Presidential candidate Nikki Haley recently proposed requiring politicians over the age of 75 to undergo a mental competency test as a condition of holding federal office. Had she advocated for such a test for all politicians, regardless of age, older voters might be more receptive to her proposal. Requiring all candidates to demonstrate their competence might be unconstitutional, but the proposal would at least not be ageist.
Sixteen sitting U.S. senators representing both political parties, including one independent, are over the age of 75. They all won elections by convincing their constituents that they were competent to perform their duties. Voters don’t need a test to understand whether a politician of any age is capable of governing. Yet Ms. Haley’s proposal would burden older candidates with a requirement that would not apply to their younger opponents. The proposal is based on the blanket assumption that older people are less capable of governing than those who are younger, an assumption supported by negative stereotypes rather than facts.
Some political observers have argued that the proposal might backfire. They suggest that older voters — the nation’s most reliable voting bloc — might view it as disrespectful to single out older candidates for mental competency testing. If so, voters might hope that competency testing gives way to more substantive discussions as the election nears.
Unfortunately, ageist rhetoric is not limited to candidates running for office. On a recent episode of “CNN This Morning,” anchor Don Lemon commented that Ms. Haley “isn’t in her prime, sorry.” He then contended that “a woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s and 30s and maybe 40s.” When he was challenged by another anchor, he said, ““I’m just saying what the facts are” and urged the anchor to “Google it.”
While Mr. Lemon’s comments might be more sexist than ageist (he expressed no opinion about the age at which men are no longer in their prime), a Forbes contributor noted that the “ageism nested in the remark” is a symptom of a broader problem in America. Ageism limits career opportunities for aging Americans of both genders, but age discrimination in concert with sex discrimination makes older women particularly vulnerable to discriminatory attitudes.
Many employers prefer their workforce to have a “youthful” appearance. While employers may be more tolerant of older males who have a “distinguished” appearance, employers too often share Mr. Lemon’s belief that — at least in terms of appearance — older women are “past their prime.” It isn’t surprising that women experience more age discrimination in the workplace than men.
About 80% of older workers report seeing or experiencing age discrimination in the workplace. Stereotypes that older workers are slow learners who miss too much work and cannot adapt to technology too often supplant the reality that older workers tend to bring loyalty, experience, and a strong work ethic to their jobs.
A federal law prohibits employment discrimination against workers because of age alone. Unfortunately, the law is relatively ineffective. The unhappy reality is that successful age discrimination lawsuits are rare.
Individual Responses to Ageism
Apart from imperiling the careers of older workers, ageism may have a serious impact on the mental health of its victims. A recent study found that “everyday ageism — routine types of age-based discrimination, prejudice, and stereotyping that older adults encounter in their day-to-day lives—is linked to an increased risk of poor physical health, chronic conditions, and symptoms of depression in people aged 50 and older, especially when people in this population internalize messages about aging and failing health.”
Ageism nevertheless affects some older people more severely than others. A comprehensive review of relevant studies found that older adults are less likely to experience negative effects of exposure to ageism when they are proud of their age, optimistic about their future, flexible in setting goals, and self-confident about their appearance.
As Sen. Bernie Sanders said in response to Nikki Haley’s proposal to subject older politicians to competency examinations,, it is time for society to fight against ageism in the same way that it fights against sexism, racism, and homophobia. Efforts to end discrimination against older people will require multiple strategies. As older people continue to challenge disparaging comments about their age, social attitudes will slowly change, as have attitudes about race, gender, and sexual identity.
Until that happens, the best individual response to ageist remarks is to maintain psychological well-being. Turning to happy friends of similar age for emotional support may reinforce positive perspectives on aging. Unfortunately, some older people have internalized negative stereotypes about seniors. Socializing with friends of all ages who value older people is a key to combating the negative impact of ageism.