It is a commonly known fact that today, because of advances in medical science and a generally healthier lifestyle, that people in Western countries die at a much more advanced age than was the case a few centuries ago. In such a society, it is therefore quite ironic that ageism is one of the most insidious and prevalent prejudices today. Its prevalence can be blamed upon the fact that people who are guilty of this form of prejudice are not as such aware that they are being ageist. The collective Western consciousness has been so influenced by both the media and generally held opinions about age, that ageism has become part of who the developed society is. Because of this, authors and editors such as Todd Nelson note that not much research has been done on the topic of ageism. To break this trend, books such as Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice Against Older Persons examine not only the nature of ageism, but also the things that encourage this type of prejudice, as well as what can be done to stop it.
The most important contribution of the book to intellectual society is its focus on an issue that has generally been ignored. Older people are generally "invisible" and discounted for their inability to do everything that younger people can. When compared to sexism and racism, ageism has enjoyed very little attention. Yet it is a growing problem.
This is particularly so as the older people in society are increasing. Because they take better care of their general health, many older people are still quite capable of working and contributing to society. However, many are forced to retire because of specific norms and conditions attached to their age. Older people are discounted, regardless of the fact that many of them are still active.
To promote an understanding of this issue, there are several underlying themes addressed by the various authors in the book. These themes challenge the reader not only to examine his or her own prejudices and beliefs about older people, but also those beliefs held by society as a whole regarding these matters. To accomplish this, the book is organized into three sections: the origins of ageism, the effects of ageism, and reducing ageism in the future. The first part then explains the nature of ageism in terms of its history. The fact that people are still prejudiced towards older people demonstrates that the traditional view of the older person as feeble and worthless remains even today, and even when this is observed to no longer be the case.
This is often perpetuated by the media, which tends to glorify youth and physical beauty above the wisdom and additional capability that comes with age. Indeed, few older people are used in television shows and films. A common trend is that older actors tend to become redundant in the face of their younger counterparts.
The effects of ageism also manifest themselves in the workplace. In addition to being obliged to retire after a certain amount of years at work, older people struggle to return to the workplace, should they choose to do this. The effect of this is that the country loses a valuable and vital sector of its workforce. In addition to capability, older people can also bring a wealth of experience and wisdom to the workplace, which they can impart to their successors.
Another interesting fact mentioned by the book is that ageism is not necessarily limited to older people. Young people are often the hearers of criticism like being too young to go out too late, or being too young to own a car, and so on. Older people, on the other hand, could assume that the younger generation is prone to violent and immoral behavior. They may go so far as to avoid interactions with this generation because of fear. However, these types of ageism is generally less damaging than that against older people. Very young people have a future as capable adults. Older people, on the other hand, do not have any hope of returning to a sector of society that is generally respected.
The fact remains that age is one of the first things we use to indicate a person's competency and abilities. We tend to assume that older people have rigid ideals and are inflexible in their opinions, for example. The workplace assumes that, after a certain age, people are unable to deliver a proper level of service.
According to the authors, one of the main reasons why ageism is so prevalent is the fact that being aware of a person's age, or even mentioning it in social interactions, is not offensive by nature. Hence, this general social acceptance of the age issue could be harmful in terms of the assumptions that it brings with it. Employment, health care and public policy, for example could promote discriminatory practices as a result, without any fear of repercussion.
Another fact that sets ageism apart from other sorts of prejudice is that it applies to everybody, regardless of other characteristics that set human beings apart from each other. This the irony that lies at the heart of ageism. Everybody, if they are lucky enough to live that long, will reach a stage at which they are no longer young. Yet the lack of sympathy, caring, and indeed respect that the young display towards older people is nothing short of staggering. This is why the authors hold that ageism has been institutionalized as a socially acceptable paradigm.
The view of older people as feeble and incapable is perpetuated by the perception of "unusual" older people who are still active. An old woman who exercises every day or who climbs Mount Everest is, for example, "exceptional."
On the other hand, people who reach the age of 50 are referred to, although jokingly, as "over the hill" by joking at birthday parties, with greeting cards or jokes. The same would not be tolerated for racism or sexism.
Another factor that sets ageism apart from sexism, according to the authors, is that there is no explicit hatred towards older people. Those who express negativity towards this growing sector of society are often not even aware that their attitudes are particularly negative. This, along with the fact that ageism is a generally accepted paradigm, makes it very difficult to counteract. Indeed, the authors even note that the particular attention we pay to older adults who do "exceptional" things is in itself ageist. Similarly, a focus on "successful" or "productive" ageing perpetuates these attitudes, as those who do not consciously focus on this type of ageing are seen as failures who should be feared or at least avoided.
An important aspect of the irony of ageing is that our ageist attitudes are not so much directed towards what we see as the unknown and incomprehensible "other," but rather against future and undesirable versions of ourselves. The fact that our attitude is not only towards the aging process in general, but also towards our own aging process, personal factors cannot be separated from the political or professional ageist paradigms. This is what makes its study and attempts to curb it so complex. Indeed, the very researchers who study the phenomenon need to be aware of their own tendency towards ageism and their own feelings regarding their own ageing process.
The authors also note that our own fear of illness, decline and death often lies at the heart of ageism. We all want to live as long as possible, but we do not want to pay the prices of old age for it. We therefore either attempt to avoid older people who represent our fears, or we make jokes about it to avoid the horror of our own future.
One of the things I like most about the book is the fact that it offers solutions to a problem that seems to be a perpetual part of the society within which we function. Several authors, for example, suggest that a "mindful" approach be taken towards the world. These approaches are to help individuals avoid ageism by manes of different identity styles and identity assimilation. Cleverly, the authors suggest that discrimination between people rather than against them should be increased to achieve a more balanced view of older people.
These attitudes should involve education and critical thinking. The authors suggest that young people should be educated on the nature of ageism in themselves and others, as well as in how to develop mindful approaches towards others. This is one of the things that makes this book so important to education and sociology today. Indeed, educational programs that encourage critical thinking and non-prejudiced attitudes can usefully include this book. Ageism, although in many ways differing from other forms of prejudice, has just as little right to exist in a free and fair society as racism, sexism, and others. For this reason, researchers, academics, and indeed society in general should work together to eradicate all forms…