By Maddy Dychtwald – Co-founder of Age Wave
Back in the 1960s, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” was the baby boomer’s battle cry. Now the youngest boomer is 51, and the very ageism we helped solidify is a problem we need to help dismantle.Robert Neil Butler was a physician, gerontologist, psychiatrist, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, who was the first director of the National Institute on Aging.
Dr. Robert Butler, often considered the father of gerontology, coined the word “ageism” and explained its dangers: “Old people are categorized as senile, rigid in thought and manner, old-fashioned in morality and skills….Ageism allows the younger generations to see older people as different from themselves; thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings.”
With longevity on the rise and 76 million baby boomers already between the ages of 51 and 69, we’re experiencing a new, more dynamic version of later life, and our entire society stands to benefit from stopping ageism in its tracks. Besides being ugly, hurtful and disrespectful, ageism’s pervasiveness prevents society from benefiting from the talent, skills and wisdom baby boomers can bring to bear.
In recent years, we have made inroads in fighting many negative and unfair discriminatory practices against racism, sexism, sexual preferences, religious freedom and gender identity. But ageism is one “ism” that hasn’t changed much.
How can you help stamp out ageism?
- Acknowledge the problem. Ageism is so pervasive, you sometimes barely notice it. For instance, even well-meaning individuals, organizations and marketing campaigns refer to people over 50 or 65 as “old folks,” “golden oldies” or “silver seniors.” These terms can be demeaning for older adults who don’t want their age alone to define them.
- Recognize that one size doesn’t fit all. To categorize all older adults as a homogenous group is ludicrous. A 65-year-old isn’t the same as an 85-year-old. They have different needs, interests, values and characteristics. Additionally, as people age, they get more, not less, diverse in terms of health, vitality, productivity and interests.
- Encourage mentorship and reverse mentorship to build bridges across the generations. Older adults have accumulated years of skills, talents, wisdom and cultural heritage and knowledge. These need to be passed onto younger adults inside the workplace and beyond . At the same time, younger adults are savvy about the latest technologies, trends and pop culture events—things that older adults often want to know more about to stay connected with mainstream society. The generations need to interact, get to know each other, and discover what they appreciate about each other, in formal and informal settings.
- Embrace age diversity. The “multiplier effect” has been well-documented and proven: diverse groups improve team performance. We apply this to race and gender to make the case for more diversity. Let’s add age diversity to that vision.
- Be a role model. If you’re over 50, 60, 70, or even 80, don’t let outdated stereotypes of older adults stop you from pursuing your dreams, reinventing yourself, and contributing to your community or the world. Show the world the new image of aging.
Maddy Dychtwald is an author and co-founder of Age Wave, a think tank and consultancy.