Saturday, May 18, 2024

Riding the Wave: Boomers Defy Ageism


Prejudice or discrimination on the basis of age is a widespread and insidious global issue with far-reaching ramifications. But the tide is turning. Rather than drown in a sea of stereotypes, boomers — disruptors in every sense — are setting a new course, dispelling outdated notions of what it means to get older. The same generation that once embraced the mantra “Never trust anyone over 30” is now positioned, by age, attitude and influence, to put an end to society’s last acceptable “ism.”

In a spirited talk titled “The Silver Tsunami,” Dr. Geoff Fernie, former director of research at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute who has devoted much of his career to finding innovative solutions to help Canadians age powerfully, shared a dramatic video of a wind-surfer riding a huge wave in Maui. The footage of a lone surfer cresting 20-foot waves was riveting. Fernie allowed the audience a minute of silence before revealing that the agile big-wave surfer was his 68-year-old sister.

“Let’s not think of the huge growth of our aging population as a tsunami,” said Dr. Fernie, a member of AGE-WELL, Canada’s Technology and Aging Network. “Let’s change our way of thinking. Rather than let the tsunami run over us – we’re going to ride the wave. And we can aim high.”

As Dr. Fernie illustrates, getting older isn’t what it used to be.

Still, stereotypes persist, and research shows that people start feeling the sting of ageism as early as their mid-40s. Ageism is deeply rooted; a study out of the UK shows that children as young as six adopt negative stereotypes about aging. Instead of celebrating experience and insights, society tends to see older people as liabilities, somehow less capable and certainly less sexual.

Research shows that negative attitudes can even shorten our lifespan: On average, people who have positive attitudes toward aging live 7.5 years longer.

Ageism is a pressing global issue in every sense. Analysis by the World Health Organization shows it’s widespread: 60 percent of respondents in the World Values Survey reported that older people are not respected. More than 83,000 people in 57 countries took part in the survey. Surprisingly (or not), the lowest levels of respect were reported in high-income countries, including Canada.

According to the WHO’s report, “Unlike other forms of discrimination, including sexism and racism, ageism is socially acceptable, strongly institutionalised, largely undetected and unchallenged. Ageism limits the questions that are asked and the way problems are conceptualized. … [It] influences the development of global health policy and targets.”

John Beard, WHO director of aging and life course, said following the release of the study, “This analysis confirms that ageism is extremely common. Yet most people are completely unaware of the subconscious stereotypes they hold. Like sexism and racism, changing social norms is possible. It is time to stop defining people by their age. It will result in more prosperous, equitable and healthier societies.”

While addressing prejudice is a collective social responsibility, Boomers are leading the charge. Their most powerful protest tool? Living their best lives. This is the generation that fought against segregation, spearheaded modern feminism and pushed governments to give peace a chance: They’re not about to wait passively as waves of age discrimination wash over them. Rather, they’re riding that wave with swagger and purpose, redefining what it means to get older.

Myth versus reality

In an eye-opening report, The Elastic Generation, J. Walter Thompson Intelligence examines the lifestyles and attitudes of older adults: “They are smashing outmoded notions of how one should live past 50 and 60. … Blessed with longer life expectancy, they are demonstrating behaviours and attitudes that are markedly more youthful than generations before them. Rejecting a traditional linear path through life, they are revisiting life stages at will: dating, studying, [co-habitating], launching businesses and more.”

“Our collective understanding of what later life looks like remains woefully outdated,” writes Marie Stafford, the European director of the JWT Innovation Group, in the report’s introduction. “Age no longer dictates the way we live. Physical capacity, financial circumstances and mindset arguably have far greater influence.”

With the number of Canadians aged 65 and older slated to double by 2036, it’s time to change the conversation to reflect a more realistic and powerful picture about what it means to get older. As detailed in the Revera Report on Ageism, this seismic shift is culminating in immense changes to the social and economic landscape of Canada, one in which ageism – the last acceptable “ism” – won’t be tolerated.

The world is waking up

It’s a global movement that’s gaining traction. In the UK, the Royal Society for Public Health recently published a scathing, yet oddly promising, report, That Age Old Question: How Attitudes to Aging Affect Our Health and Wellbeing, which states: “Ageism is the most commonly experienced form of prejudice and discrimination, both in the UK and across Europe. Other forms of discrimination, such as racism and sexism, are rightly regarded as unacceptable, yet ageist assumptions and attitudes often go unchallenged. Negative stereotypes … are sadly all too familiar.”

The report calls on society to mobilize and makes recommendations that include banning the use of the words “anti-aging” in the cosmetics and beauty industry; greater media representation for older people; and new approaches in healthcare, the workplace and policy.

Calling ageism a “socially normalized prejudice” and a “widespread and an insidious practice which has harmful effects on the health of older adults,” causing significant social and economic implications, the WHO adopted the Global Strategy and Action Plan on Ageing and Health, stating, “Countries, regions, and institutions need strong leadership and commitment to create and implement policies that benefit older populations. Policies for ageing and health are often uncoordinated, fragmented or non-existent. … Promoting healthy ageing, and building systems to meet the needs of older adults, will be sound investments in a future where people have the freedom to be and do what they value.”

