As the largest generation ages, the longtime bias against older people gets more attention.
Greeting-card and novelty companies call them "Over the Hill" products: the 50th Birthday Coffin Gift Boxes featuring prune juice and anti-aging soap; the "Old Coot" and "Old Biddy"bobblehead dolls; the birthday cards mocking the mobility, intellect and sex drive of the no-longer-young. Many Americans chuckle at such humor. Others see it as offensive, as one more sign of pervasive ageism in America.
It's a bias some also see in substandard conditions at nursing homes, in pension-plan cutbacks by employers, in the relative invisibility of the elderly on television shows and in advertisements.
"Daily we are witness to, or even unwitting participants in, cruel imagery, jokes, language, and attitudes directed at older people," contends Dr. Robert Butler, president the International Longevity Center-USA and the person who coined the term "ageism" 35 years ago. That ageism exists, in a society captivated by youth culture and taut-skinned good looks, is scarcely debatable. But as the oldest of the 77 million baby boomers approach their 60s, the elderly and their concerns will inevitably move higher on the national agenda.
Already, there is lively debate as to whether ageism will ease or grow worse in the coming decades of boomer senior citizenship. Erdman Palmore, a professor emeritus at Duke University who has written or edited more than a dozen books on aging, counts himself -- cautiously -- among the optimists.
Erdman Palmore, an expert on aging and professor emeritus at Duke University, tries to defy stereotypes of aging. He recently got a discreet tattoo on his shoulder.
"One can say unequivocally that older people are getting smarter, richer and healthier as time goes on," Palmore said. "I've dedicated most of my life to combating ageism, and it's tempting for me to see it everywhere. ... But I have faith that as science progresses, and reasonable people get educated about it, we will come to recognize ageism as the evil it is." "What makes me mad is how aging, in our language and culture, is equated with deterioration and impairment," Palmore said. "I don't know how we're going to root that out, except by making people more aware of it."
Some researchers believe that ageism, in the form of negative stereotypes, directly affects longevity. In a study published by the American Psychological Association, Yale School of Public Health professor Becca Levy and her colleagues concluded that old people with positive perceptions of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those with negative images of growing older. Levy said many Americans start developing stereotypes about the elderly during childhood, reinforce them throughout adulthood, and enter old age with attitudes toward their own age group as unfavorable as younger people's attitudes. "It's possible to overcome the stereotypes, but they often operate without people's awareness," Levy said. "Look at all the talk about plastic surgery, Botox -- the message is, 'Don't get old.' "
For thousands of American workers, it's the same message they claim to hear on the job. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has received more than 19,000 age discrimination complaints in each of the past two years, and has helped win tens of millions of dollars in settlements. New Yorker Bill DeLong, 84, was fired three years ago from his longtime job as a waiter at a Shea Stadium restaurant, but he continues to seek charitable volunteer assignments and still works as a waiter occasionally at special events. "I didn't give up," he said. "A lot of my contemporaries give up too soon."
Seventy-eight-year-old Catherine Roberts stays active with New York City's Joint Public Affairs Committee for Older Adults, a coalition that encourages seniors to advocate on their own behalf on legislative and community issues. "I don't have time to get old," said Roberts, who came to New York from Maine in 1955. "I'm too busy."
Ageism also manifests itself in advertising. Though adults of all ages drink beer and buy cars, for example, TV and print ads for those products almost invariably feature youthful actors and models. According to AARP, the lobbying group for people 50 and over, Americans in that age bracket account for half of all consumer spending but are targeted by just 10 percent of marketing. The dynamic is particularly potent in television, where network executives gear programming toward 18-to-34-year-olds because advertisers will pay more to reach those viewers.
John Rother, policy director for the AARP, said the boomers, by their very numbers, are bound to change the public perception of aging. "It will be more visible," he said. "People will survive longer, in better health. ... They'll feel the market should cater to them, the political system should cater to them, as it has their whole lives."
Whatever their political clout, the tens of millions of boomers will find that ageism is a unique form of bias in that it's universal -- potentially affecting all who live long enough. "Everyone has a vested interest in eradicating this prejudice," wrote Robert Butler, the International Longevity Center president, in a recent briefing paper. "We all aspire to live to be old, and consequently we all must work to create a society where old age is respected, if not honored, and where persons who have reached old age are not marginalized."