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The ism that stays in the shadows

While this social aberration has been around for decades, everyday examples demonstrate the continued presence of this iniquitous practice.

Sayantan Nandi |

As per the WHO definition, Ageism refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age.

While this social aberration has been around for decades, everyday examples demonstrate the continued presence of this iniquitous practice.

A senior citizen, wanting to visit her daughter staying in the Middle East, was denied a family visa because of her age. A mid-fifties professional in Bengaluru was disqualified from an interview due to age reasons. A wellknown club in Kolkata, some of whose office-bearers are themselves in their sixties, refused to accept sexagenarians as new members. Distressingly, ageism is alive and well.

The WHO Global Report on Ageism comes up with more interesting data when it tells us that globally one in two persons are against older people. Though the term ageism is suitably inclusive, counting discrimination against younger people in its ambit, this bias is largely manifested against older citizens. In 1969, when the expression was introduced by psychiatrist and gerontologist Robert Neil Butler, he was primarily wanting to draw attention to the bias against old age and the process of growing older.

Like every other discriminatory behaviour, ageism is born out of a social or ideological bias. It gets manifested at a behavioural level as well as at the institutional level. The idea that marginalisation is a natural fallout of advancing in age is one of the worstkept secrets in the world today. It is also a prejudice which receives the least attention.

Amusingly, the display of interpersonal ageism is generously ubiquitous. It spares no one, including arguably the most powerful man in the world, the US President. In the run-up to the Presidential election, the Republicans are using Joe Biden’s age as the stick to beat him with, conveniently forgetting that their favourite mascot for the Presidential race, he of the carrot-coloured hair, happens to be 76.

As previously mentioned, the perfunctory attention given to this prejudice is beguiling.

As a 2021 research paper from the Stanford Graduate School of Business points out, ageism is the only condonable prejudice and does not even merit a discussion. In a world which is surprisingly prickly-headed about any other form of inequality, be it race, gender or religion, this is a surprise omission.

While ageism is universally pervasive, there are cross-cultural differences. India is a case in point.

In the WHO report, India features among the highest-ranking countries manifesting ageism. Cultural tradition advocates respect and reverence towards elders. In reality, the word elder provides the opportunity to revere and ignore. The ancient concept of Vanaprastha, well embedded in the Indian socio-cultural psyche, does not help to improve matters. Ironically, it tacitly promotes selfinduced exclusion.

In the area of institutional ageism, namely the workplace, this is woefully evident. Hiring practices and employment policies are designed to encourage ageism. What is worse is that India, unlike countries like the US, does not have any legal or regulatory body where decisions based on age discrimination can be challenged. Having had the opportunity of having a ringside view, one can testify to the clinically efficient manner institutional ageism gets practised in corporations. Those who proudly profess to be championing inclusivity and diversity, studiously omit age discrimination from their policy manuals.

The question which remains, however, is how such brazenly discriminatory behaviour, affecting more than one-third of the world’s population, has not found a resounding voice. Why does ageism not garner the same attention similar to issues like racial and gender prejudice? Is it because there is a mismatch in intergenerational sensibility where millennials, who are already giving way to Generation Z, find this unsexy and therefore irrelevant? Is it because, unlike other movements where there is always an ‘other’ here, there is no other but ourselves?

As Ashton Applewhite, arguably the most strident anti-ageism activist opines, ageism is a self-defeating construct which has been nurtured over years – an invisible line in the sand. In our resistance to accepting change, we have been self-discriminatory. “No prejudice is rational,” says Applewhite. “But with ageism, we have internalised it. We have been complicit in our marginalisation and it will require active consciousness-raising to correct that, just as the women’s movement did”.

By 2050 1 out of 5 which is almost 2 billion people will be above 60. A groundswell to combat this bias at multiple levels, seems necessary. Whether affirmative action is the answer is debatable. Intergenerational community forums will definitely help, as will robust legislative and judicial support systems. However, the negation of this bias should begin with us, in seeing ourselves beyond the limitations of age, rejecting the stereotypes, to which we have been complicit.

Perhaps we should draw inspiration from Shahrukh Khan, who at 57, has not only given Hindi cinema its biggest blockbuster, but also proclaimed that despite his creaking bones, he has no intention of quitting. Age surely does not matter to him. It shouldn’t matter to us either.

(The writer, a former CEO of HCL Care, runs a consulting firm.)