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MIT News: Feature story

Reframing ageism

The way we treat older people is based on an outdated understanding of the realities of aging. It’s time to rethink it.

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Eric Mongeon/MITTR

Among the Ojibwe of North America, an older person is referred to as a “great person” and young people are taught not to answer back when chastised by their elders, out of respect for their wisdom. But some of the Chukchi people living in Siberia adhered to a custom based on a very different view of aging. An older person who had come to feel like a burden would call for an elaborate ceremony of eating and heavy drinking that might go on for several days—ending with an execution. Often, the eldest son would approach the very intoxicated guest of honor from behind, delivering a blow over the head with a heavy club to assure a quick death. The practice was seen as a sacrifice to appease the spirits of the dead, but most of the people sacrificed were elderly.  

Radically different approaches, from the deferential to the brutal, have “made sense” to the people living within these societies largely because they have frames, or ways of thinking and understanding reality, that highlight certain aspects of their experience while obscuring others. Older people, as the examples from these two cultures illustrate, can be either the beneficiaries or the victims of such framing. 

In the United States, what gerontologists call compassionate ageism—the belief that beyond a certain point, older adults are needy and deserve help—has prevailed as the dominant frame since at least the early 1800s. While American culture has long prized individualism and self-reliance, it has also traditionally valued altruism—as long as the government doesn’t require it or dictate its terms. Compassionate ageism has typically defined older people as being poor and frail, and thus deserving of help because they can no longer remain self-reliant. And traditionally, that support was provided by their own children. 

People might avoid a restaurant that gave an “unfair” discount (such as one for people over six feet) but not feel the same way about senior discounts.

While many people resisted the idea of having the government dictate what that aid should be, they were willing to accept such things as senior citizen discounts because they were consistent with social norms. Someone who might avoid a restaurant that gave an “unfair” discount (such as a hypothetical discount for people taller than six feet) would usually not feel the same way about senior discounts. Older adults are often seen as both needing and deserving the discount. “Elderspeak” is another manifestation of compassionate ageism—a kindly intended but potentially demeaning pattern of speech in which people say things like “How are we feeling today?” or use simplified vocabulary and grammar, nicknames, or repetition when addressing older people. Using a condescending tone of voice and speaking loudly or slowly are other common features. Older people are sometimes subjected to this type of speech because they are assumed to be cognitively and physically frail.

Despite its shortcomings, compassionate ageism has deeply benefited older Americans. This was particularly true in the years after the Great Depression, which upended the economic circumstances of the majority of Americans and made it clear that self-reliance alone was a flawed idea. No matter what people did, few could have been expected to pull themselves out of the dismal economic conditions of that time. 

Unlike most of the New Deal programs—introduced to help Americans recover from the Depression—which soon fell victim to Americans’ distaste for government activism, many of those aimed at older people have endured. Thanks in large part to the strength of compassionate ageism, people saw the older population as a group permanently in need of government assistance. 

Three tips for avoiding ageism

  • ONE

    Recognize frames when you see them. Frames such as compassionate ageism, generational equity, and generational interdependence highlight different aspects of our experience—but can cause us to ignore other important data.

  • TWO

    A great deal of ageist behavior, such as using “elderspeak,” is unintentional. Even if your intentions are good, think carefully to avoid letting stereotypes of older people as frail and poor cause you to treat them in a demeaning way.

  • THREE

    Don’t pit the generations against each other. Generational interdependence highlights the ways in which their interests overlap, as in the consequences they have faced from the Great Risk Shift.

The passage of the Social Security Act of 1935 marked the beginning of governmental policies focused on caring for older Americans. These policies expanded over the next four decades to include Medicare, the Older Americans Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Age Discrimination Act, the Income Security Act, and the Research on Aging Act. The compassionate ageism frame was the linchpin. Without it, widespread public resistance to government programs would have stifled their growth.

Events such as the Great Depression can be what sociologists refer to as “frame breakers.” But frames can also come into direct conflict with each other, often in the wake of public policy debates. For instance, in the 1980s, a short-term Social Security funding shortfall prompted the adoption of the 1983 Social Security Amendment. It drew public attention to the substantial amount of the federal budget that went to old-age programs, prompting a clash between two competing frames.

One, which became known as the generational equity frame, focused on the idea that older people were taking more than their fair share of resources, at the expense of children and younger adults. In the years following passage of the amendment, a coalition of conservative organizations, foundations, and journalists promoted this idea. Notably, Senator David Durenberger founded Americans for Generational Equity (AGE); journalists such as William F. Buckley Jr. and Henry Fairlie pushed back against the resources devoted to the older population; and organizations such as the Olin Foundation and the Cato Institute used the idea of generational equity to fuel resistance to activist government. 

Advocates of this frame cited the demographer Samuel Preston’s observation that the economic conditions of older people had improved while those of younger generations had deteriorated. Notably, in the early 1990s, economists Alan Auerbach, Jagadeesh Gokhale, and Laurence Kotlikoff calculated a lifetime tax rate for each generation, a figure representing what they could expect to pay in taxes minus the government benefits they could expect to receive. This approach, known as generational accounting, pointed to a greater lifetime tax burden on younger adults. 

The generational equity frame convinced many people that fairness between generations was a major issue, an idea that persisted over time. For example, even after the end of the Great Recession of 2008, media outlets highlighted the large number of college graduates working in jobs that didn’t reflect their educational credentials. The Wall Street Journal called this the “well-educated-barista economy,” arguing that the high price of college wasn’t paying off for younger adults. When this was contrasted with stories of older Americans working longer, it caused people to ask whether older adults were squeezing the young out of the “good jobs.” The generational equity frame pitted the interests of older and younger adults against each other—and appealed broadly to the ideas of fairness and justice. But it ignored some aspects of reality.

