties, however, they define old as ten years older than me (Discrimination 6). When it comes to employment old age, there is a slight difference, especially when jobs are tight. Ageism may start at age forty-five or even younger. Companies can usually cut costs by replacing top older workers with younger, cheaper employees. Once fired, workers over the age of forty-five often face permanent employment because of todays ever-changing technology(Discrimination 14). This form of ageism has come to be referred to as economic ageism.
Research on ageism has come a long way. It is still relatively problematic, however. The use of primarily younger populations to study ageism represents a problem with ageism research. The bulk of ageism research utilizes children, adolescents, or young adults as subjects and examines their perception of older adults. Only a small amount of studies have examined the views of the population whom the construct affects most, older adults. Those studies, which have used an older subject population, have unfortunately used mainly institutionalized individuals as subjects. As a result, they do not represent the vast majority of older adults.
Another problem with much of ageism research is that it only examines the negative stereotypes of old age. More recent studies have suggested that while attitudes toward the aged are increasingly positive, they are still stereotypic. Therefore, ageism has been expanded to include positive stereotypic images. Elders have made substantial gains in status. Critics have recently begun to declare that various programs and services for seniors only have become positive ageism. However, this is rarely acknowledged, much less studied(Ageism 17).
Two additional problems are mainly theoretical in nature. First, ageism research rarely examines or attempts to understand the causes of ageism. So, while much theoretical work has been conducted concerning the factors contributing to ageism, little experimental research has been conducted in this area. Second, ageism research rarely examines the interaction between ageism and other isms. As many individuals are in a position to experience more than one prejudice, the interaction between these prejudices needs to be examined. For instance when ageism is combined with sexism, it is called double jeopardy. The term for ageism, sexism, and racism collectively against one person is triple jeopardy(Ageism 11).
Ageism, along with every other prejudice, is an appalling subject to face. It is not just going to go away. Great advancements toward ending ageism have been made in the United States. Congress passed a bill called the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which prevents people from getting fired for being too old. Various groups such as the American Association of Retired Persons have been formed to fight for senior citizen rights. Life expectancy has risen thirty years in the past century. Since 1960, there has been a 100 percent increase in those over the age of sixty-five and a 274 percent increase of those over eighty-five. The so-called baby boom generation, those Americans born in the 1950s are seventy-six million strong and will make up sixteen percent of the population in at least ten states by 2020(the Aged 251). It is expected that the life expectancy will exceed 100 by the end or the twenty-first century. That is just something to think about. We have no choice but to deal with the ageing process as individuals. With all this in mind, I believe the following quote sums up the entire paper and my values instilled in me as a younger person. We are all growing older, every day. Which means, if you live long enough, someday you too, are going to be a senior citizen. That’s why it makes a lot of sense to approach everyone you meet with kindness and respect, no matter what their age. We all have something to contribute and when we look beyond labels, we include people of all ages within the circle of our community. That way all of us become richer as we share in each other’s life experiences(Online 1).
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