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Dangerous mindset of ageism

Legislation against ageism is unlikely to change the way our society looks at the elderly. Photo: Shutterstock.com

Legislation against ageism is unlikely to change the way our society looks at the elderly. Photo: Shutterstock.com

In the 20th century, life expectancy in Western societies increased by about 30 years, higher than what was attained in the previous 5,000 years of human history. What used to be the experience of a few has now become the destiny of many.

Ageism is ingrained in the mindset of many and this type of discrimination manifests itself in various forms in our society. While many will readily profess that ageism is a dangerous mindset that undermines intergenerational solidarity, the reality is that most of us are ageists and the community we live in is permeated with ageism.

Ageism manifests itself in various ways and is often unintentional and well-meaning. There is usually a notion that people cease to become persons by having lived a specific number of years.  Some in the medical profession, for instance, may refuse to administer aggressive treatment to patients of a certain age because extending their life is hardly worth the effort.

Elderly people themselves can often unknowingly behave like ageists when they solemnly declare that age is ‘all in the head’. The deferral or denial of the realities of ageing only reinforces the stereotypes about old age. What is needed is a more significant commitment to health schemes that promote the proper management of the medical conditions that afflict old people.

But the most ruthless ageists are usually employers who actively discriminate against their older workers. Inherent in our business culture is the assumption that it’s natural for older workers to move aside for the younger ones. Early retirement schemes are the worst form of discrimination against older workers who are often pushed out of working life in what can best be described as ‘effective dismissal’.

It is not surprising that those managers who promote these schemes are frequently elderly people themselves but who believe that they are never ‘too old’.

Social psychologist Robert Butler describes these ‘exceptionalists’ in a very graphic way: “These elders consider themselves the fortunate exceptions to society’s negative view of old people. While they think of themselves as vigorous, productive and useful to society, they imagine most of their peers to be in bad shape, useless and boring.”

While many will readily profess that ageism is a dangerous mindset that undermines intergenerational solidarity, the reality is that most of us are ageists and the community we live in is permeated with ageism

The reality is that those who discriminate against their colleagues in this way are protected by their political patrons with whom they often communicate by nods and winks.

Another form of ageism is often practised by patronising politicians who never cease to praise the contribution that ‘our elderly people’ give to society.

To these politicians, the old are just delightful as long as they limit themselves to attending the University of the Third Age and keep themselves busy looking after their grandchildren. As long as the bulging ranks of older people fail to exploit their vast potential clout with political activism, they will continue to be treated in a disgraceful patronising way by political leaders.

Legislation against ageism is unlikely to change the way our society looks on the elderly. Proving age discrimination in court is difficult. Many just give up arguing against age discrimination. They get on with their lives because our community is so insensitive to this form of discrimination.

Laurie McCann, a senior attorney based in Washington, comments that “rarely is there a ‘smoking gun’ that shows an employer’s clear intent to discriminate. And courts are often quick to dismiss age-related comments as stray remarks.”

The Gray Panthers is an American intergenerational organisation dedicated to bringing together young, old, women, men, persons of all ethnic, racial and economic backgrounds for the promotion of social justice.

In one of its publications, entitled  Network, it gives some guidelines on how society should act to stamp out ageism. These recommendations range from the amusing to the very profound.

“Quit complementing people on how young they look” is their first advice as this perpetuates the age-related barriers.

“Promote intergenerational job sharing, part-time hours and no hiring or retirement to a plan based on chronological age” is yet another of their sobering advice.

But their best advice is a universal one that we will be wise to heed: “Fight ageism with two important weapons – knowledge and a willingness to approach every person, regardless of age, as an individual with unique strengths, weaknesses, options and opportunities.”

The pervasive and dangerous mindset of ageism in our society must not be combated through a confrontation between the merits of youth with old age but with the promotion of inter-generational solidarity.

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