Combatting Ageism with Lessons from Feminism

Ageism has increasingly been recognized as a social force and ideology that the field of gerontology must confront. According to a recent article in the Journal of Aging Studies, the set of false beliefs that constitute ageism de-politicize the lived experience of aging. To combat this, the authors recommend that feminist scholarship on sexism has much to offer gerontology in terms of reframing the field as an “emancipatory project.”

These authors define ageism as “the institutionalized and endemic use of social norms and conventions which systematically disadvantage people on the basis of chronological age.” One major implication of this is that there is untapped potential in old age that is not being realized due to social norms and social policy. This article aims to provide more focus on the potential benefits of an aging population and tries to point out important connections between personal experiences of aging and institutional responses to longevity.

Building on Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which is often credited with helping to launch the women’s liberation movement in the United States, the authors present the idea of the “elderly mystique,” which refers to the gap between the lived experience of old age and societal expectations of older people. They point out that gerontology can learn much from feminist efforts and scholarship that can help with the unmasking of the elderly mystique. They also suggest that there should be a greater link between gerontological scholarship and activism. As a first step, “if we can first discover where social institutions and structures are not facilitating our oldest members, we can begin to unlock the potential of old age.” To do this, they examine four domains: (1) the emphasis on biological aging, (2) work and retirement, (3) the politics of aging, and (4) ideologies of aging.

When discussing biological aging, the authors point to how an individual’s chronological age is used to create the idea of age as a barrier to participation in economic, political, and social spheres—and how similar this may be to how women’s ability to bear children once led to more widely held arguments that they should be economically excluded from the workplace or public office. They note how eventually, feminism was able to shift the blame for women’s exclusion from these domains from women themselves to the systematic effects of sexism within the broader society. Similarly, ideologies of aging can be challenged to illuminate where stereotypes rather than older individuals’ limitations are impacting the range of choices and possibilities open to older adults.

Rather than focus on declines in older adults, the authors argue that more focus be put on these individuals’ potential. This challenges the dominance of biomedical and cost-oriented approaches to research on aging, and builds on a critique that the focus of much research on aging has become more concerned with the management of aging than with an earlier orientation toward the meaning of age.

On the subject of work and retirement, the authors note the importance of work for providing individuals identity, control, and meaning, and that leaving work constitutes a critical juncture in many people’s lives. They also note that while paid and unpaid work past 65 is increasingly popular, underemployment (where workers’ skills are not fully realized) often characterizes the post-65 work experience. In light of these situations, the authors suggest that work and retirement need to be critically examined so that individuals have the opportunity to engage in what they view as meaningful work across their lifespan.

As for the politics of aging, the authors note that most of the focus has been on the increasing electoral power of older adults as a result of aging baby boomers and higher voter participation among older adults. What is lacking is critical investigation of “how age determines the allocation of power and resources between groups” and political research aiming to understand older people as a group. The authors even raise the question of whether the diverse range of individuals over a certain age can be considered a coherent interest group. They characterize AARP as “the de facto voice of aging Americans,” but note that many older adults don’t identify with the organization. They also note the need for more research on how organizations such as AARP represent the interests of older adults.

Lastly, the authors turn to ideologies of aging. Here they again point to similarities between today’s older adults and earlier portrayals of women. Just as independent and proactive women were absent from the workplace or depictions of the workplace when Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963, older adults and particularly the very old have been described as “missing persons” from popular culture. Where one does find representations of older adults, there seem to be three main stereotypes: the needy or helpless, the wise old man, and wealthy retirees. The authors note that research is needed to examine how such stereotypes affect older individuals’ self-esteem and identity. They also note that the sexuality of older adults is often overlooked and under-researched. To counter this, “systematic and critical analysis of how the content of popular cultural productions (broadcast via TV, social media or in print) reproduce cultural stereotypes of aging must be an integral part of critical gerontology.”

The authors also point out that “no one knows what the impact of realizing that they are living in an ageist society may have on the consciousness of the baby boomer generation as they now reach retirement age.” Baby boomers led a number of social movements in the 1960s and 1970s, but it is unclear how much even these individuals may have internalized some aspects of ageism.

The authors conclude by calling for a more action-oriented approach to the study of aging, and for the importance of studying the lived experience of older adults. They hope that these two efforts can counteract the effects of ageism and help fight the ways that ageism can lead to marginalization and inequality faced by many older adults.



Carney GM and Gray M. Unmasking the ‘Elderly Mystique’: Why It Is Time to Make the Personal Political in Ageing Research. Journal of Aging Studies (2015); Dec(35): 123–34.


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