5 Ageist Stereotypes That Really Need To Go Away Already

Ann Brenoff’s “On the Fly” is a column about navigating growing older ― and a few other things.

Stereotypes are the nasty buggers upon which many a misguided opinion is formed. Stereotypes may appear harmless to some people, but for those being stereotyped, they can be anything but. What we believe about any broad demographic or group is at the heart of how we treat them as individuals, how public policy is determined and how society comes to value or disregard them. 

Here are some of the ageist stereotypes and beliefs that older people hear too often:

1. People who work past 65 are clogging up the job pipeline.

Older people are working past traditional retirement ages and frequently hear how we are gumming up the pipeline for younger people. 

Last year, 19 percent of people 70 to 74 years old worked at least part time, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report. That’s up to a full decade beyond than the traditional retirement age of 65.

Older people can’t always and don’t always want to leave the workplace. For some, the reason is financial. For others, it’s about their emotional well-being and a desire to still contribute in a meaningful way. But when I hear that my generation’s failure to retire at 65 is somehow an impediment to younger people’s advancement, I can only ask, Why would anyone think that one generation’s right to work supersedes another’s?  

But that attitude has deep cultural roots. It underscores the cultural attitude toward and the level of respect for the elderly in the United States — or lack thereof. In other countries, older workers are held in higher value and treated with respect for their experience and wisdom. No one accuses them of being a clog in the plumbing that holds back others.

A recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report found the countries with the highest rates of people working beyond 65 were in Asia. Not coincidentally, that’s where older people are revered for their wisdom and a high value is placed on experience. In Indonesia, almost 51 percent of people 65 to 69 are employed. That figure is 45 percent in South Korea and just under 43 percent in Japan. 

In the United States, it’s 31 percent. 

Of course, not every older worker in the U.S. wants to work. Good for those who choose to retire. But everyone should be given a choice and not feel pressured to move on and move over. Our ability to work is not tied to our age any more than it’s tied to our skin color or gender identity ― and you certainly surely wouldn’t suggest those are reasons someone doesn’t belong in the workplace.

Does it make you cringe to hear someone say, “Women should stay home and leave the paycheck jobs to their husbands” or “I’m a white guy who can’t find a job because affirmative action gives preference to people of color?” Now substitute “older people.” That’s ageism, peeps.

2. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Just to set the record straight: Older people may not have been born with a cellphone in hand, but they actually can be taught how to attach a photo to an email. 

Please quit equating age with tech savviness. It’s a tired theme with cracks in its foundation. The Pew Research Center found that 31 percent of 75-to-79-year-olds own smartphones, 67 percent of adults 65 or older go online every day and 70 percent of older adults who use Facebook check it on a daily basis. Other Pew surveys found that older adults who say they get news on social media engage with news on these platforms at similar rates as social media news consumers who are 18 to 29.

Why would anyone think that people’s learning curve flatlines when they turn 50? Yet there’s real damage done when people assume that every older person is a tech illiterate.

Not to state the obvious, but who do you think taught all those recent college graduates their tech skills? Someone older, of course.

3. Older people are too sensitive.

When a joke isn’t funny and wounds people, is it still a joke? No, it isn’t ― and the “just joking” defense rightly doesn’t fly with gender discrimination, sexual harassment, racism and the like. 

Words matter, and language-based ageism is still ageism. A study published in Gerontologist magazine noted that ageism can be found both in explicit actions ― like hiring discrimination ― and implicit attitudes that live and thrive in our language.

Take these stereotypes readily found in popular culture: the birthday card image of an older adult in a diaper, the “senior moment” joke about the normality of memory loss and aging, commercials poking fun at older adults having sex.

Ageism, in the form of pervasive negative attitudes about older people, has been normalized and is widely accepted. It creeps up in cosmetics promoted as “anti-aging” (because aging is a bad thing and we should want to be “anti” it) or even under the guise of a compliment when a waiter addresses an older woman as “young lady.” The implication is that old is bad.

Language is power, and discrimination can’t be alleviated without language changes. As for “just joking,” let’s bury that one already.

4. Age discrimination isn’t a real thing.

Ageism may be the last bias left to be addressed. And just like its first cousins sexism and racism, it is very real to those who experience it.

More than 50 years after the Age Discrimination in Employment Act became law, nearly two-thirds of workers 55 to 64 cited their age as a barrier to getting jobs, according to a 2017 survey by AARP. In a large 2015 Tulane University study, researchers proved that age discrimination is rampant in hiring. They sent more than 40,000 resumes to 13,000 job openings posted online in 12 cities. To each job posting they sent three resumes representing different age groups (young, middle-aged and senior). Even though all the fictitious candidates had similar skills, older candidates received far fewer responses than the young or middle-aged workers.

It was ageism, pure and simple, said Laurie McCann, a senior litigation attorney for AARP Foundation. Why has ageism been allowed to thrive at a time when sexist and racism are called out and punished?

“It’s because the ADEA is one of those second-class civil laws,” she said.

The act was modeled on Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act but doesn’t have the same bite. Unlike Title VII, the ADEA does not allow the recovery of compensatory (e.g., emotional distress) or punitive damages, limiting them to unpaid wages or other forms of lost compensation. Unpaid wages alone don’t make such cases fiscally attractive for lawyers, McCann said. If lawyers aren’t involved, there is very little fear about deep-pocket settlements on the part of employers.

It certainly doesn’t take much to find hard evidence that age discrimination in hiring occurs unchecked. Seven of the top 18 Silicon Valley companies have a median employee age of 30 or younger, concluded a 2016 study by PayScale, a company that collects data on salaries. Statista put the median employee age in 2016 at AOL at 27, Facebook at 28, and Amazon at 31. (AOL is also owned by HuffPost’s parent company, Oath.)

“Workers should be able to be judged on their skills and abilities and not an arbitrary number,” McCann said, “and that’s not happening.” 

5. Retirement villages are great places for older people.

Harvard Business Review recently reported that as a result of age-segregated housing, many young people will go through their entire lives with little or no exposure to older members of society. It is easier to blame and dislike the faceless. 

A 2011 MetLife and National Association of Homebuilders study found that nearly one-third of people over the age of 55 live in age-segregated communities. A year later, research demographer Richelle Winkler found that U.S. age segregation is often as ingrained as racial segregation. And Cornell University professor Karl Pillemer connected the dots in a Next Avenue interview, calling the practice of age-segregated living a “dangerous experiment.”

HBR noted that age segregation “undoubtedly contributes to worries about a coming generational war” in which the needs of children are pitted against the needs of the elderly when it comes to increasingly scarce public resources.

“This is the most age-segregated society that’s ever been,” Pillemer said. “Vast numbers of younger people are likely to live into their 90s without contact with older people. As a result, young people’s view of aging is highly unrealistic and absurd.”

Unrealistic, absurd and riddled with stereotypes that are a poor substitute for reality.

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