Bias against older people, or ageism, is a societal ill. It is prevalent in the workplace and in everyday life. Some of it is the result of implicit bias -- a phenomenon that obscures self-awareness. According to the non-profit Project Implicit, "People don’t always say what’s on their minds. One reason is that they are unwilling. ...The difference between being unwilling and unable is the difference between purposely hiding something from someone and unknowingly hiding something from yourself."
Whether ageism is implicit or explicit, people over age 55 experience it in both subtle and obvious ways. What can we do about that? One strategy is to engage in a process known as "reframing." The Reframing Aging Initiative offers a wealth of information and resources to facilitate the process. Funders of the first phase of the initiative included AARP, Endowment for Health and The Retirement Research Foundation. Here is a brief description of the initiative's mission:
"The Reframing Aging Initiative is a long-term social change endeavor designed to improve the public’s understanding of what aging means and the many ways that older people contribute to our society. This greater understanding will counter ageism and guide our nation’s approach to ensuring supportive policies and programs for us all as we move through the life course."
One of the initiative's communications tools, "You Say, They Think," is an eye-opening glimpse at some misunderstandings and ignorance about aging. For example, when an aging expert says, "Ageism must be treated as a serious social issue so that older people can participate fully as workers and citizens," some listeners may think, "Ageism? Is that a real thing?" The responsibility of the aging expert is to respond appropriately, following guidelines such as these:
- Use the value Justice to prime people to think about our cultural commitment to equality for everyone.
- Define “implicit bias.” Research shows that simply explaining what it is and how it works can be effective in reducing people’s bias against older people.
- Offer an explanatory example, like workplace discrimination, to show how ageism works and how it affects us all.
- Share specific Solutions to expand people’s thinking about what can be done.
I offer this example from the Reframing Aging initiative not in an attempt to turn all of us into aging experts, but rather to illustrate the importance of addressing ageism when each of us personally faces age discrimination.
The social justice movements we witnessed and may have participated in growing up -- whether it was civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, etc. -- identified and exposed inequities that existed for a long time. While we as a society have not solved all of these inequities, such movements succeeded in raising the level of consciousness and bringing important issues to the forefront. Perhaps we, too, need a movement to identify and expose ageism. I like to think that each of us can play a role in making that happen.