“Ageism is a social phenomenon . . . most entrenched in industrial and post-industrial civilizations such as the United States.” — sociologists Ursula A. Falk and Gerhard Falk
Older Americans are faced with a variety of stereotypes. They are seen by many people as being feeble in mind and body and as economic burdens on society, and they are labeled with pejoratives such as “geezers” or “old fogies.” Even though the average American has a lifespan of 76.5 years—and those who reach the age of sixty-five can expect to live another eighteen years—it is often believed that they have little to contribute once they reach their sixties. However, this stereotype exists not just in the United States, but in other nations as well.
At one time, American attitudes toward the elderly were more positive. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the aging were respected and venerated because they helped transmit wisdom and tradition to the younger generations. They were given the best seats in church, and Puritan teachings instructed youth on how to behave toward their elders. One reason that the aged garnered this respect was because there were so few of them in colonial society. According to social historian David Hackett Fischer, only two percent of the population at that time was over sixty-five years old.
By the nineteenth century, American society had changed significantly. Ironically, the elderly suffered as America progressed. The rise of an urban and industrialized nation meant that the skills and education of many of the aged were no longer useful. Because younger, healthier workers were more desirable for factories, mandatory retirement laws were passed as early as 1777. These laws forced the aging to leave their jobs, leading to poverty. Old-age homes were established for those elderly who were poor and had no family to look after them; such homes further isolated the elderly from society. No longer were the aged referred to in re- spectful terms, as labels such as “codger” and “fuddy-duddy” began to take hold in the nineteenth century.
The negative attitudes toward the elderly have continued into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Many aged persons are isolated from their families; the majority live alone or with their spouse, with 60 percent of women over the age of eighty-five living alone. Commercials and jokes frequently rely on stereotypes of the elderly, such as the belief that they are desperate to appear young and virile. Some people believe the Social Security system allows senior citizens to drain money away from tax-paying workers. However, for the aging Americans who do want to continue to work or return to the workplace, age discrimination often raises a barrier. In their book Ageism, the Aged and Aging in America, Ursula A. Falk and Gerhard Falk describe the plight of the elderly who are healthy and want to find work but are made irrelevant because of their age: “Since occupation and work are the principal criteria of social prestige in America, the old, by being excluded from work are therefore devalued.”
The United States is not unique in its attitudes toward the elderly. In other cultures and nations, the rise of urban industrialization has led to similar results. In African and Asian nations, when those countries were largely rural, older relatives used to live with their children and grandchildren. However, the limited space of urban housing makes such intergenerational homes less practical and less desirable. As a consequence, the elderly in these countries have lost their status in the family and society as a whole. Nana Araba Apt, a professor of sociology at the University of Ghana at Legon, writes that the increasing urbanization of African life has worsened the status of the elderly. In the past, the elderly were heavily involved in the rearing of children, helped make important decisions for the family, and were supported as they aged. As society became more urban, the aged began to lose their economic security. Furthermore, Apt writes, “They lost their former favored position in the extended family. No longer were the grandfather and grandmother the center of absorbing social life of their descendants but often became unwanted hangers on . . . in the activities of their children and grandchildren.” Japanese society has changed in a similar fashion. Although 55 percent of elderly parents live with their children and grandchildren—nearly three times the rate in other industrialized nations—that percentage has dropped sharply since 1970, when 80 percent of homes housed multiple generations. According to Nicholas D. Kristof, a writer for the New York Times, this is an example of how “Japanese attitudes are changing very rapidly and . . . many young Japanese feel even less of a debt to their parents than do young Americans.”
Despite the devalued status of the elderly in many cultures, aging is not a universally negative experience. In their book Successful Aging, John W. Rowe and Robert L. Kahn refute many of the stereotypes associated with the aging process, such as the beliefs that the elderly are in poor health or unable to learn new skills. Rowe and Kahn also note that many elderly Americans contribute significantly to society and the economy but that since much of the work done by the elderly is unpaid, it does not receive its rightful recognition. They write: “Almost all older men and women are productive in this larger sense. One-third work for pay and onethird work as volunteers in churches, hospitals, and other organizations.”
The attitudes toward the aging in America have long been evolving. In Aging Population: Opposing Viewpoints, the status of and attitudes toward the elderly are examined in the following chapters: How Does Society View Aging and the Elderly? How Will an Aging Population Affect America? Should Social Security Be Reformed? Are Improvements Needed in Elderly Health Care? In those chapters, the authors consider how the aging are treated in America and what steps should be taken, if necessary, to improve that treatment.