July 28, 2011

The term “ageism,” a set of beliefs about age, was coined in the late 20th century. It is a form of stereotyping that refers to prejudgement or discrimination against any particular age group, although it is typically viewed today as a negative perspective about the aged. Categorizing by chronological development, ageism can be framed either in positive or negative terms: babies are dependent/uninteresting, toddlers are explorers/oppositional, teenagers are defining their values/unreliable and self-centered, young adults are energetic/unfocused, middle-aged workers are successful/entrenched, retirees are carefree/useless, the elderly are to be honored/ forgetful and frail. One’s chronologic age or stage of development may influence the nature of the stereotypes held. Whether in the context of ageism, sexism, or racism, attributes which are viewed as positive in one group may be negative for another (such as labeling the same behavior as “forcefulness” in males and “aggressiveness” in females, or “forgetfulness” in the young as “senility” in the old).

References to ageism obtained through an Internet search and a review of the medical literature predominately refer to prejudice against the elderly—such as inequities in work opportunity, portrayal of the elderly in the media, and inappropriate medical care. In 2002, the American Psychological Association specified that “ageism is defined as a prejudice toward, stereotyping of, and/or discrimination against any person or persons directly and solely as a function of their having attained a chronological age which the social group defines as ‘old’.” The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Administration on Aging defines ageism as “a term expressing prejudice against older adults through attitudes and behavior.”

Government financial support for elderly individuals with little to no resources was initiated in the 1930s and 1940s as Social Security in the United States, and as Old Age Pensions in Britain, coupled with mandatory retirement ages. In the 1970s, political activists such as Maggie Kuhn in the United States pursued the notion that mandatory retirement was ageism, and by 1978, mandatory retirement was effectively abolished. Recent changes have raised the lower limit of “retirement age” (eligibility for full Social Security pension benefits) from 65 to 67, because of concerns regarding the solvency of the Social Security system.

Contemporary definitions of “old” or “elderly” are variable: old enough for membership in the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) at 50; retired from the workforce (which may be, depending on one’s occupation, as early as age 40 in the military/police/firefighter sphere, or 55, 60, or 75 as negotiated with employers); eligible for Social Security and Medicare benefits; gray-haired or wrinkled; unable to appreciate the current generation’s popular music/fashion/aspirations.

Ageism in its limited meaning (regarding discrimination against the elderly) tends to assume that the elderly are no longer able to contribute to society in a meaningful way, and drain the broader society’s resources because of a continuous decline in health and well-being. Census Bureau statistics challenge this concept, noting that a relatively small number of the elderly are in fact in nursing homes, and that these individuals tend to be the very oldest. Some research and anecdotes indicate that being segregated with other aged people and having limited opportunities for decision-making leads to declining function. Chronological age does not solely define function, though health and social policy might suggest otherwise.

While it is understood that discrimination against the elderly is prohibited, it is less well known that the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, which affects programs or activities receiving U.S. federal financial assistance, “applies to persons of all ages.” In both industrialized and non-industrialized societies, there are generally accepted ages or stages for the definition of childhood (dependent status) or adulthood (the age of consent or majority), with variation by societal norm or law. For example, adulthood may be defined as the onset of puberty, becoming a parent, entering a career, completing education, living independently, or solely by age (e.g., 13 or 18 or 21 years). In medical care, the context of the visit may determine the age of consent: minors may not be treated for injury without permission from a parent or guardian, but may receive care for sexually transmitted diseases or family planning without such permission.

Even though chronological age or distinguishing between “childhood” and “adulthood” are convenient ways to categorize people, this can overlook the possibility of continuing growth and development throughout the human life cycle. Just as children can be seen as progressing through recognizable stages or streams, so can adults. There are, not surprisingly, different models of child development rooted in various theories such as those of Piaget, Freud, Gesell, and Bandura. The work of Eric Erickson extended the notion of childhood developmental stages into adulthood, pairing ranges of chronological age (early adulthood, middle age, and later years) with psychosocial conflicts and their resolutions. Subsequently, the scholarly and popular literature has addressed various formulations of such phases or stages of adulthood and now includes the elderly.

Overall, we expect that age and experience will yield maturity; we expect a 3-year-old to handle adversity differently than a 30-year-old. But a 16-year-old may be wise and a 60-year-old foolish; a 30-year-old well settled into a career or still unfocused. Stages of development may overlap or be revisited. In contemporary society, we are likely to have multiple roles in family, work, friendship, and community. We may achieve maturity in one role but find it elusive in another, or devote energies to one sphere of life (work vs. family) or stream of development (intellect vs. social relationships) at the expense of another. Further, we may interrupt career or postpone family for a period of time, then reassess and refocus, no matter what our chronological age. In the late 20 th century, individuals as unlike as Julia Child and Jimmy and Roslyn Carter publicly embarked on new directions in their lifework at a time that many would be simply “retired.”

Age, like gender or race, may have less importance in defining one’s place in modern society than in previous generations. A new and positive “ageism” may take the forefront in the 21st century, expecting and encouraging persons to develop their strengths and skills without respect to chronological age.

SEE ALSO: Activities of daily living, Affirmative action, Dementia, Discrimination, Social support, United States Civil Rights Act of 1964, Youth


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