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3 Ways to Overcome Everyday Ageism

... including what to do about ageist jokes.

Key points

  • Everyday ageism is a common feature of life, especially in the current political climate.
  • A U.S. survey on exposure to ageist messages shows its potentially harmful effects on well-being.
  • Three steps to combatting everyday ageism can help you and those you care about find greater fulfillment.

You only have to listen to news stories, political advertisements, and debates about the qualifications of candidates in the 2024 election cycle to be aware that age, along with ageism, are hot topics.

Defined as stereotyping of and discrimination against individuals on the basis of age, ageism typically applies to older adults. However, it can technically refer to anyone of any age whose attributes are assumed to reflect some global quality relevant to their generation.

Millennials can be just as targeted as Baby Boomers. However, it's more usual that ageism is applied to people over the ages of 60, 70, and beyond. It is not difficult to find examples of ageism in political advertisements, speeches, and town halls as younger presidential candidates complain that their rivals are "too old for the job." What other demographic characteristic of a candidate would ever be allowed to receive such public complaints?

Think about how these statements affect the way you feel about yourself or the people in your life who are in their later years. You may be able to brush this off, attributing it to so much political noise. However, based on a University of Michigan survey of U.S. adults, chances are that this negative attention to age serves to reinforce what the vast majority of Americans experience in the form of "everyday ageism."

What Is Everyday Ageism?

A 2022 study documents the enormous extent of daily experiences of ageism reported by people ages 50 to 80. This groundbreaking work was headed by the University of Oklahoma's Julie Allen and colleagues (2022). Based on a national survey conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, the findings provide chilling documentation of the extent and impact of negative attitudes and stereotypes about aging.

"'Routine ageism," the authors maintain, can be found in such features of daily life as "comments about a 'senior moment' and the barrage of antiaging commercials" that permeate the media. However, this is only part of the problem: "Everyday ageism" is far worse, consisting of "brief verbal, nonverbal, and environmental indignities that convey hostility, a lack of value, or narrow stereotypes of older adults."

Looking now more specifically at the components of everyday ageism, here are the items the survey team administered to their participants. If you're in this age group, see how you rate them; if not, put yourself in the mindset of an over-50 person you know well. The rating scale ranges on a four-point frequency scale of never to often:

  1. I hear, see, or read jokes about old age, aging, or older adults.
  2. I hear, see, or read things suggesting that older adults and aging are unattractive or undesirable.
  3. People assume that I have difficulty with cell phones and computers.
  4. People assume I have difficulty remembering or understanding things.
  5. People assume I have difficulty hearing or seeing things.
  6. People insist on helping me with things I can do on my own.
  7. People assume I do not do anything important or valuable.
  8. Having health problems is part of getting older.
  9. Feeling depressed, sad, or worried is part of getting older.
  10. Feeling lonely is part of getting older.

These items fall into three subscales: Ageist Messages (1-2); Ageism in Interpersonal Interactions (3-7); and Internalized Ageism (8-10). Count up how many in each category you (or someone you know) have experienced as either sometimes or often (3 to 4 on the rating scale).

Everyday Ageism Is Common and Harmful

Taking a step back to look at the study itself, the survey was conducted on 2,035 U.S. adults with an average age of 62.6 years. The sample's diversity reflected the U.S. population within this age group. In addition to assessing the experience of everyday ageism, the author team also sought to demonstrate its impact on health outcomes, including physical and mental well-being.

If you'd like to take a guess at the prevalence of everyday ageism, stop and think of the percentage who agreed with any of these statements. If you guessed upwards of 90 percent, you're right. The actual prevalence of stating that they "sometimes" or "often" experienced any one of these forms of everyday ageism was 93.4 percent.

In other words, almost everyone.

Among the three subscales, it was actually internalized ageism that ranked the highest (81.2 percent) followed by ageist messages (65.2 percent) and interpersonal interactions (44.9 percent). The average score was 10.2 (i.e., at least one per item) and ranged from 0 to 27.

Not surprisingly, the older portion of the sample (65 and older) endorsed more items. Exposure to media played a significant predictive role, with those who spent four or more hours on media scoring higher than those who did not.

Turning now to the impact of everyday ageism, this portion of the survey was particularly revealing. Plots showing the increase in four types of health outcomes against total scale scores showed a direct rise in negative outcomes for each increase in the score. These patterns were consistent across ratings of "fair or poor physical health," "chronic health conditions," "fair or poor mental health," and "depressive symptoms." People who endorsed item nine—feeling depressed, sad, or worried is part of getting older—reported the highest number of chronic health conditions, poor mental health, and depressive symptoms.

In interpreting these findings, the authors provided several explanations. One is the impact of internalized ageism. As they note, “Ageist cues, beliefs, and interpersonal interactions may serve as stereotype threats, primes for stereotype embodiment, and models of normative expectations for older adults, all of which have been associated with poor health outcomes.”

Secondly, ageism is a stressor in and of itself. Indeed, findings showed variations by race, ethnicity, and social class, suggesting that those who are "multiply marginalized at intersections of their identities" are particularly challenged in managing on a day-to-day basis in the face of this additional source of stress.

What to Do About Everyday Ageism

As this study shows, even ageist messages that may seem trivial (such as political ads) can harm people who are the targets of these messages. The question then becomes one of protecting yourself and those close to you from these negative consequences. Based on the findings, these three strategies should help:

  1. Recognize its existence. Chances are good that, even if you've experienced it, you've never labeled everyday ageism as such, much less internalized ageism. Take stock of the number of times you catch yourself thinking or saying that a memory glitch was due to a "senior moment."
  2. Stop others in their tracks when they demonstrate either internalized or other forms of everyday ageism. Let them know that it's not OK to make assumptions about people's sight, memory, hearing, computer skills, and cell phones just on the basis of how old they are or seem to be.
  3. Target jokes about older people, including those they make about themselves. Form your own personal boycott committee when it comes to ageist birthday cards or images, and definitely fight off the "OK, Boomer" trend. Don't be afraid to challenge a political figure who makes snide comments about someone else's (or their own) age. You may not meet them face-to-face, but there are plenty of media outlets at your disposal to make your comments public and get this important conversation started.

To sum up, everyday ageism is a pernicious aspect of life, as the U.S. survey clearly demonstrated. Don't let it get to you, and fulfillment—no matter your age—will be possible.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Ulza/Shutterstock

References

Allen, J. O., Solway, E., Kirch, M., Singer, D., Kullgren, J. T., Moïse, V., & Malani, P. N. (2022). Experiences of everyday ageism and the health of older US adults. JAMA Network Open, 5(6), e2217240-e2217240. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.17240A (available through open access).

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