Ageism: The Last Politically Correct Prejudice

mockery of older people used to mask our own fears of growing old

John Thurston |

As a prejudice, “Ageism” singles out those who are older for ridicule. Fear of growing older is its engine. Few people recognize its existence even though they often engage in its expression.

From the moment of birth, the individual begins to age, a process that continues until death. During the first two decades, there is a progressive and positive development of mental and physical capacities. It’s good to get older. By the time individuals have reached their early twenties, they’re enjoying a special status accorded them because of their youth.

But then people begin to fear getting older. Virtually any suggestion of a personal decline becomes an ominous sign of what lies ahead.


We believe that virtually everyone may often be an “ageist,” a person who accepts and/or practices the prejudice of ageism. Almost everyone resents, resists, denies, and fears aging in one way or another. If ageism took the form of an elephant in the living room, it would remain unobserved by those who deny it exists. Accept the oldsters as people; accord them the respect they deserve.

Some examples of ageism:

1. The mock celebration of “The Big 30” or “Over the Hill” birthday parties. Humor assumes a large, ominous role in denying ageism. It becomes a kind of whistling in the dark, a form of distraction from accepting the fear of the celebrants’ own aging.

2. An enormous number of cosmetic commercials are clearly directed towards preventing or repairing the impact of aging.

3. An attractive, intelligent woman in her early 40s says that she is now faced with two choices. In her words, she could begin “to put on a ton of make-up” or “settle for looking dowdy.”

4. While many manifestations of ageism are subtle, occasional expressions of outright cruelty might be noted: e.g. a brash young man shouts at a female mall walker, “You can walk all you want, old woman, but you’re not going to get any younger.”

5. A statement attributed to a younger movie fan that expresses the disgust experienced when seeing older men with younger women: “Jack Nicholson caressing a young Helen Hunt with his liver-spotted hands was really disgusting.” At what age do such caresses become the pawings of Godzilla?

6. Is aging different for men and women? A woman who is in her 30s may seek out male companions who are 10 or more years her junior. Older men are seen as “distinguished” as they gray, but women are encouraged to fight aging every step of the way.

7. As a prejudice, ageism is unique. For example, gender and racial prejudices can be expressed by a man with some impunity because he knows that he will never become a woman or a member of the targeted race. Ho wever, in the case of ageism, it is a certainty that the prejudiced individual will eventually become part of the group that was singled out for vilification. What goes around, does come around.

Suggestions Regarding Ageism

What can be done?

1. Stop practicing ageism. Realize the potentially harmful consequences of what you might say or do.

2. Stop holding yourself above this fray. Recognize your denial of growing old and deal with it.

3. Recognize that the denial supporting ageism is noted in the cavalier treatment that we accord the aged in our nursing homes. “Out of sight, out of mind,” describes the attitudes of our society and our legislators regarding them. How many people have ever entered a nursing home for its open house or to visit a patient?

4. Stop accepting the basic premises of ageism. Aging need not be the source of despair in your life. While the process has its downside, this need not be exaggerated. One should feel very free, at any age, to accentuate the positives in one’s life while living with the negatives. Older people have a lot to offer.

5. Don’t join with others as they express this hurtful prejudice. Ageism harms many people. If one even tolerates ageistic humor, any enjoyment must be tempered by the pain of the targeted person.

Final Words

Each age has its special challenges, advantages, and disadvantages. The human body will eventually deteriorate in the aging process. Accept these developments honestly in a way that is unprejudiced by ageistic views. You may not like getting older, but aging is probably better than the alternative. Don’t try to solve your aging problems at the expense of others. Don’t allow others to put you down because of your age. Encourage others around you to follow your example. Play the cards that life has dealt you. Play them well, and prevail.

John R. Thurston, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of psychology at UW-Eau Claire. Amy Thurston, M.S.E., is a retired language arts teacher at Hudson Middle School. Learn about the Thurston “It’s the little things” Family Fund.

Journey Ahead

We all get old. In fact, some of us, right at this very moment, ARE old. V1's guide to challenges and opportunities of growing older in the Chippewa Valley. Presented by the ADRC of Eau Claire County