According to the US Census, “By 2030, more than 20 percent of U.S. residents are projected to be aged 65 and over”. This means that 1 in every 5 Americans will be at retirement age in the very near future. So why is this group constantly prejudiced in the work place and elsewhere especially in a society that will call out people for racism or sexism in a red scare fashion? Isn’t ageism getting old.
A Disheartening Situation
My wife Jessica is a member of a social media group which is connected with our local community. This particular group provides a space for people to give away unwanted items to others within the community. It’s become a great way to meet new people locally as well as acquire some useful things like clothes, toys and such.
The group is a place for members to get social support from the community. It’s an open forum of sorts. Recently a member of the group spoke about how hard it was to find a job as an older employee. It’s my understanding that she is middle aged but I’m not certain and I’ll leave out any details I do know for the sake anonymity.
Finally obtaining employment after months of searching she seemed to run into a familiar problem. She had expressed how often her younger co workers were rude and disparaging to her in the work place because of her age. I believe she ended up leaving the position which I’m sure was a difficult decision and a hardship to her family as well.
It was disheartening to hear about this situation to say the least. I mean this is blatant work place discrimination. According to an article from the Journals of Gerontology regarding the problem of ageism “We know that these stereotypes contribute to widespread discrimination against older people in employment, medical care, institutionalization, and even in families”.
One might think that in a society that proclaims the importance of acceptance that ageism wouldn’t exist. I mean after all it’s extremely unpopular to be racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist or to adopt almost any other form of discrimination. So we have to ask why is this allowed and why does it seem so prevalent?
Illegal but it happens?
The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 clearly outlines how age discrimination in the workplace is federally illegal. Furthermore according to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission “Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA)”. This includes harassment from supervisors, coworkers and even customers.
So to put it frankly ageism in the workplace is NOT LEGAL. It just happens. Like many laws, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act is meaningless unless people enact it. I’ve witnessed discrimination in the work place and suggested that those discriminated against get a lawyer and hold their employer accountable. I know there is much stigma around law suits but this is how we enact our laws. When more employers are taken to court then they will either be forced to change their practices or go out of business. There are even lawyers dedicated to these types of cases.
The answer to our second question is much more complicated. Why is ageism prevalent? Why does it seem to exist everywhere and why is it OK in popular culture to say completely awful things about a person just because they’re older?
Truthfully there are too many facets of this too go over. If you want to know more then check out the link below for the article entitled “An Inconvenienced Youth” however I would like to highlight 3 key factors.
Firstly our culture focuses so much on generational differences. We name each generation some quaint cutesy names like Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Milleniels and so on. In naming each group we create stereotypes about each other. People say things like “Millenials just don’t understand how to work hard” or “Boomers are just out of touch”. Classifying generations in this way makes us focus more on our differences than our similarities. It creates the us vs them mentality. Labeling is labeling.
Secondly we live in a culture that has placed a heavy focus on youth as beauty. This is such an obsession that reality TV competition judges get insanely excited when the contestant reveals that they’re only 14. I’m talking women judges too. It’s bizarre. The older a person is the less interesting they are which means they better have an amazing talent.
Finally the idea of getting older scares people because it reminds us that someday we’re going to die. Fighting to be alive is a key component in our genetic makeup. We wouldn’t have made it this far otherwise. When people segregate older generations this is a way they can distance themselves from the idea of getting older and eventually dying. Just like children who hide under the false security of a blanket against shadows so do adults hide in their own delusions.
The Front-line of Inclusion
So let’s circle back around to the whole ageism in the work place thing. If we are to have a society built on ideas of inclusion then we must include all groups. When Dr. King spoke about the injustices of this society he didn’t exclude groups because it was inconvenient. He spoke about the injustices of not just “his” people but of all people. Surprisingly perhaps he even spoke about the injustices of poor white Americans. That’s what inclusion looks like.
In a capitalist society the workplace is the front line of inclusion. Employment is the lifeblood of most Americans. Without work people starve. The right to work is the right to life. In a time when so many people are struggling we should remember this. If an older person is still working or going back to the workforce it’s probably because they have economic reason to or maybe it keeps them active. In either case it’s a matter of life and death.
In regards to what needs to be done concerning this problem there is no simple fix. As a society we must harness our ancestral ideologies that valued elders. We must accept the aging process and change our ideas of beauty. Undoubtedly technology will change those ideas as well. Employers must also be held to a much higher level of accountability in creating an inclusive environment and stopping all forms of discrimination in the work place.
Jennifer M. Ortman, Victoria A. Velkoff, and Howard Hoga, An Aging Nation: The Older Population in the United States, U.S. Census Bureau, May 2014, https://www.census.gov/prod/2014pubs/p25-1140.pdf
U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Harassment, U.S. Equal EmploymentOpportunity Commission, https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/harassment.cfm
U.S. Equal EmploymentOpportunity Commission, The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, U.S. Equal EmploymentOpportunity Commission, https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/adea.cfm
An Inconvenienced Youth? Ageism and its Potential Intergenerational Roots, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar 26 2012, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3838706/
Caroline Baum, The ugly truth about ageism: it’s a prejudice targeting our future selves, Guardian News & Media Limited or its affiliated companies, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/sep/14/the-ugly-truth-about-ageism-its-a-prejudice-targeting-our-future-selves
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