The concept of generational interdependence offered an alternative frame for viewing aging in the US. First posited in 2003, generational interdependence focuses on the interests different generations have in common rather than the ones that pit them against each other. This frame also rightly emphasizes the wide variation among older people; some need more financial help from the government than others might. Though it draws from the same data as the generational equity frame, it highlights different aspects of that data. For example, in the generational interdependence frame, the increasing proportion of single-parent households and the reductions in federal spending—more than the tendency of older workers to delay retirement—may explain the deteriorating economic conditions of younger generations. 

Generational interdependence focuses on the interests different generations have in common rather than the ones that pit them against each other.

This perspective on the “well-educated-­barista economy” focuses our attention on what the political scientist Jacob Hacker has called the Great Risk Shift: the transfer of financial risk from corporate and government entities to individuals and families. In this view, the troubles of both new college graduates and people nearing retirement spring from similar sources. The shift from traditional pension plans to defined-contribution retirement plans exposed older workers to new financial risks. And the growth in student loan balances represents another way in which risk shifted to individuals and families. The generational interdependence frame draws attention to the concerns that generations share, rather than those they don’t.

The core lesson here is that there are multiple ways of understanding our experience. Thinking in terms of generational interdependence—rather than competition between generations—might offer a way through the debates surrounding old-age policies in the United States. Generational interdependence suggests that “we’re all in this together.” And that can be a powerful thought. 

John B. Williamson ’64, professor emeritus of sociology at Boston College, helped develop the frame of generational interdependence. Williamson and Tay K. McNamara, senior research associate at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, coauthored the book Ageism: Past, Present, and Future, published in 2019 by Routledge.


Q&A

Prof. John Williamson
COURTESY OF JOHN WILLIAMSON

An aging expert on growing old

John Williamson ’64, who tackled such topics as the politics of aging and Social Security policy in his 50-year career as a sociology professor at Boston College, weighs in on how old age has changed.

When did you first start studying aging, and why?

I think I was influenced by my wife, Bette Johnson, who has her PhD and taught gerontology. We wrote a book together on growing old.  

What interested you in the work?

As a sociologist, I was quite aware that the population was aging. And there are all sorts of complications related to that. With Baby Boomers getting older, there was a need—and funding—to look at all these issues the older population faces. I got interested in aging, then in pension systems, and then I coedited a book on death and dying and for many years taught
a course on it. 

Have perceptions about agingand the experience of agingchanged over the course of your career?

Aging is seen as less scary. We’ve got increasing affluence, so more older people can have a more interesting and diversified life than 50 years ago. Virtually everyone used to be at home forever—or until they ended up in a nursing facility. Today, people have the option of moving into retirement communities focused around an older population. They have medical facilities, but they can also have golf, restaurants, pools, buses that will take you to the symphony, and all sorts of things associated with younger age groups, like elaborate exercise facilities, places for taking long walks, and even woodworking shops. It makes being older less oppressive.

These retirement communities are driving changes in the whole housing sector. When I was 20 years old, the Villages in Florida—which has over 100,000 people now—was all cow pastures. It’s a dramatic difference: now older people can have a life where they drive around in golf carts and play golf and bridge and have all sorts of opportunities to do these things with like-minded people. And when a spouse dies, these places can expose them to a variety of good potential partners. 

On the other hand, there’s a class component: who can afford to live in retirement communities? A lot of people end up in some very, very expensive places.

How do you define ageism?

Having negative views toward people who are older or have symptoms associated with old age. It’s never used in a positive way.

Has ageism increased or decreased since you began working in the field?

There are many more old people to have ageist attitudes about. But we’re improving how we handle some of the problems that older people have so they can function at a higher level for a longer period of time. For those people, there’s a reduction in ageism.

Have your thoughts on the field changed as you’ve gotten older?

I’ve become more aware of the diversity of the experience of being old. I’m also growing older, so getting closer to it. 

Have you experienced ageism?

Everyone does, but I don’t feel I’ve experienced a lot of it. I like to play pickleball, and if you want a good pickleball partner, you don’t pick someone who’s almost 80—you pick someone who’s 30. I can understand that.

Did getting older give you additional insight in your research?

At 20, I would’ve thought when I was 80 I would be a real unhappy camper. But I’m just about 80 now and enjoy life. There are certain things I can’t do. I can’t play football and I can’t run as far and as fast. But I can run and hike—and I play pickleball at least twice a week. (The secret to avoiding injury is not overdoing it.)  

Do you take advantage of senior discounts?

Wherever they are there, I always do.

Are they a good idea?

They’re a gimmick. And sometimes you end up with a lot of stuff you don’t need or don’t want. People who are less affluent can benefit from discounts. But I don’t really see senior discounts as charity. I see them as marketing—a way to get more business. 

What’s the best way to prevent ageism?

Doing things to keep people healthy and functioning as long as possible. Such things as structuring work so they can work as long as they want and not feel forced out. 

How does age discrimination play out in the workplace?

All sorts of subtle things exist in any working environment. Organizations often want to have younger workers, sometimes for structural reasons. If you’re working for the electric company, climbing telephone poles is physically tough, so you can’t hire a 60-year-old. In academics, professors typically get tenure and can stay pretty long. But they tend to be squeezed out one way or another when they get to be a certain age. For example, they can have courses taken away from them, so if they stay, they have to teach a whole new course that they’re not familiar with. But sometimes there’s a mixture of being forced out and being glad to leave. 

Any advice for fellow alumni as they grow older?

Keep your friends. Keep in contact and make the effort to maintain friendships. Develop new friendships.  Do things to keep yourself healthy and keep your partner healthy. And keep your networks. They’re awfully important. 

This conversation was edited for clarity and length.

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