Are you too old, or too young?
What is Ageism?
Have you ever been told that you need to graduate in time or to find a job soon because once you’re hitting your 30s nobody will want you anymore?
There seems, today, to be a curse on your 30th birthday. Companies are more reluctant to hire you, changing career is out of the questions, following your dreams becomes itself a dream. Once you get to 30 years of age, your life becomes, basically, fixed and unchangeable.
The phenomena described above, unfortunately too poorly addressed as of today, takes the name of “Ageism”, a way of stereotyping and/or discriminating individuals based on their age.
The term was coined in 1969 by Robert Neil Butler to describe discrimination against seniors and patterned on sexism and racism. This 60s idea of ageism has, today, radically changed taking different forms and direction by going from a discrimination towards seniors, to a discrimination against younger generations and has been exacerbated by the rigid division into “generational patterns” (millennials, gen X, gen Z) established in the 1990s.
The causes of this discrimination can vary among those generational patterns. If younger people tend to see seniors as obstacles to their development and to the realization of their ideals, both on an individual, social and political level; elderlies can be instead deeply ageist, having internalized a lifetime of negative stereotypes about aging.
A discrimination for every age, and a context for every discrimination.
Ageism can take different forms, it is not just linked to intergenerational exchange and, instead, depends on the context of the social life in which it is “used”. The idea is that for every sphere of social life we can find a fixed bias related on age grounds going either from older people to younger generations, or the contrary.
Adultism, for example is a predisposition towards adults, which is seen as biased against younger generations; adultcentrism is defined as an exaggerated egocentrism of adults; adultocracy is the social convention which defines “maturity” and “immaturity,” placing adults in a dominant position over young people, both theoretically and practically; gerontophobia is the fear of elderly people.
If those are the faces of age-related biases, as we contextualize them, we come to see how the framework is also fundamentally important in defining those biases.
Ageism is often perpetrated implicitly being a result of a behavioral imitation that goes from adults to children and that is transmitted intergenerationally.
Contrary to common and more obvious forms of stereotyping, such as racism and sexism, ageism is more resistant to change. It is, indeed, yet to be officially recognized in many countries (including Italy) as a real form of discrimination, this impliying often a lack of proper education in its recognition.This creates the basis for a self-fulfilling prophecy where elderlies transfer their implicit biases to children, that become uneducated seniors that will teach children in a vicious circle that becomes harder every year to break.
Ageism on the Workplace
If it is not implicit, ageism can instead be found in a variety of professional contexts.
Employers often have negative attitudes towards older workers and perpetrate age discrimination even though older workers are not necessarily less healthy, less educated, less skilful or productive than their younger counterparts.
This aspect of agist discrimination began to appear very early in the 1800s in the medical and healthcare sector where it was believed that a human being was given only so much life-force with which to live on. The older you were, so, the less energy you had to dedicate to your job and the less valuable you were for the workplace.
Even though this theory has been long discredited by recent research, the ageist discrimination on employment and workforce remains firmly rooted and thriving within its practice.
As of today, many countries have already tried to legally addressed this problem, but establishing a legal framework is often not enough as loopholes can frequently be found. A notorious example is, here in Italy, the one of the “Bassanini law”.
Introduced in 1997, this law legally abolished any age limit for individuals to participate in public works, but at the same time provided the necessary exemptions for specific works and activities (such as military service).
And, as one could expect, it soon got out of hand, to the point when banks and public entities started to self-register in those “special-need work categories” and started to openly discriminate against people over the age of 40.
Ageism is not just contextualized into the workplace or into implicit assumptions; it is also firmly established in the sectors of fine arts, performing arts and fashion modelling.
Visual ageism relies heavily on stereotyped images of perfect bodies and on idealized standards of beauty. In this case, and especially regarding performing arts or fashion, there is an overexaggerated stress on searching for the perfect body to display on a stage.
When this happens, 35 is the maximum limit to your performance.
The consequences of this discrimination are, in this example especially, far worse than the ones related to a simple discrimination in the workplace.
More often than not artists, dancers and actors dedicate the entirety of their time in perfecting their art, starting at early ages (usually 16 or 18) and foregoing their higher education to graduate in fine art academies. This overspecialization, however, represents a problem when the artist gets to its 35th birthday and it’s replaced by a younger graduate that is considered more visually appealing, more physically performant and more valuable than an experienced old performer. The older performer is so, in its career change, triple discriminated for
- its lack of a secondary professional qualification (other than its artistic education)
- its old age that precludes him to continue performing
- its old age that precludes him to find another job
Age biases also take the form of a digital divide.
In this case the problem derives from younger generations that, working daily in contact with technologies, relegate older individuals as “digital dunces”.
The consequence of this divide are twofold:
- They separate digital users from non-digital users
- They separate different types of digital users
The first category is fairly easy to identify and involves simply elderly generations that never or seldom used digital instruments and that are still refusing to do so. This divide is however being reduced by increase in income and simplified access to technology.
The second category represents the riskiest one, especially from a sociopolitical standpoint.
Social media act, indeed, as aggregators and creators of communities; we saw it fairly well when a bunch of reddit-users broke the GameStop stock trade market by simply using the power of a community that they were able to create.
The problem is created when each social media is informally assigned to a determined age range.
If tiktok is colonized by teenagers, Instagram by individuals in their 20s and 30s, some other platforms such as Facebook become risky conveyors of fake news and creators of dangerous communities of individuals.
The absence of a counterbalance, of a second opinion in each one of those communities that social media create falls into the sphere of confirmation bias: the tendency to search for and receive only the information we are inclined to accept as true.
The dangers of those communities, fueled by their biases and self-confirming each other’s beliefs are many and well represented by the GameStop example or by the anti vax movement, this latter created by communities of individuals in their 40s and 50s on Facebook.
Breaking the prophecy
The ones shown above are all examples of how, being implicitly or manifestly declared by institution, ageism represents an overall negative externality impacting society.
We have shown how, however, this problem does not really rely on factual basis, rather it comes to be a socio-historical residue that takes the form of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Addressing all the forms that this bias can take can be difficult but educating more on its existence can be an essential starting point.
We’ve seen, indeed, how policies implemented against this discrimination bias resulted to be useless in most of the cases, not because of a wrong formulation, but because of the willingness of human beings to search continuously for loopholes to those policies.Implementing educational programs, starting from young ages, can help eradicate this problem at its core. Recognizing ageistic problems and divides will not only enhance social integration but will also avoid the risks deriving from the aggregation of individuals and the net separation of generational groups that can, and will, lead to dangerous consequences.