Americans were blind to racism in stories and characterizations of mainstream media during most of the 20th century and we are blind now to bias against older people in mainstream media. Our values are transparent, like the air we breathe. When a recent entrant in a field is over 50, even if he has 40 years of productive life ahead, he won’t be hired over a less experienced and less talented younger individual. The same is true of people of color who face economic biases but age bias is unique in the way it affects everyone who doesn’t die young.
If not now, one day, this will be important to you.
We live in a culture of many unexamined economic priorities. They show up as customary and they are discrimination. Age-related bias is now more prevalent in North America than is bias based on ethnic provenance. Albeit, racism is alive and well in some sectors, even among people of color, Agism is so common, it goes unnoticed. Agist jokes are far more prevalent than Polish or any other kind of ethnic slurs.
As a category, older people in America receive no consideration for career-oriented education, few employment or housing opportunities, less consideration in the design of entertainment and little consideration in everything related to standard of living and quality of life.
Like slaves resigned to bondage, people are conditioned to accept Agism when they are very young. The idea that to be old is to be infirm and mentally lame or rigid is a myth built into our language and fables, reflected in words and expressions, embodied in some of our greatest works of literature and drama.
Unlike other social value biases, Agism is a bias of a young person inflicted against their older self. It is like a suicide plan made in advance, analogous to ingesting a toxin, like arsenic, that accumulates over time until it’s too late when it strikes. When we’re young, striving to attain our dreams, reveling in hormonal excitement, we accept without consideration so much that we can’t know, happy to take a job from a person we believe is “over-the-hill”. We’ll gladly work for less and for the opportunity to show our skills. Meanwhile, that older person, having believed in age-related decline, refrained from a discipline of healthy exercise, perhaps, recovered from a brush with deadly illness, reluctantly steps-aside.
When we are young, we are conditioned to believe that at the age of 55 or 60, we will retire and enjoy the “twilight” of a life well lived despite the fact that this is counter-intuitive and not at all consistent with everything you see. Since the most pleasure in life is in participation and the most satisfaction from rewards for contribution, to benefit from having no possibility of monetary reward is an oxymoron. On the other side of this, the attitude that it is better to contribute nothing idealizes sloth and a life that makes no difference. It’s self-defeating.
A logical conclusion is that age-related bias (Agism) is a self-inflicted con on its perpetrators, akin to people of color biased against people of color, which, although this too is counter-intuitive, is hardly uncommon, when people of color expect protagonists in narratives to be white, teutonic types.
Agism affects the greatest number of people, with the worst effects and more kinds of discriminatory practice and ironically, it North Americans not citizens of European countries and worse than citizens of many lesser developed places. Moreover, agism affects people of every ethnic background in America ubiquitously: every economic status, ensuring exclusion from employment advancement, fewer housing opportunities; and as a consequence of greater health-related needs, older people receive the least competent medical attention.
While we cry out when similar bias is inflicted on categories of ethnicity and gender, discrimination against older people is a taken-for-granted fact of life in America in the same way that slavery was in the 18th century and child labor in the 19th century and the greatest effect is economic. There are reasons to suspect that the economic priorities of America that are destroying our society can be turned around by addressing the damaging elements of age-related bias.
For instance the projected productive work of a person over 50 is equal to the time a typical young person, who retires at 55 or 65, stays in a chosen field.
Assuming that a person who has lived 60 years, has the potential of 20 to 40 useful years ahead plus the advantage of 40 or more years of experience and education, even the most physical of jobs, for instance, a trapeze artist, if the artist stays in shape, unless injured, might be performed better. However, the more relevant likelihood is that the trapeze artist will become curious to try a new career that utilizes the experience and discipline of the trapeze and requires less physical prowess. Because of age-discriminatory hiring, it is next to impossible for an older man or woman to begin a career in a new field past 60, which defeats realistic ambition.
Conformism promoted in media addresses age-discrimination as a fact of life, as if remuneration for contribution isn’t important past 60 and this places less value on wisdom derived from experience. There’s one advantage: by eliminating older people from the workforce, jobs are made available for younger people at lower wages but the economy is collapsing and Agism may be the canary in the mine.
If the strategy of age-related hiring discrimination was working, the robust economy would make it unnecessary for congress to abrogate cost of living increases mandated in Social Security legislation during the last six decades.
Age bias eliminates career opportunities at 55, when people who have taken care of their health and have experience can look forward to 30 or more years of productive, creative practices and pursuits.
Even if the economy of America improves (doubtful on account of the double-bind of population growth and the mounting expenses of an aging population), this will effect your life no matter where you reside. It will affect you more immediately if you live in the United States. Everyone is subsumed into the category of age-related discrimination here. When you talk to older people confined in the warehouses optimistically called, “residential care,” “long term care” and “senior residences,” you hear resignation similar to the remarks of “happy” slaves on Thomas Jefferson’s 18th century southern plantation. As people age in America, they are taught to pretend their fate was pre-ordained, as if discrimination was sanctioned by a higher power instead of custom.
