Ageism in the USA: The paradox of prejudice against the elderly

ASHTON APPLEWHITE: All prejudice is rooted in seeing a group as other than ourselves. Ageism is unique and uniquely weird in that that other is us, our own future older selves. It's rooted in this crazy idea that somehow if we eat enough kale, or don't think about it, we're not going to become old, when, of course, actually, no one wants to die young, and we all aspire to getting old.

And if we can become an old person in training, which is simply to form, like just a little leap of the imagination and acknowledge, someday I'm going to get old. That older you can be as far off on the horizon as you need it to be. But if you acknowledge that you, of course, are someday going to get old, and PS, it might not even all be so terrible, then you never get stuck on that hamster wheel of age denial. You are more likely to look at and listen to the older people around you, and make friends of all ages, which is so important, for people everywhere on the age spectrum.

America is a deeply consumer driven society and deeply influenced by popular culture. And neither of those are friends to aging. If you look at pop culture, if you look at advertising, if you look at billboards, younger people are doing and selling all the fun stuff. Older people never seem to do anything, but a few rich ones with great hair get to go on cruises. And everyone else just stays home and takes drugs, and not the fun drugs either. If a group is missing from the popular conversation, then we don't notice its concerns and we're not awake to it.

Over 50% of workers over 50 leave their jobs involuntarily. They are either fired or forced out. There is this massive growing body of workers. And we're talking 50 and up, we're talking people with 20 or 30 more years in which to support themselves. Most of them no longer have traditional pensions to support themselves. So they're thrown on their own ways they have to draw on Social Security earlier, which means that they get less out of the bucket. And if any younger people are thinking, well, too bad, you had a really good run of it, two things to think about. Social Security can very easily be fixed with very small changes, like, hello, taxing businesses at a higher rate, unlike Medicare, which really is a huge snake pit and very complicated to fix. But I hope there will be ton of Social Security left for my children and grandchildren. And I think it's very easy to make that happen.

But also, if older people can't support themselves, who is going to support us? You know you can't take us out and shoot us, even if you want to. And the world is full of grandparents who help their kids with tuition, with childcare. More resources have always flowed from older people to younger people, which seems entirely appropriate to me. So we really, really need to be careful about old versus young framing in economic arenas or anywhere else.

Another place you hear old versus young logic applied is the workforce. If only those old people would retire or get the heck out of dodge so we could have their jobs. When jobs are really few, if the only job in town is a barista at Starbucks, and a bunch of people are competing for them, that's true in the narrowest sense. You might have a 19-year-old and a 59-year-old who both really need that job. But in general, older and younger workers do not compete for the same jobs. And more tellingly, the amount and nature of labor is not fixed. Economists call this the fallacy of the lump of labor. And it has been debunked countless times. Otherwise, when women flooded into the workforce, all these guys would have been put out of work. And that's not the way it works. Or the time-honored example for Marxism, about Polish work factory workers and Irish factory workers competing, instead of organizing and striking to have their employer pay them all a decent wage.

Prejudice does that. It pits us against each other in order to maintain the status quo. We are facing an unparalleled set of challenges. I'm thinking in particular the health of the planet. Older people and younger people are going to have to collaborate to solve these problems. So when you hear old versus young rhetoric, question it.

  • Prejudice is typically perpetrated against 'the other', i.e. a group outside our own.
  • But ageism is prejudice against ourselves — at least, the people we will (hopefully!) become.
  • Different generations needs to cooperate now more than ever to solve global problems.


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