Prevalent, pervasive and persistent

It sounds promising, but there’s a lot of work to be done, around the globe and here in Canada. 

According to the Revera report, “ageism is the most tolerated form of social prejudice in Canada when compared to gender or race-based discrimination.”

When asked where ageism is most apt to crop up in our lives, Lia E. Tsotsos, director of the Centre for Elder Research at Sheridan College in Oakville, ON, breathes a long sigh: “Everywhere,” she says. “Ageism is pervasive in advertising, media, healthcare, the workplace, the retail setting, in our language. … Ageism is the most tolerated of all types of discrimination.”

Not all of it is blatant, however. “So often people aren’t aware of the ageism inherent in their language, behaviour or practices,” says Tsotsos. “Calling an older woman ‘young lady’ is ageist. So too is advertising copy in glossy magazine ads that tell us to ‘combat aging’ – as if it’s something shameful.”

Even birthday cards give it a negative spin. A study, “Stereotypes of Ageing: Messages Promoted by Age-Specific Paper Birthday Cards Available in Canada,” found that 67 percent of the 150 age-specific birthday cards examined contained “textual messages that represented aging in a negative manner.”

While it might be tempting to call such transgressions harmless, behind every powerful movement is someone who was once told to “lighten up.” It’s the little things that feed stereotypes and give people permission to discriminate.

Dirk Kelleher, a 47-year-old Vancouverite whose biggest passion is wilderness hiking, recently experienced his first taste of ageism at his local outdoor gear store. He is a loyal customer, but after returning from a six-week trek with a new beard flecked with patches of grey, he was made to feel like the Old Guy. “When I asked the sales associate, who’d attended to me many times in the past, if I could look at one of their 40-litre backpacks, he immediately looked at me and said, ‘Well, sir, most of our customers your age find they do better with one of our lighter backpacks.” Kenney wasn’t sure how to respond. “I was gutted by his comment – it made me feel feeble. Because my appearance suggested I was an older person, he somehow assumed I was less physically capable.”

This misconception that you are somehow less capable once your hair starts to grey is commonplace. For instance, Canadians as young as 45 are reporting ageism in the workplace. “It’s rarely blatant – that’s illegal – but many employers send subtle but clear messages to older workers that they’re not wanted,” says Barbara Jaworski, CEO of the Workplace Institute, who points to things like social committees and lunch-and-learns where the focus is on younger workers. (The more obvious discrimination? Being perennially passed over for promotion.)

It’s little wonder Boomers determined to keep working are doing it their way: According to Statistics Canada, about 50 percent of all entrepreneurs fall in the 50-to-64 age range.

Screen gems – or not

Nor are we guaranteed a reprieve from ageist stereotyping when we settle on the sofa for a Netflix binge. A study released by Humana Inc. in 2017 found that older people are underrepresented – and misrepresented – in the majority of Oscar-nominated movies.

The study looked at 1,256 characters in the 25 films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2014, 2015 and 2016. It found that only 11.8 percent were 60 or older – and only 27 percent were female. (Let’s give it up for Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren!) Even worse, these films perpetuated stereotype of inept aging adults, with dialogue such as “… just sit here and let Alzheimer’s run its course.”

In 2016, the Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at USC Annenberg released a report that concluded: “One of the most politicized areas in Hollywood pertains to casting women 40 years of age or older.” 

This year, Nicole Kidman, who is 50, addressed ageism during her SAG Award speech: “Twenty years ago, [women] were pretty washed up by this stage in our lives. … We have proven and … are proving that we are potent and powerful and viable. I just beg that the industry stays behind us, because our stories are finally being told. It’s only the beginning.”

Linda Barnard, a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, says: “As moviegoers, we want to see ourselves onscreen – someone we can relate to, that we can understand and empathize with. In a way, women over the age of 40 are waiting for our Black Panther.” Hailed as revolutionary, that film gave the black community their own superhero.

As older adults look for relatable heroes, Grace and Frankie, the Netflix series starring 80-year-old Jane Fonda and 78-year-old Lily Tomlin, gives us something to aspire to. The duo relaunch their lives after divorce; start a vibrator business (easy grip for arthritic hands); fall in and out of love; take risks; and epitomize the best affirmative message: Take me as I am. One of the most telling lines, shouted by Grace during an outburst in a grocery store: “I refuse to be irrelevant.”

What the health!

Listen closely and you’ll hear the same mantra in doctors’ waiting rooms. It’s ironic – if not downright disappointing – that the very places older Canadians seek support and healing can be rife with ageism. According to the Revera report, more than 34 percent of older Canadians say they’ve experienced age discrimination from healthcare professionals, and nearly 80 percent of those say a healthcare professional had dismissed their issue as “an inevitable sign of aging.”

