Is a world without ageism possible?

At what point did you start to feel “old”?

Was it a sudden proliferation of gray hairs too plentiful to pluck out from the roots? Maybe it was when you noticed people were adding “for your age” after telling you you looked great.

Perhaps the biggest changes were internal: you finally broke down and bought your first pair of readers, you developed a penchant for afternoon naps, or you discovered while thumbing through a celebrity magazine that you couldn’t recognize anyone under 40.

Whatever changes you’ve chalked up to “getting old”, chances are you haven’t celebrated most of them. Because while many virtues are said to accompany life’s later years (experience, knowledge, wisdom, maturity) the downsides of aging always seem to outnumber them in the end.

Maybe that’s because our culture is filled with messaging that to age is to endure loss after loss: the decay of beauty and sex appeal, diminished hearing and cognitive abilities, a shrinking capacity for learning new things. To age is apparently to stand by helplessly as life’s doors close on us, one by one.

But are the drawbacks of aging justification for a culture of ubiquitous ageism? What philosophy dictates that those with fewer remaining years should be valued less by society, not more? Why do we assume we can draw assumptions about a person’s abilities, strengths and weaknesses based on their age alone?

Disease, illness, disability, cognitive impairment, and death come for people of all ages. On a practical level, the answer of how many years someone has left, or how well their mind and body will hold up over time, owes more to genetics, lifestyle, and luck than to some broadly applied expiration date based on the national average for life expectancy.

When turning to the issue of workplace ageism, arguments for hiring younger workers over older ones all but collapse under the weight of the facts. Studies have shown younger workers are less productive, less reliable, and more likely to quit than their older counterparts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median tenure for workers ages 25 to 34 is just 2.8 years, compared with 9.9 years for employees ages 55 to 64.

Ageist assumptions about older workers, then, can seem less about the realities of aging and more about a culture that favors the young for simply being young.

In Western culture, older people are systematically removed from society and herded into retirement communities and nursing homes, compounding the fear and shame of growing older. As technology continues to develop at breakneck speeds, the role elders once played in passing down information and knowledge to younger generations has been replaced by Google searches and seven-minute YouTube videos. We are moving fast, communicating in 140-characters-or-less and conducting our lives through handheld devices. We just don’t have time to sit down and listen to older people.

One obvious fly in the ointment of youth culture is that the period of life regarded as “young” remains stubbornly short. In fact, we have less than 20 years after reaching legal adulthood to enjoy the cachet of youth before we feel middle age nipping at our heels. As a result, people are spending more money than ever on cosmetic procedures in a quest to stay forever young — or at least to appear that way.

“Lacking a culturally viable ideal of old age, our civilization does not really harbor a concept of the whole of life,” wrote the late psychoanalyst Erik Erikson.

But what would happen if society changed the way it thought about older people? What if we woke up tomorrow to find the world regarded people in their 60s, 70s and beyond as relevant, valuable members of society?

What if in this world gray hair was considered no less tasteful than shades of blonde, red, or brown? Or if wrinkles and lined skin were viewed as common signs of adulthood, with no stigma attached? What if for women the years following menopause were considered not through the lens of lost fertility but as a period of great freedom tempered by intelligence, maturity and wisdom?

What if society presumed older people pursued the same activities generally associated with youth: taking college courses, changing careers, exploring one’s sexuality, following new ideas?

Ageism is the last socially accepted “ism”, built on a foundation of stigma and stereotypes disguised as inescapable truths. And because age is the metric by which we are ruthlessly judged, we internalize the shame of getting older by lying about our age, feeling resentment toward younger people, or sitting out activities we think we’re “too old” to enjoy. We suppress our sexuality and embrace loneliness for fear of being rejected for our age, because we think it’s “too late” to dive back into the dating pool.

None of these things are a ‘natural’ part of aging. All are symptoms of growing older in an ageist society.

We know this in part because studies show those who undergo cosmetic surgery to look younger report increases in happiness and self-esteem, develop healthier habits and may even live longer. But while plastic surgery offers a temporary fix to the “problem” of aging in a superficial society, we shouldn’t ignore what the studies also show: that ageism, not aging, is what sucks about getting older.

When society stops viewing us through the lens of ageism, the world opens up to us again. Professional and social opportunities come back within reach, and we feel empowered to pursue new opportunities and goals. When we are treated as viable, valuable members of society, our health, happiness, and quality of life significantly improves.

Dismantling ageist beliefs is not easy — subtle (and not-so-subtle) cues that getting older is bad permeate every inch of popular culture. But by allowing this “ism” to go unchallenged, we sacrifice quality of life not only for our parents and older community members, but for our, and our children’s, future selves.

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