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How Would We Live If We Forgot We Were Over 50?

About ageist stereotypes, self-perceptions and our future


Our ageist culture provides us with one guarantee when we grow older: We will all become susceptible to negative ageist stereotypes. What becomes equally troubling, however, is that we may become our own worst enemies.

Yale professor Becca Levy, the research pioneer on self-perceptions of aging (and a 2016 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging), has referred to the “aging-self-stereotype phenomenon.” Levy has researched the impact of negative self-stereotypes and the need for people to become more aware of their own perceptions of aging. Many boomers are aware of the self-perceptions but don’t always know how to stop them — and experts say they’re sabotaging themselves with negativity.

“Old age stereotypes are pervasive and threaten older adults’ self-esteem and functioning,” said David Weiss, assistant professor of sociomedical sciences and psychology at the Columbia Aging Center at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, in an email interview. “Research on the consequences of age stereotypes shows systematic influences on self-concept, performance, health and even longevity.”

4 Traps of Ageist Self-Stereotypes

1. 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.”

Emphasizing his good health and his passion for activism, Imlay 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.’”

2. Feeling out of place  A successful entertainment attorney in his late 50s who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity, 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, he explains, “I find myself opting out of going to parties or lunches or events because I fear I’ll just be perceived as an out of touch 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.”

3. Assuming no one is listening  George Tannenbaum, who is turning 60 soon, 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,” says Tannenbaum. “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.”

4. 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, St. George acknowledges, “Most of the self-critiquing just goes on inside my head, which I feel is at least equally as damaging.”

Why You Should Stop the Self-Stereotyping

Negative words and labels that we assign to ourselves only damage our self-esteem. For instance, Imlay says, “The word that comes to mind is ‘marginalized,’ like my input really isn’t important,” as he describes how he feels around Millennials in his office.

In her study, Levy found that individuals with positive perceptions about aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions. In another study, Levy found that older individuals with positive age stereotypes were 44 percent more likely to fully recover from severe disability than those with negative age stereotypes.

How You Can Stop Negative Self-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,” says Levy in a Wall Street Journal article. Here’s advice other experts give:

Distance yourself from your age identity and embrace your 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 well-being and positive self-perception,” said Weiss in reference to his research on the topic.

Find your next role model  Susan Krauss Whitbourne, an adjunct professor of gerontology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, recommends finding positive ones who have embraced aging. “Look for role models who can bolster your positive images of aging — whether they offer wise advice or quotes or whether they have managed to adapt well to their own aging.”

Imagine being ageless  What if we (and everyone in the world) forgot age and ageist stereotypes? What might we accomplish and dare to do?

St. George imagines she would have planned differently for older age. “I would change my thoughts about the future,” she says. “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.”

In the working world and beyond, we have a lot stacked against us. Ageism. Age stereotypes. Age discrimination. The last thing we need is to be our own enemy. It’s time for us to fight against our own defeat.

By Holly Lawrence

Holly Lawrence is a freelance writer and marketing consultant. She holds a master's degree in psychology from Columbia University Teachers College, one of three degrees earned after 43. 

@HollyJLawrence

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