Why Ageism Never Gets Old

by Tad Friend, The New Yorker, 20 November 2017

“Ageism” was coined in 1969, two years after the Federal Discrimination in Employment Act set forty as the lower bound at which workers could complain of it. The upper bound continues to rise: the average life span grew more in the twentieth century than in all previous millennia. By 2020, for the first time, there will be more people on Earth over the age of sixty-five than under the age of five.

Like the racist and the sexist, the ageist rejects an Other based on a perceived difference. But ageism is singular, because it’s directed at a group that at one point wasn’t the Other—and at a group that the ageist will one day, if all goes well, join. The ageist thus insults his own future self.

Gullette argues that ageism stems from the perception that old people are irrelevant. She links the rise of ageism over the centuries to broad trends: the printing press and widespread literacy made the lore that elders carried in their heads available to all (a process hastened, and even finished off, by Google); the industrial revolution increasingly demanded younger, more mobile workers; and medical advances made so many people live so much longer.

Ageism is further fuelled, Gullette believes, by what she calls the “ideology of scarcity”—the trope that the elderly are locusts who swarm the earth consuming all our resources.

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