Barry Rashap, 79, felt it at the bank, where a woman stepped in front of him because he was a step too slow to get in line.
“I actually said something, but she didn’t respond,” Rashap said. “But when she was done and I got up to the teller, he sort of said, ‘Good for you.’ He saw that she was rude to me because of my age.”
For Barbara Sloate, 86, the feeling has come as she’s aged into what she calls “an also.”
“At a certain point, you aren’t considered normal,” Sloate said. “It’s like, ‘Also, Mom will be there.’ You’re an also, an afterthought, even in your own life.”
And Darrielle Wilson, 89, said simply that it’s why she’s wary about disclosing her true age.
“If I tell you I’m almost 90, then that’s it; I’m out. No invites to parties or anything. But if I can still look closer to 70, then I’m still considered part of life.
“I’m not talking about vanity,” she added. “I’m talking about being considered still truly alive, or not, because of your age. And that feeling, right there, that’s ageism. That’s pretty obvious.”
Two other things also are obvious.
Barbara Sloate. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG) First, Rashap, Sloate and Wilson are part of America’s fastest-growing demographic cohort – older people.
Since 2010, census data shows that the population of people age 65 and older has jumped by about 38%, compared with 2% growth for people younger than 65. By 2032, the American population is projected to be home to more older people (65 and up) than kids (ages 18 and under). And by 2050, nearly 1 in 4 Americans will be 65 or older, up from today’s ratio of about 1 in 6. What’s more, the oldest of all the age cohorts – Americans 85 and up – is the fastest growing subgroup, expected to double between now and 2040, according to the Administration on Aging.
By any measure, the pattern is clear: American demography is skewing older in ways that could reshape, among other things, how we feel about the idea of “old.”
The second thing that’s obvious is this: For now, Americans don’t particularly like “old.”
Though our culture idealizes respect for age and wisdom and experience (the federal government says May is “Older Americans Month”), real life suggests ageism is rampant and rank. And while it’s a two-way street (younger people are sometimes dissed, often by their elders, as “entitled” or “self-obsessed” or “soft,” among other things) ageism against older people is more common, and often comes with little pushback.
“Frail,” “forgetful,” “diminished,” “greedy,” “needy,” “racist,” “too-stupid-to-understand tech,” “smelly;” all are literal descriptions or inferences applied to older people in everything from TV commercials to movies to birthday cards.
And it’s not just words. Though age-related bias in the workplace has been illegal since the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (and mandatory retirement has been outlawed since 1986), the practice remains so entrenched that the Equal Opportunity Commission described it as “a significant and costly problem for workers, their families and our economy.” And a study by Yale professor and ageism author Becca Levy (“Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Well & How Long You Live”), found that in 2018 age-related stigmas and bias resulted in about $63 billion of wasted health spending.
Or, just consider this: Which word would you rather have applied to you, “youthful” or “elderly?”
It’s unclear how, or if, the aging boom will change that answer.
Old views Yale professor Levy has written about what she describes as a coming “age-stereotype paradox.” Essentially, it means that while logic suggests the rising numbers of old people in America should tone down ageism, serious research on the subject shows that ageism is actually becoming more common.
“Two contradictory elements comprise this paradox: the increase in age-stereotype negativity versus an increase in age-stereotype positivity that a number of factors suggest should be occurring,” she wrote.
Ed Romero, 96, a long-time leader at the Oasis Senior Center, helped organize the Freedom Shrine. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG) Or, as Ed Romero, 96, puts it:
“I’m not sure what ageism is, exactly, but I’m guessing it could go either way, right? It could get better; it could get worse.”
Romero, a retired educator and union leader from Newport Beach, said he’s only recently felt the pangs of advanced age. He sometimes forgets a word. He walks a bit slower than he used to. His hearing isn’t spectacular. Still, despite that, in most other ways Romero remains the same guy he’s always been: smart, interested in people, curious, happy.
He’s also an example.
Today, Romero, by remaining capable and energetic into his mid-90s, defies stereotypes about people his age. Soon, by their sheer numbers, millions of active older people might redefine those stereotypes, maybe even obliterate them.
In theory, a fast-growing world of active, healthy, independent older people could blunt ageism, or at least make the bias less likely to gain traction.
