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Why Do Younger People Dislike Older People?

Aging in America contradicts prevailing social values, attitudes, and beliefs.

Although there are currently a greater number of older people in America than ever before in history, aging is seen in our society as a state of decline—the downward side of the curve of life. Despite attempts by AARP and some “pro-aging” advocates that should be applauded, the years following age 50 or perhaps 60 are commonly considered the period between the end of one’s real, active life and death, making it a kind of existential purgatory.

Older people are generally deemed weaker, less attractive versions of their younger selves, a terrible and simply untrue expression of identity. It is easy to see how older people are often viewed as little more than slow-walking, bad-driving, hard-of-hearing, Matlock-watching citizens. Studies show that negative attitudes toward older people are present in young children, and these feelings are difficult to change by the time they become tweens. Hollywood has been especially unfriendly towards older people, either portraying them as comic foils or ignoring them completely. This has reinforced cultural stereotypes related to aging, and helped to make older people themselves lower their self-worth.

Given this cultural orientation, it isn’t surprising that baby boomers like myself are now increasingly the target of ageism (thinking or believing in a negative manner about the process of becoming old or about old people). Ageism, which, it must be said, is both unethical and, when expressed in the workplace, illegal, can be seen as a predictable byproduct of a culture in which getting older has little or no positive value. Our ageist society has deep roots, going back decades to produce what is perhaps the most youth-oriented culture in history. The idea and reality of aging have contradicted prevailing social values, attitudes, and beliefs, a phenomenon that has largely disenfranchised and marginalized older people from the rest of the population. One could reasonably conclude that the aging of what was the largest generation in history (until millennials came along) would have significantly altered American values over the last half-century, but this simply hasn't happened.

Finally, widespread ageism is a function of a variety of misperceptions rooted in our strange denial of the completely natural process of getting older. Aging as a whole is often viewed in the United States as something that happens to other people when, like birth and death, it is a universal experience. The aversion to, and even hatred of, older persons is all the more peculiar given that everyone will become one if he or she lives long enough. (The same cannot be true of racism or sexism, as people do not change color or, with very few exceptions, gender.)

Other ways Americans distance themselves from aging is to think that individuals turn into different people when they get older, or that the process takes place quite suddenly. A person is young and then boom—he or she is old. This notion is a completely inaccurate reading of how humans actually, i.e., gradually, age. (As well, from a biological standpoint, each body part ages at a different rate depending on the individual, meaning there is no single physical process of aging.)

Grouping people into an anonymous mass of “old people” is equally silly but not uncommon; 70-year-olds are just as individualistic as 30-year-olds (if not more so, given the fact that they have had more time to develop their unique personalities). Finally, older people do not remain in a constant state of ”oldness” but continually change, another fact that anyone younger than middle-aged might find hard to believe or accept.