Time For A Reset: Reframing Ageist Attitudes
Time For A Reset: Reframing Ageist Attitudes
March 16, 2022
While perhaps not as overt as it was at the beginning of the pandemic (when politicians openly suggested that older adults sacrifice themselves for the good of the economy) ageism continues to be one of the few remaining “isms” that is openly voiced and often humorously bandied about in popular culture. In fact, in a recent survey cited in Forbes consumers age 55+ overwhelmingly agreed that older adults continue to be portrayed in marketing campaigns with “old stereotypes” despite the fact that ¾ of 55+ consumers are mentally, socially, and digitally active and account for over 40% of all consumer expenditures. It’s as if marketers just don’t see and understand the people to whom they are pitching. And it’s not only the marketing community that’s been called out. Some are suggesting that journalists and the mass media also continue to play a harmful role in promoting ageist stereotypes. In a recent op-ed in Psychology Today, one writer, who conducted his own analysis of the media’s treatment of baby boomers, suggests that “None of the hundreds of articles I read had anything good to say about the generation, a strange and disturbing thing given that my friends and I are finding our respective third acts of life to be a positive experience and that there is no evidence to suggest that we are harming society in any real way.”
So what gives? Are there efforts underway to educate, enlighten, and even strong-arm cultural influencers to reset their ageist stereotypes and realign their attitudes? As Helen Dennis, a journalist with expertise on aging, discusses in one of her recent columns, efforts abound to try to counter stereotypical depictions and promote more modern, complex, and positive images of aging. The question is, are they advancing the conversation on ageism? She cites many valuable nationwide and state-level activities, including the anti-ageism website Old School, the brainchild of anti-ageism activist Ashton Applewhite, who’s also created the website “Yo- Is This Ageist?” a guide for anyone trying to be sensitive to the ageist stereotypes they may be promoting. There’s also the Frameworks Institute Project on Aging, which works to provide research and insights that promote positive thinking about aging and older people. Even AARP has a nationwide initiative to “Disrupt Aging,” examining what it means to be an older adult and portray older adults, in today’s environment. Finally, the Gerontological Society of America, in collaboration with several other aging-focused groups and philanthropies, has a new initiative and website called Reframing Aging which seeks to provide guidance and support to the public to change the way we all talk about aging. The goal is to improve everyone’s understanding of what aging means and the many ways that older adults continue to contribute to our society.
But perhaps the tipping point against ageism will be the publication of a new book by gerontologist Tracey Gendron entitled Ageism Unmasked: Exploring Age Bias And How To End It. Covering the history of ageism and the present-day realities of aging stereotypes in society, the book is filled with practical suggestions for how to reconceptualize what it means to enter the later years of life. Starting from the premise that “everything we know about aging is wrong,” Gendron hopes to start a society-wide conversation about the pervasive and harmful effects of ageism in so much of our lives (including health care, employment, technology, social policy, and mass communication) and to stimulate a new set of expectations about what it means to grow older. Her own words make this clear: “Thinking of healthy aging or successful aging as the absence of disease or disability sets up unrealistic expectations. Because we are mortal beings, aging is going to include physical decline. Physical decline is a natural and normal part of the biological experience of aging. The beautiful thing is that we can be successful and healthy later in life with decline, disability and loss. It’s more realistic to acknowledge aging as a multidirectional process of change, that includes growth, adaptation, maintenance and loss. That is the whole picture of aging.” Bottom line? Our expectations, based on an outdated stereotypical notion of aging, set most of us up to fail. Instead, we need to understand “elderhood” (her preferred term) as multidirectional and multidimensional- and to finally put ageist generalities and stereotypes to rest. As with any demographic group, there are nuances and differences that mean one single “notion” of aging does not fit all. Setting up aging as only a one-direction descent into decline does us all a disservice- and robs us of opportunities for growth and development in the later stages of life.