Media is the greatest source of agist values. In the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, social scientists unraveled how societal values are formed in America. They observed that people absorb their core values in the 20th century differently from earlier times. Much of this research has been used in commercial media, especially advertising and in propaganda for political campaigns at all levels. The most important key to American value formation was revealed in a book published in 1950 called, The Lonely Crowd. Amazingly this social science textbook, written by David Reisman, a scientist who had first been a successful lawyer, became a New York Times best-seller, selling 1.5 million copies in two years.
The kernel of Reisman’s study is that Americans were absorbing their core values from media but he also explains how and why and how this also makes us less absolute about our values and more likely to modify them based on images, symbols and ideas we’re exposed to in media and regarding these values we are less trusting of parents and other relationships. Circumstances, such as, childhood trauma complicate how the values we absorb from media lead to an array of behaviors, including unrealizable expectations in mating, marriage and child rearing, various forms of addiction and bizarre acts of violence.
While, the acceptance of the idea that older human beings are less capable of learning and participating than are their younger counterparts in the business, arts and economy of society, has also created an expense that cripples society and damages everyone, the primary value promoted in both commercial and noncommercial media has been promotion of youth. The piquant beauty of youthful beings of all kinds is a limbic response, which can be easily exploited.
The problem is that, in promoting and selling youth, commercial media instills with it, a negative view of maturity, which is then repeated in the culture. It’s not intentional but it’s the predictable outcome since, if it’s good to appear young and beautiful, older and wiser is to be avoided. In promoting youth, there’s a correlative pejorative created about non-youth. The same is true about promoting ideal physical proportions, or white skin over dark. Predominantly casting Anglo-Saxons as heroic protagonists gave the impression that the skin color of heroes is lighter. In the same way, youth is preferable to maturity.
While media is unwittingly complicit, the medical profession, which should know better, has been practicing age bias despite the science. (This may be the strongest argument for requiring that doctors be educated in the humanities, history and social sciences.) From scientific experiment, we believe that genetic information contained in our cells mutates after repeated iterations, producing observable physical effects but the way this occurs and the areas affected varies widely among individuals.
With respect to cognition, we now know that our brains contain many more cells than we use and recent science shows that areas of the brain can take over the tasks of other areas when they are damaged and thus mitigate or even enhance some effects of mutation. Some effects on cognition, which were previously assumed to be age-related, have turned out to be produced by lifestyle, pollutants and hormonal unbalance. New therapies defeat increasing numbers of specific mutational effects but there’s an economic reason why the mentality of the medical profession in America remains stuck in the 19th century.
The most lethal effect of age-related bias has been promulgated in the justice system in America, in which tort awards are the primary check against the excesses of the economically powerful against the poor. There is a precedent that advises juries to quantify awards when a patient has died based on the percentage of a span of life lost by a victim based on span of income-producing life and the potential earnings lost. Thus, the parents of a 2 year old child of a middle class family, who dies on account of medical neglect or malpractice, will be entitled to compensation that interests attorneys in pursuing a lengthy case against a hospital’s well-heeled insurance company, while the children of a 72 year old field worker won’t find an attorney to help them since the “retired” 72 year old in this actuarial analysis, has not lost much.
Doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and medical product manufacturers can and frequently do get away with gross negligence and malpractice when an older citizen dies because intent to kill must be proved or there is no monetary damage large enough to interest an attorney. Ironically, even though lawyers, doctors and lawmakers must see their own vulnerability, they have accepted the personal risk in return for financial support from insurers.
Age-related bias is thus the greatest economic cost born by Americans.
Ironically, people are constantly told to exercise and to challenge their minds while the economic system and entertainment media constantly tell them they don’t count, they’re over-the-hill and in the way. By not ensuring a healthy, productive lifestyle for older people, the society incurs a huge cost because human beings suffer anxiety and depression when they feel they have no future worth living into and treating the symptoms and illness that results from depression is the greatest cost of medical care.
The depression that afflicts older people in America is not a product of aging but of lifestyle and it is known to lead to conditions that are expensive to treat.
An even greater loss to the contemporary American economy is the loss of the contribution of people with the most experience, knowledge and perspective.
A review of contemporary video games and other entertainment media will reveal little brilliant talent and expertise as compared with a similar review of comparable media from earlier decades when older artists, writers and producers were more prevalent in the entertainment industry than they are now. A look at recent Hollywood media shows this is nowhere more evident than among writers.
People who possess qualities of intellect, wit and perspective are critical to the economic health and development of any society. To discriminate against employment and education of older citizens denies the greatest number of potentially great artists, technicians and craftsmen and women.