By Veronica Fonseca
Ageism, as the World Health Organisation defines it, is “the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age”. Ageism is much less talked about than its other discriminatory “-ism” counterparts, like racism and sexism. Still, we see it and its impact on our everyday lives.
How did Ageism come about?
The word ‘ageism’ was first coined and used in 1969 by American Physician, Robert N. Butler, when interviewed on age and race fears in Maryland, USA. Ageism initially pointed towards discrimination against the old, but later encompassed any discrimination towards a person because of their age. Still, most of the bias seems to be directed towards the elderly given our ‘youth obsession’.
Our youth obsession is often understood as a fixation on looking and feeling young, with youthfulness valued like a currency. Perhaps, the best way to understand this fixation is through examples of it. Many magazines publish lists of successful young people such as the Forbes’ 30 under 30, or Fortunes’ 40 under 40. Such lists make it apparent that more than their achievements, it is their young age that makes these achievements worth celebrating. The fashion and beauty industry is also another place where our youth obsession is evident. Beauty products, for instance, aim to make us look young and youthful, and the ultimate goal one should reach would be having ‘baby smooth skin’. The ideal body type is also closer to a child’s body as written by fashion blog, College Fashion. With such an obsession, it is unsurprising that while ageism affects people of all ages, the old are relatively more affected.
Ageism in our everyday lives
Ageist attitudes pervade our everyday lives. We place fake ages on dating apps because our real ones are too embarrassing to reveal. We buy anti-ageing creams because wrinkles are ugly even though they should appear with the natural flow of time. We are told that we lack credibility at work simply because we are the youngest. We blame the older man for taking too long to cross the road, when we may have set too short a time for the traffic light instead. All these actions and experiences are part of how we understand and perceive ourselves. They point towards a fear or shame about ageing or about our age when we really should not need to feel that way.
A big part of ageism perhaps has to do with the changing demographics of the global population and the fact that everyone is living longer. Most people now have access to an age that previous generations could barely reach. Yet we continue to apply the same understanding and beliefs towards each age group. For example, the retirement age of 65 has not changed since 1935, even though the global average life expectancy of both sexes has increased by about 10 years. We continue to believe the evergreen trend that education is for the young, career pathways for the middle-aged, and leisure after retirement for the old. But with our increasing lifespan comes the perception that the older generation has more and more time for leisure. This new notion has given birth to a new social problem—the older generation is often seen as a socio-economic burden.
The conception of the elderly as a socio-economic burden has been on the rise across all generations. It seems to stem from traits that we hold dear to our hearts, such as the capacity of one to financially support his/herself, the level of knowledge one has earned, and the ability to care for oneself. We have come to assume that just because the elderly do not go to work, they cannot upkeep themselves. This misconception is reinforced by our culture of measuring a person’s value by their economic productivity, as mentioned by writer Ashton Applewhite in her book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. However, older people are on their way to becoming the group that spends the most by 2030, which demonstrates the wealth older people possess. While the elderly were once hailed as people of wisdom, the accessibility of knowledge from books or the web has diminished this belief, contributing to our ageist attitudes.
Studies have also shown that society imagines the elderly as vulnerable and frail beings. On the contrary, Applewhite found that over half of the society’s oldest, aged 85 or up, can complete daily activities without help. Closer to home, research by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation showed that a large part of the elderly population in Singapore has a reasonable level of independence and might be more resilient than we expect them to be. Perhaps, the label of the elderly as ‘burdens’ exists only in our misconceptions of them and not in the group’s realities.
Ageism also persists in the workplace. In a 2020 study by Randstad on ageism in the Singaporean workplace, 57% of 1000 respondents felt that they received fewer training opportunities as they aged. For many Singaporeans, work takes a big part of their life. Many start working in their 20s and retire in their 60s, yet ageist discriminations can limit the experience.
In recent times, our ageist attitudes have also been amplified due to the pandemic. Locally, a Channel News Asia article reports that the middle aged and older workers bear the brunt of the wave of retrenchments due to the pandemic. This was attributed to the ageist attitude that older people are less productive and have lesser chances to hone their skills. The Bukit Merah View COVID-19 cluster also revealed our ageist attitudes in the comments made towards the situation. Sng Hock Lin, a PhD student in Gerontology at SUSS, comments that many pointed their fingers at the elderly for their inability to follow the safe management rules. Rather than offering compassion, they chose to put the blame on older adults. This was often done in generalised comments, which contribute to negative stereotypes. In a sensitive time such as the pandemic, we have allowed ageism to proliferate in our attempts to make sense of and ameliorate the situation.
Ageism is ironic and an overgeneralization
Ageism is ironic. It attempts to divide generations, highlight our differences and frame each group as separate. Yet it is passed down and amplified from generation to generation - the same vessel it attempted to divide. In a Journal Article titled ‘Ageism, Passed Down from Generation to Generation’, it writes that our perceptions of what each age means are fed to us from as young as 4 years old. We grow up engrained with a certain view of our aging population and of our self perceptions of ageing. These perceptions are often understood as our perceptions of others, as if we have forgotten that we all too are constantly ageing. The stereotype against others, will soon be a stereotype against ourselves.
At the core of ageism, we have generalised each age, even though everyone is ageing at different rates. We have assumed that the frail 80-year-old we met is representative of all 80-year-olds there have been and will be. We have created misconstrued images of others, which most frighteningly happens to be our future or past selves. Ageism has real mental and physical health consequences. They include a decreased will to live and live healthy, and shortened lifespan among others. Perhaps as Aston suggests, we should view age on a spectrum, rather than in categories. We are always older or younger than someone we know. Most importantly, this number also means something different for everyone. We should not let our age define us, but instead define what the numbers in our age should mean for us in our own lives.
All images via Rawpixel.
Veronica Fonseca is a Business Management Undergraduate, majoring in Communications Management and Global Asia, with the Lee Kong Chian School of Business at Singapore Management University.