The Invisible Generation

Are people over 50 digging themselves into a proverbial early grave? Age-old stereotypes and self-perceptions can have a crippling effect on self-esteem, creativity and potential, long before the ‘game’ is over.

It’s fairly inevitable we will fall prey at some time in our lives to negative ageist stereotypes. Being on the receiving end of ageist attitudes or jibes can have a debilitating effect on a person’s self-esteem, work and relationships. Even their ability to function effectively can be damaged. In the working world and beyond, the older generation has a lot stacked against them, so the last thing we need is to be our own worst enemy and buy into the negative chatter with self-imposed ageist shackles.

In basic terms, ageism is the stereotyping of people based on age. It occurs in society to varying degrees, from TV and retail to dating, healthcare and, of course, employment. From a definitional perspective, ageism is like racism or sexism in that it treats people differently based on preconceived ideas about a particular group.

While most people have a general knowledge or understanding of the history of racism or sexism, their understanding of ageism is likely to be limited to jokes about ageing, greeting cards or seniors discounts that provide benefits for reaching a certain age.

Most studies of ageist attitudes tend to focus on its negative aspects. However, there are some benefits of ageism, such as when the attributes of age are deemed advantageous. For example, a positive view perceives an association between ageing and greater wisdom, patience and an enhanced appreciation of life’s benefits.

Imagine being ageless. What if we (and everyone in the world) forgot age and ageist stereotypes? What might we accomplish and dare to do? Yale University Professor Becca Levy, research pioneer on the self perceptions of ageing, has referred to the ‘ageing-self-stereotype phenomenon’ and how people can sabotage their own happiness and success with self-imposed negativity.

She says many Baby Boomers are aware of their own negative perceptions of ageing, but don’t always know how to stop them. In one study, Levy found that individuals with positive perceptions about ageing live seven and a half years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions. In another, she found that older individuals with positive age stereotypes were 44 per cent more likely to fully recover from severe disability than those with negative age stereotypes.

‘What people aren’t aware of is that they have the ability to overcome and resist negative stereotypes [and] compensate for the ill effects of automatic ageism,’ she told The Wall Street Journal.

David Weiss, assistant professor of socio-medical sciences and psychology at the Columbia Ageing Center at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York, says old age stereotypes are pervasive and threaten older adults’ self-esteem and functioning. ‘Research on the consequences of age stereotypes shows systematic influences on self-concept, performance, health and even longevity,’ he says.

Four traps of ageist self-stereotypes

Holly Lawrence holds a master’s degree in psychology from New York’s Columbia University Teachers College, one of three degrees earned after 43. A freelance writer and marketing consultant, she regularly contributes to nextavenue.org, ‘public media’s first and only national journalism service for America’s booming older population [delivering] vital ideas, context and perspectives on issues that matter most as we age’.

Here she talks to four members of the ‘invisible generation’ about ageist self-stereotypes and how they have impacted on their lives and careers.

Engaging in self-deprecation: Greg Imlay, 61, a bank vice president, admits: ‘One thing I say that I should not say is “Oh yeah, a senior moment” or “Forgive me, I’m an old man, so I forget these things”. I say things like that and I know that some people may find it, you know, humorous. On the other hand, it does depreciate my value as a professional.’ Describing how he feels around millennials in his office, Greg says: ‘The word that comes to mind is ‘marginalised’, like my input really isn’t important.’

Emphasising his good health and his passion for activism, Greg begins his descent into a negative self-perception when describing his thoughts about a resistance march he wanted to join. ‘I felt compelled. And I’d like to make a sign and go. But then, “No, that’s an awful lot of work for an old man to have to do. It would be harder for me because I’ve got to worry about finding a bathroom every 20 minutes and all the stuff that old guys do. Gee, maybe I’ll just let the young people do that. I’ll cheer them from behind”’.

Feeling out of place: A successful entertainment lawyer in his late 50s who chose to remain anonymous explains: ‘I work in the music business, which is not just sexist, but notoriously ageist. Youth is the currency, as a never-ending supply of young pop stars dominate the charts while I just get older. [In a profession where business networking is a must] I find myself opting out of going to parties or lunches or events because I fear I’ll just be perceived as an out-oftouch old guy.

‘Part of it may be good old fashioned low self-esteem. But the age disparity between me and my actual or potential clients tends to be a self-destructive justification for not putting my best and most competitive foot forward.’

Assuming no one is listening: George Tannenbaum is an executive creative director and copy chief at a major global advertising agency with decades of experience in his field. ‘Advertising is a youthful business,’ he says. ‘Often, it seems that no one in the agency is within 20 years of my age. And many people are 30 or 35 years younger.

‘In an agency, where industry knowledge seldom extends more than two or three years, I definitely feel like the Ancient Mariner, doomed to tell tales that no one cares about.’

Avoiding and retreating: ‘I avoid taking photos of myself, especially selfies,’ says Maureen St George, 55, who recently made a life changing, cross country move to Los Angeles to be close to her family. ‘I don’t wear shorts outside, even on a hot day because I compare myself to those who are younger.’ However, she acknowledges: ‘Most of the selfcritiquing just goes on inside my head, which I feel is at least equally as damaging.’

Maureen imagines she would have planned differently for older age: ‘I would change my thoughts about the future. I would think about making bigger plans like going back to school again, and perhaps changing careers. I might want to teach or work for a nonprofit.’

Stop The Negativity: Experts’ Advice

David Weiss recommends distancing yourself from age identity and embracing generational identity. ‘We found that highlighting older adults’ generational identity [like ‘The Greatest Generation’ or ‘Baby Boomer’] rather than their age identity [elderly] has the potential to empower older adults by increasing their subjective wellbeing and positive self-perception,’ he said in reference to his research on the topic.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, an adjunct professor of gerontology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, recommends finding positive role models in people who have embraced ageing. ‘Look for role models who can bolster your positive images of ageing,’ she says. ‘Whether they offer wise advice or quotes or whether they have managed to adapt well to their own ageing.’ AMP