The World Health Organization (WHO) calls ageism "the most socially acceptable prejudice in the world," according to a recent article on NextAvenue.org. Ageism, says WHO, goes largely unchallenged, and because it is "implicit and subconscious," people may be prejudice against older people without even knowing it.
What do we, as aging Boomers, do to combat what could well be viewed as a worldwide epidemic? A study referenced in the NextAvenue.org article suggests that there are certain "interventions" that help to reduce ageism. Two interventions that are found to be most effective are (1) education about aging and (2) inter-generational programs.
From my perspective, there is a crying need for educating American society about aging. Many Boomers probably remember a childhood in which we were counseled to "respect our elders." Today, this notion seems to have been forgotten. Elders, older Americans, seniors, or whatever you want to call them are derided in a variety of ways: They are ignored or, even worse, patronized by younger consumers. They are ridiculed on television programs, in movies and in product advertising. They are openly discriminated against in the workplace.
The irony of age discrimination is that aging is inevitable. Everyone who may now be prejudiced against older people will one day be older themselves. Ageism is so pervasive, however, that it is indeed "implicit and subconscious." In fact, if we're being honest with ourselves, even Boomers can be prejudiced against our elders. For example, I admit to being occasionally impatient and intolerant of "older people" who take a little longer to check out at the drug store, or who drive a lot slower on the road. That's probably an unhealthy symptom of our high-speed society.
We should be teaching about aging in America's elementary and secondary schools as well as in our colleges. We should be seeing and hearing public service announcements about the fact that wisdom comes from experience and age. We should find ways to celebrate our aging society instead of ridiculing it.
There are a growing number of creative, innovative programs designed to bring younger and older generations together. They seem to be largely centered around educational institutions. For example, my local OLLI (Osher Life Learning Institute), located on a college campus, has inter-generational seminars and get-togethers with its older members and college students. An organization that is strong in its focus on inter-generational programs is Encore.org.
Other logical ways to facilitate inter-generational programs are through tutoring, mentoring, and volunteering. Age should not be a barrier to participate in volunteer programs; one benefit of volunteering is that young and old alike can share common interests and a common goal through volunteering for a particular cause or organization.
You can also make the case that one of the best places to encourage inter-generational respect is the workplace. Younger and older employees working together should be the norm, not the exception, and senior management (despite their age) should foster cooperation across demographic lines. Older workers should be valued, not vilified. They have a deep knowledge base and can be especially vital as mentors to younger workers -- if an organization respects them for their experience.
An encouraging result of the above-referenced study is that even small-scale interventions can be effective: "...the interventions were not highly expensive, large-scale, multi-year projects. They were relatively small and easy to implement."
Perhaps ageism around the world cannot be eliminated, but education and inter-generational programs are two ways to work toward significantly reducing it.
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