It happens in our families. At work. On TV. In advertising. On the street. And perhaps most important, in our own minds and hearts. I’m talking about age biases—putting people (including ourselves) in a box because of how old they are. Unfortunately, this is something that is deeply embedded in our consciousness, language, institutions, and culture.
Judging, discriminating against, or assessing the worth of people based on age can be as destructive a form of bias as there is. Just ask a 58-year-old man who feels he’s being aged out of his career, a 40-year-old news anchor who’s being pressured to color her hair, or a 75-year-old who’s beginning to feel “invisible” at family gatherings. Age biases, whether in our places of work, families, the world, or even our own psyches, diminish us. And to make things worse, they can be so subtle that we’re not even aware of them.
Uncovering biases—whether they’re based on age, gender, race, religion, or something else—and acknowledging the pain, suffering, and/or injustices they cause, can lead to upheaval and unrest. Introducing new normals can be very unsettling to those who sanction the old ones. When it comes to age, we’re living longer, retiring later, repurposing our skills, and resetting our expectations for what it means to be 65, 75, and 85 years old. About 120 million Americans will be over 65 years old by the year 2020. Change is in the air, and new norms for senior citizens are replacing old ones. It’s time—right now—to let go of our old-age biases; and although it’s not going to be easy, it will be worth it. Here’s why.
Freeing ourselves of judgments about others based on the number of years they’ve been on the planet, and seeing them as individuals, brings out the best in us. And in them. The virtues of fairness and impartiality generate newfound understanding, curiosity, and compassion. Being more inclusive when it comes to people’s worth and embracing the common ground on which we all live is radically different from excluding them because they’re different. Rising above judgment and discovering commonality helps people from all walks of life get along/work together/connect/live in peace.
Whether we can evolve from centuries riddled by biases and ravaged by war, hatred, racism, violence, misogyny, and inequality is the question. Freeing ourselves of deeply held age biases renders our world a kinder, safer place. Kindness has the power to neutralize and even eradicate even the most resistant form of bias, opening the doors of understanding, peace, and justice. It is the secret sauce. And I’ve seen its magic over and over again.
Here are a few suggestions for overcoming age bias and bringing about positive change:
- Take inventory of your attitudes.
Own your biases. We all have them. Might you, for example, have some assumptions about getting older, and older people, that are standing in the way of deeper understanding and appreciation? Being honest with yourself, taking responsibility, and aspiring to new heights is always the start of something good.
- Befriend someone who is not in your age group.
When we develop relationships with neighbors, coworkers, relatives or community members who are not like us, we often discover that we’ve been objectifying them. But when we get to know them, we’re inclined to cut our ties with antiquated, disproven biases and start seeing them as human beings. With eyes and hearts wide open, we might even find ourselves becoming their most ardent advocates. So get out there, befriend someone who’s older or younger, and free yourself from burdensome biases.
- Make the decision to clean up your act.
Taking the high road and overcoming biases is different for each of us. Fessing up to age biases and cleaning up your act might mean editing your jokes, opening up your worldviews and circles of friends and associates, or simply refusing to perpetuate bias when you see it.
- Become an advocate for equality.
As you embrace the meaning and importance of equality and recognize the destructive elements of inequality, do everything in your power to fight, advocate, and champion fairness, justice and kindness. Uphold the standard of valuing people based on the content of their character. Weeding out age bias starts with you and puts you in a great position to help others. Your willingness to stand up for the equal rights of others by voting, volunteering, marching for a cause, working for social change in your community, and so on, is a responsibility and opportunity for every citizen.
- Confront inequality.
For reasons that elude most of us, people can be hateful, mean-spirited, and cruel. Biases that live in the unconscious and are buried deep within our psyches can be extremely dangerous. It’s our job to call out age discrimination, defend equality, and stand up for and protect basic human rights—and to do so in a way that defuses rather than escalates the potential for greater conflict.
The biases we have that are based on age are coming to light. I’m not just talking about the 70-year-old man accosted by a “Hey, Grandpa” drive-by insult, the 80-year-old woman told to “Sit down, Grandma” at a Paul Simon concert, the senior manager mocked behind his back by millennial subordinates, or the candidate denigrated as “senile” by a political opponent. I’m talking about the more subtle forms of age bias, such as not promoting seniors in the workplace or not even hiring them to begin with. Or tuning out elders who have so much to share. Our unconscious age biases reflect how we see and treat people, so becoming consciously aware of, and working on them, is a must.
We’ve got a long way to go to when it comes to weeding out age biases, but we’re making progress. More people in the workplace are judged on their performance and less on their age than ever before. Families and co-workers are communicating better across differences in age. Advertisers are portraying older people in a more favorable light. Resources for our aging population are cropping up in every city. And people who are aging courageously are being kinder to themselves. By chipping away at, and eliminating, age biases, we are becoming the better versions of ourselves.