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  • elainesbelson

The Age of Ageism

Updated: Mar 31

Originally published May 2021


Senator Diane Feinstein received a lot of criticism yesterday for calling the hypothetical retirement of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer “a great loss.” She is quoted as saying, “My general belief is if a person serving with integrity and working hard and producing for whatever the constituency is, that’s what these jobs are all about.”


At age 82, some Democrats are urging Breyer to retire now, just in case the Senate majority reverts back to Republican hands – namely Sen Mitch McConnell’s – in 2022. Fair enough. But others argue that Breyer, and Feinstein, should retire to “give their jobs to someone younger.” I wonder how these critics would feel fifty or sixty years from now if someone younger said this to them.


Perhaps I’m biased. My mom, an attorney for the federal government, did not retire until she was 79yo. In fact, I never thought I would hear the words “retirement” come out of her mouth. But my mother had worked in the same office independently for 30 years. Then a new, much younger solicitor started micromanaging her.


Many confuse age with outlook. To assume older adults beat to the same drum is like assuming young people do. Donald Trump and Joe Biden couldn’t be more dissimilar than Cain and Abel! We are a product of our experiences. Like any other challenge, how people respond to aging depends on coping skills and character.


Older Americans may not appear as mentally sharp as they used to. Their speech and movements may be slower, but consider the parable of the cracked pot. Every day, a woman carries two pots back and forth to the river. One is in pristine condition. The other has cracks in it, causing it to leak water. Over time, the side of the road that receives the water grows an array of beautiful flowers.


We demonize aging as though it’s something to avoid rather than celebrate. A radio commercial asks, “Do you avoid wearing hearing aids because they make you look old?” Commercials tout the benefits of various cosmetics for keeping skin “youthful looking.” Of course, Hollywood is one of the worst culprits of age discrimination, where youth is valued over talent.


Meanwhile, the US population as a whole is getting older.¹ In 2019, the AARP wrote that “35 percent of the population is now age 50 or older.”²


Fear of getting older is normal, but society compounds it by stigmatizing aging. Many Americans associate getting older with loss of independence and productivity, unemployment, poverty, poor health, loneliness, and irrelevance. we can do what’s in our control to avoid negative outcomes. As Mickey Mantle famously said, “If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”


We need infrastructure that supports an aging population rather than forcing families to isolate loved ones. We need to recognize the strengths that older Americans bring to the table. Congress could create incentives for employers to hire seniors and a national clearinghouse for older Americans to find employment. We need to create opportunities for younger and older Americans to interact. Society should reject ads that stigmatize aging and demand more positive roles for older actors.


We all get old – if we’re lucky. To fight or deny this reality is not only individually self-destructive, it’s detrimental to society. Despite many cultural messages to the contrary, self-worth doesn’t come from age or appearance. It comes from the way we treat others and the positive impact we create.


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