Last week, I recorded my video for the Spring Forum. When I watched the playback, my colleague asked me what I thought. “When did I get so old?!” I replied as I noticed some new wrinkles, seeing myself on screen. When I got back to my car, on NPR, two people were discussing ageism. It stopped me in my tracks; I decided the universe was trying to tell me something. “Look at that,” I thought to myself, “I just devalued myself and older people with a simple vanity comment made partly in jest.” It made me realize how easily ageism creeps in and made me think about the real damage it can do.
According to the World Health Organization, “ageism refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age.” Ageism devalues primarily older people, although younger people do experience age discrimination as well. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act applies to people who are over 40. Ageism includes microaggressive comments like the one I made about myself, but also has bigger implications in the job market and for nontraditional students. If we don’t check our implicit biases and stereotyping about older people, we make ageist assumptions about the kind of work some people can do as well as assumptions about career aspirations and longevity. If we allow presumed age to play a role in our decision-making around jobs and opportunities, we are allowing ageism to play a role.
In the classroom, we need to rethink some of the paternalistic approaches we have assumed in higher education. When we treat our students as empty vessels or child-like, this is particularly isolating for older students. I was in a meeting with faculty and students where students were placed at “the kids’ table” to work together as a group. When we assume our students are kids, we’re inadvertently demeaning them, but beyond that, we’re isolating older students, some of whom are older than their professors.
It’s also important to draw in our intersectional lens to remember that ageism affects people differently. For instance, Ashton Applewhite points out in her TED talk that women experience ageism compounded by sexism. Beyond this, other constructs like race, socioeconomic status, and ability also intersect and compound the effect and experience of ageism.
I once was part of an organization who was discussing replacing an employee who had decided not to come back after her maternity leave. As our leadership committee discussed the desired qualifications of our former colleague’s replacement, one member said, “we should probably not hire another woman in her 30s or she’ll leave when she has a baby, too!” I sat there wide-eyed, particularly as a thirty-something professional woman who was, unbeknownst to them, pregnant. After recovering from the shock, I reminded my colleague that such discrimination was not only unethical but illegal.
So, what can we do? Well, we need to make sure that we challenge ageism, especially when it pops up in conversations about careers and access. But we also need to rethink our perspective when we catch ourselves thinking less of someone or more of someone because of presumed age, and that includes when that someone is ourselves.