In a 2019 article published by the Gerontological Society of America, Levy wrote about the notion that a lot of young people seeing a lot of Romero-type older people in action could reduce the name-calling. “More contact between members of a stigmatized group and a non-stigmatized group will lead to more positive views of the stigmatized group.”
Alas, Levy noted in the same article, such contact is rare.
“There has been an increase” in age segregation in ways that, Levy later noted, “would be considered harmful” if applied to, say, racial or religious groups.
Instead, in America, age segregation remains a booming industry.
Entire communities – places like Laguna Woods Village and Leisure World in Southern California, The Villages in Florida and Sun City, Arizona – are sold to people age 55 and older who don’t want to live near younger people. And it’s not just housing. Vacations often are sold based on age. Same for education, financial advice, restaurants, fitness, entertainment; American companies sell the idea that older people and younger don’t want to mingle, and Americans buy it.
But it wasn’t always so.
A study of historical census data shows that in 1850 7 in 10 older people lived with their adult children, while about one in ten (11%) lived alone or with a spouse. Multi-generational living was the norm.
By 1990, it wasn’t. The census from that year shows a near reverse from the numbers of 1850, with 7 in 10 older Americans living alone or with a spouse, and the remainder either living with adult children or in adult-care facilities.
That, too, might change. The aging boom figures to add to the nation’s housing shortage, and a fast-rising solution – gaining traction in Southern California, New York and other higher-priced real estate markets – is multi-generational living. In 2021, Pew Research found that multi-generational households, nationally, had quadrupled since the 1970s, and that about 17% of older people now share a dwelling with adult children.
But even if a lot more older people and younger people start living together, it’s unclear if that will soften, or amplify, friction between the generations.
Another hallmark of the coming aging boom is that more Americans soon will be accepting Social Security and Medicare and fewer will be paying in. Though government spending is complex, and people collecting Social Security do so after contributing into it for decades, that older bubble in the population could put pressures on younger taxpayers that weren’t faced by future retirees. That, in turn, could lead to a world in which older people are viewed as what Utah Sen. Mitt Romney once described as “takers.”
It’s possible that dynamic is already upon us.
Darielle Wilson, 89, teaches a literature class at the Oasis Senior Center in Newport Beach. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG) “Civility is gone,” said Wilson, a retired community college professor who still teaches literature – in English, French and Spanish – to people 50 and older at the Oasis Senior Center in Newport Beach.
“There’s a lot of competition, I think, between the generations,” she added. “And it could get worse. I hope it doesn’t, but it could.”
Why not old? In colonial America, public seating arrangements put older people – regardless of their economic rank – in prime positions. Even some clothing, as recently as the late 1800s, was designed to make the wearer look older, not younger.
All of that reversed in the 20th century. From about 1900 through the late 1960s, aging was increasingly denigrated and older people were viewed as non-essential, at least in popular culture. Youth was revered; age was smeared. Studies of words used in media and literature found words like “geezer” and other negative age descriptions became increasingly common. Levy wrote that depictions of age and older people became “increasingly negative” over a 200-year window.
But, for a while now, older people have been fighting against that.
Old age should not be viewed “as a disastrous disease” but, instead, should be seen as a time of “strength.”
Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers – a group that pushes for civil rights for all ages and against ageism – said that in 1978.
By 2023, America’s new demography is leading to a similar message, at least in the marketplace.
“Age boldly” is the tagline for NextTribe, a company that provides journalism and adventure travel for women ages 45 and older. It’s one of thousands of companies catering to a fast-growing world of consumers who essentially want to live in ways that reflect their health, energy and brains, not their chronological age.
“I’m trying to make it so you don’t have to be scared to get older,” said Jeannie Ralston, the founder of NextTribe.
“It’s not a marketing thing. The population is changing; what we’re doing just reflects it.
“Age isn’t a winding down time, it’s a ramping up,” Ralston added. “I certainly don’t think the women who read our magazine, or travel with us, feel sorry for themselves.”
So, will “old” ever be a compliment?
“Hopefully, but I don’t know about that one,” said Ralston, laughing.
Some people who qualify say it already is.
“My mother was a power, a force to be reckoned with,” said Sloate, who, before retiring some years ago, ran a travel agency while raising four children. “She was never ‘old’ in any sense, positive or negative.
“I’d like to think I’ve inherited that.”