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Ageism Is Real. Here’s What Each of Us—No Matter Our Age—Can Do to Put an End to It

Ageism Is Real. Here’s What Each of Us—No Matter Our Age—Can Do to Put an End to It

By Meghan Rabbitt
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As a life course sociologist who researches the social factors linked with health and well-being in later life, Deborah Carr is well-versed in the pervasive problem of ageism—the one “ism” most of us will face at some point in our lives.

Young people feel it when others make assumptions about their work ethic or decision-making capabilities. Older people feel it when everyone from co-workers to health care professionals automatically doubt their mental acuity or talk to them in a condescending way. We’ve all seen ageism on the national stage recently, with the 2024 presidential candidates’ age a primary topic of discussion. 

So, is there something each of us can do about ageism? Are there steps all of us can take to tamp down the stigma and discrimination so many of us experience based solely on our age? The Sunday Paper sat down with Carr, author of Aging in America and Golden Years? Social Inequality in Later Life, to find out.


How pervasive is ageism in our country?

It is a tremendous problem that is arguably getting worse. A survey out of the University of Michigan found that more than 90 percent of older adults experience ageism on a regular basis. Ageism is pervasive on an intrapersonal level—from jokes about Viagra to boomer hashtags on social media—but it’s also pervasive at a structural level. We’ve all heard of the 55-year-old not getting the job because they’re “too expensive,” when in fact that’s just a cover for “they might not know the latest software” or “they won’t know how to use digital media to market our product.” There are a lot of ways that ageism happens.

Can you speak to how harmful ageism can be when it happens?

There’s something called elder speak that has a very harmful impact on older adults. It’s when a doctor sees a patient and says something like, “How are you today young lady?” or “Don’t you look pretty today—how are we?” This can be demoralizing. These patients are former CEOs and professors and lawyers who happen to look old, and people are talking to them in a condescending manner. In fact, sometimes older adults will be less compliant with health behaviors because of elder speak.

“They’re both so old” is a phrase that’s coming up a lot as it relates to our next (likely) presidential candidates. How can we shift the conversation if this is something we hear from someone else?

It’s a total cliché that age is just a number, but there is some truth to that. One thing I like to point out is that there is a lot of research on different kinds of intelligence. While the kind of intelligence that has to do with being quick and learning something like new software does diminish with age, the kind of intelligence that comes from deep knowledge—like historical knowledge, vocabulary, and learned experience—holds up pretty well. 

Another point I love talking about is that research shows emotional reactivity declines as we age. When we’re older, we don’t get emotionally derailed like we may have in our youth. We tend to have more confidence that we can make our way through whatever life throws at us. In this way, our older presidential candidates may actually have better coping skills at some level than the rest of us who are younger.

There are assets all of us have when we’re young. But there are also some benefits that come with older age. 

What are some things each one of us can do to combat ageism?

I think the first thing to do is be mindful of ageism and call it out when you see it, whether it is a seemingly harmless joke about Viagra, a greeting card depicting an older adult as smelly or farty, or someone talking down to your mother or grandmother when you’re out and about. We have to start calling out ageism just as we would racism, sexism, or homophobia.

I think the other thing we can do is really talk to and get to know older adults, because that’s a path to putting an end to any form of prejudice. We must recognize the strengths of older adults and understand that just because someone’s health is slowing down a little doesn’t mean his or her brain has slowed down, too.

Deborah Carr is director of the Center of Innovation in Social Science and a professor of sociology at Boston University. She is a life course sociologist who uses survey data and quantitative methods to study social factors linked with health and well-being in later life.

Meghan Rabbitt

Meghan Rabbitt is a Senior Editor at The Sunday Paper. Learn more at:

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