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Why Ageism Exists In American Culture

A number of reasons contribute to ageism in American culture. Youth, beauty, and vitality are highly valued by Americans. The aging process is viewed as counter to these highly valued attributes. Good health is also touted by Americans. One of the most common stereotypes about aging is that it brings the loss of good health, which makes many fear the aging process. Of course, the real fear is that aging leads to death. Putting distance between oneself and aging thus alleviates the fear of dying.

While elders are still esteemed in many countries, American culture seems to have lost this perspective. Ageism has become ingrained in American culture as it is passed on to children from parents who hold ageist stereotypes. The same ageist myths and misconceptions that are held by adults are also held by teens and children. Americans make jokes and comments about growing old that perpetuate negative stereotypes about aging and older persons. The lexicon is replete with ageist terms that portray older people in a negative light, such as "old fogey," "old fart," "geezer," and "old goat."

Institutions and systems, as well as individuals, may unintentionally perpetuate ageism through their pursuit of independent objectives. For example, the greeting card industry plays on American's infatuation with youth by selling merchandise focused on the desire to be young and to fight aging. Greeting cards sell when they arouse certain emotions, such as making people laugh at jokes about getting old and exaggerated portrayals of old, decrepit people.

The mass media plays a powerful institutional role in shaping American attitudes as it similarly fixates on youth, beauty, and sex appeal. The media's portrayal of aging and older people can vary depending on its objective. For example, when the media focuses on older people as a potent block of voters or consumers for specialized products, older people may be portrayed as affluent, self-interested, and politically potent. When the focus shifts to general television programming or movies for the general public, the pictures of older people change dramatically. On television, seniors rarely appear in prime-time shows. On television or in movies, they are typically cast in minor roles, and are depicted as helpless victims or crotchety troublemakers.

The labor market is another system that perpetuates ageism. Employers, both private and public, engage in age discrimination when they fire older workers or refuse to hire or promote them because of ageist stereotypes. While the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits age discrimination against most job applicants and employees age forty and older, the federal law contains exceptions that permit mandatory retirement of police, fire-fighters, highly paid executives, and state judges.

Governmental programs and policies that use age to categorize people to determine their eligibility for retirement or health benefits unintentionally fuel negative stereotypes, even though the purposes of such programs are to provide benefits or services to older persons and the elderly. By providing a retirement benefit at age sixty-two or age sixty-five, Social Security reinforces the perception that people should stop working and retire at those ages. While many Americans retire in their early sixties, many continue working full- or part-time and have no desire to retire. On the contrary, their desire is to be productive workers, despite the common view that older individuals are not "productive" members of society.

The health care system can also perpetuate ageist attitudes in dealing with older patients and the elderly. For example, a doctor treating an older person may dismiss his or her complaints as relating to a degenerative aging process, rather than addressing the potential medical cause of the problem. In other words, age is used as a determinative criterion for settling a question of treatment, in lieu of the more difficult search for the actual cause of the affliction.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 1Ageism - Stereotypes About Age And Older Persons, Why Ageism Exists In American Culture, The Role Of The Media In Supporting Ageism