Aging is the universal human experience. We all begin aging from the moment we are born. In America, as we approach old age, we start to be treated differently. Instead of being included in work and community spheres, we are marginalized and ignored. Instead of viewing older age as a period of opportunity and continued contribution, the American public sees old age as a period of dependence and decline. Even worse, this sense of fatalism pervades our response to the challenges of aging. As a result, programs and policies that could address the changing demographics of the aging population get short shrift among the public and policy makers. An outward manifestation of these attitudes is ageism.
Ageism is discrimination based on negative assumptions about age. This has an impact on older people’s lives. And this impact is serious. It may be overt or subtle. We see this impact in healthcare where the one-year cost of ageism may be as high as 63 billion dollars. We see it in the workplace where discriminatory practices impact hiring, promotion, and tenure. Well-meaning aging experts and advocates provide messages about the demographic cliff, the age wave, or, worse, the “silver tsunami,” to provoke a sense of urgency about these issues. They may point out the costs of inaction by stressing that “aging populations pose a challenge to the fiscal and macroeconomic stability of many societies.” However, the public does not hear these messages the way the experts intend. This is largely because these messages cue the public’s ingrained negative patterns of thinking about aging that include a sense of fatalism that the problems are too big, the solutions are too complex, and that investment elsewhere would be more effective.
There is good news. Recent research shows that framing interventions are effective in reducing implicit bias of aging. When we deliver properly reframed messages about aging, we can decrease the implicit bias members of the public hold towards older people. Specific reframing strategies include using values to establish common ground and explanation to build understanding. For example, using the values of ingenuity and justice in communications and advocacy messages has been shown to elicit positive responses about aging and increased support for policies and programs to address aging issues.
By avoiding pitting generations against one another, using language like “silver tsunami” and “the boomers” in our communications, and by raising issues in the context of concrete systemic solutions for all of us, we can shift the understanding and discourse around aging. When we use this framing strategy, knowledge about aging increases, attitudes towards actions and solutions improve, and policy support for programs and funding grow.
2020 represents a significant year in US politics with not only key federal elections but also numerous state and local contests. As politicians work on party platforms and conduct debates, it will be important to not only include systemic solutions for aging issues but also to frame the communications in a way that helps the public understand that we are all part of the aging community and the solutions developed in aging benefit all. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the underlying ageism of our culture—“boomer remover”, for example, has been used as a common meme. Rather than fall into the trap of characterizing all older people as vulnerable and frail, it would be better for politicians to emphasize the diversity and range of health conditions among all age groups and the benefit of a community approach to safety.
Aging experts and advocates will need to be vigilant of messages that describe older people as deserving special treatment. Rather, we need to emphasize our common experiences as people who are aging and conversely, our uniqueness as individuals moving along the life course.
Changing American culture is challenging and changing attitudes and behaviors around the universal experience of aging especially so. The time to change the conversation is now.