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Ageism

Joshua Bains

Ageism means lost professional opportunities, refused credit, medical discrimination, and more. But the effects of how we think about growing old may be far more serious

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

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YOUNG AND RESTLESS Researchers, policy makers, and helping professionals question a growing bias toward the supremacy of youth.

Today, life expectancy in New Yorkis 81 years old. If you think that’s good news — you obviously aren’t 81. “Not everyone thinks about ageism,” says clinical gero-psychologist Dr. Paul Chafetz. “But everyone will experience it.”

Ageism is prejudice against someone based on age alone. As in any prejudice, ageism is a blinder, replacing the true depth, abilities, and behavior of older adults with simplified projections and stereotypes.

For example, fixing the retirement age at 65 is ageist. We’re just used to it. But there are many people who continue to work after this limit, and others, such as American commercial pilots, who are obliged to retire despite immaculate records, superior skills, and experience.Australia, for example, has no age limit — just medical and flight exams.

In a telling 2006 lawsuit, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission litigated against Exxon Mobil, a company that had grounded all pilots over 60 years of age. Although the lawsuit claimed that age is not a valid measure of a pilot’s quality, in 2014 a federal court ruled its policies are not age discrimination for two reasons: Because the age cut off is “reasonably necessary to the normal operation of the particular business,” and because it’s “impossible or highly impracticable to deal with the older employees on an individualized basis.”

This ruling sets two worrying precedents. That older people interfere with our “normal operation” and that they are “impossible or highly impracticable to deal with.”

It’s not just in the workforce. Imagine going to an orthopedist to complain about your knee. You’re in pain, but are told: “It’s just old age.” That answer would never satisfy us in our 40’s – when it would never be offered anyway. But a study of physicians in training who worked with elderly people found reactions like this: “It’s always a bigger save when you help a 35-year-old woman with kids than it is to bring an altered 89-year-old with a urinary tract infection back to her semi-altered state.” 

When Dr. Chafetz mentions this patient’s ability to walk away from his business, the man starts crying.

What’s “a bigger save” got to do with the Hippocratic Oath? Ageist attitudes debilitate a doctor’s care and professionalism, and many studies prove it. Discrimination against seniors affects people of all ages, whether they realize it or not. Does age perception effect longevity? Is there a link between age stereotypes and memory? How is ageism changing society, especially economically? Researchers, policy makers, and helping professionals ask these questions against a growing bias toward the supremacy of youth.

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