Dr. Laurent Marcoux, former president of the Canadian Medical Association, addressed ageism in a recent issue of doctorsNS: “Our healthcare system’s challenges make headlines every day. Wait times. Growing frustrations. Our population is aging, and older Canadians are often not getting proper care.”

Lori Schindel Martin, associate professor of Nursing at Ryerson University and president-elect of the Canadian Gerontological Nursing Association, sees some evolution: “We now emphasize what’s called ‘relational care.’ We tell our students not to dictate to a patient – of any age – what treatments they need and … to refrain from saying ageist things.”

Change takes time, but the good news is that healthcare organizations are acknowledging there’s a problem – it’s a crucial component to change – and work is underway to develop more age-friendly models.

In the meantime, Boomers are taking charge of their own health. Spurred by a greater understanding about everything from exercise to food choices, as well as new technologies that empower people to monitor their health stats, this demographic is focused on wellness.

Public policy put to the test

Advocates are calling for reform in every corner of society, with disrupters like Ashton Applewhite, the US-born writer-activist who wrote This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, fuelling a growing movement. Hell-bent on dispelling myths about aging, she was named Influencer of the Year for 2016 thanks to her “Yo, Is This Ageist?” blog. In a recent tweet, she called for action: “A world of age equality requires a global movement against #ageism. #SocialJustice.”

In Canada, all levels of government have anti-discrimination legislation designed, in part, to address ageism. As more people wake up to the issue, they’re empowered to speak up, and age-friendly changes are afoot. 

For instance, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal recently found that terminating an employee’s health, dental and life insurance benefits at age of 65 constitutes age discrimination. Such wins go a long way toward raising awareness and creating a more equitable society.

Just last year, the AGE-WELL, Canadian Network of Centres of Excellence and the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation launched the Advancing Policies and Practices in Technology and Aging hub. Dr. Alex Mihailidis, scientific director of AGE-WELL, sums up such efforts: “How do we make Canada the best country in the world for people to age in?”

In early 2018, the Nova Scotia government launched NS GovLab, to develop policies, programs and services that offer a new approach to the challenges and opportunities of an aging population. In addition, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently created a seniors portfolio in his cabinet, and it will be interesting to see how this advocacy role plays out.

As activist Eldridge Cleaver once said, “There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.”

The first step to ending ageism is understanding it’s not just an older person’s problem: It affects us all and we all need to own it, whether we’re crafting policy, creating ads or simply perpetuating it in our everyday language.

While addressing discrimination is a collective responsibility, Boomers are charting the path, showing the world that outdated notions of age no longer dictate how we live into our 50s and beyond. This powerful demographic is determined to thrive in a world where they’re not cast adrift by ageist attitudes, but rather riding the wave to change.

Are You Ageist?

YouAreUNLTD is committed to disrupting and redefining what it means to get older. We are changing conversations about aging and we invite you to join the movement. Take the World Health Organization’s Aging Attitudes Quiz as a first step in your Stand Against Ageism. Check your attitudes against commonly held views of aging and older persons and find out how much you know about aging and older people. If we don’t recognize it, we can’t change it.


Working “9 to 5” – and often past 65

Ageism is rampant in the workplace. “Most hiring executives and CEOs, especially in the tech industry where I frequently consult, favour youthful workers over older adults, and I don’t see that changing soon,” says Sarah Saska, co-founder of Feminuity, a Canadian consulting firm that helps companies navigate their way through diversity, inclusion, and belonging issues. According to the staffing company Randstad, 26 percent of Canadians surveyed said they’ve experienced age-based discrimination at work. While some progress has been made in terms of gender balance and ethnic diversity in the workplace, says Saska, there hasn’t been a lot of progress for older workers, who are frequently passed over for promotion, not given training, and are often less valued by colleagues. 

Here are 10 reasons that older workers can benefit your business:

  1. Older workers have life experience (judgment)
  2. More apt to have accumulated business wisdom
  3. Resiliency to weather the unprecedented pace of change
  4. Desire to grow, learn, explore and develop personally and professionally is common to every age
  5. Communication skills
  6. Loyal, strong work ethic
  7. Excellent customer service skills from years of working with people
  8. Older customers may relate better to someone their own age
  9. Seasoned problem solvers
  10. On-site mentors to younger staff


Negative Self-Talk About Getting Older Can Lead To Internalized Ageism

Ashton Applewhite Crushes 10 Myths About Aging

Changing the Conversation: 5 Ways to Shift Negative Attitudes about Aging

Originally published in Issue 02 of YouAreUNLTD Magazine. PG. 22

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Doug O'Neill
Doug O'Neill
O’Neill, formerly Executive Editor of Canadian Living, writes on all manner of topics for a variety of Canadian publications – but has a preference for storytelling that gets to the heart of things. “Writing about journeys has always fascinated me,'” says contributor Doug O’Neill, “whether I’m scribbling about my own travels around the world or about other people’s inspiring journeys as they navigate from one life stage to another.”