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The Pandemic Shines the Spotlight on Ageism

The surprising and hopeful ways older adults are now being seen

By Chris Farrell

Remember when Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick went on Fox News last March and suggested older Americans should sacrifice themselves for the economy during the pandemic? "Let's get back to living," he said. "Let's be smart about it. And those of us who are seventy-plus, we'll take care of ourselves, but don't sacrifice the country."

multigenerational family cooking together, ageism, Next Avenue
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the number of intergenerational family households in the U.S.  |  Credit: Getty

His comments sparked an immediate backlash. But remarks like those have also given momentum to a perspective embraced by a disturbing number of scholars and members of the media commentariat: Segregate those over 60 or 65, since they're at greatest risk of dying from the coronavirus, and let the younger generations go about their business.

The Dog That Didn't Bark

The whiff of gerontophobia — the presumption that older people were expendable since their best days were behind them — was unmistakable. Social media memes like nicknaming the virus "Boomer Remover" only strengthened the conviction that the pandemic would heighten existing age discrimination.  

But something surprising, and welcome, actually happened.

It reminds me of a famous passage in the Sherlock Holmes mystery "Silver Blaze," where a racehorse disappeared, its trainer was murdered and Holmes solved the crime by realizing the significance of "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time" — the dog didn't bark.

The "curious incident" during the pandemic is that younger adults have shown little inclination to vilify the older generation and vice versa.

Sure, you can scour the internet and find examples of generational antipathy. But the mainstream conversation and actions mostly lean toward mutual support and empathy.

"You could make the argument that the pandemic has created a new empathy that is the enemy of what undergirds ageism."

The calculus of social scientists putting a lower dollar value on the worth of an aged person hasn't convinced many young adults who've been looking at their parents, grandparents, older relatives and neighbors.

"None of the views gained traction," says Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Encore.org. "You could make the argument that the pandemic has created a new empathy that is the enemy of what undergirds ageism."

To be clear, age discrimination remains deeply entrenched in American society and the workplace. Yet a surprising legacy from the pandemic could be the broader realization that more unites the generations than divides them.

Considering the deep political divides in the country, any sign of progress against ageist prejudices and toward intergenerational equity is both a hopeful sign and a radical opportunity to build on.

One reason this is happening, I think, is that the pandemic has likely accelerated the trend toward multigenerational living. Millions of Americans, especially young adults, have moved in with family members during COVID-19.

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According to the Pew Research Center, the share of 18- to 29-year-olds living with their parents reached a majority at 52% in July 2020. That percentage is higher than the previous peak during the Great Depression era.

The Rise of Multigenerational Homebuying

Much of the increase sadly reflects the harsh circumstances confronting many younger adults these days. But some families scared by the high death toll and lockdown loneliness in congregate living settings — think skilled nursing homes, assisted living and continuing care communities — have opened their home to parents and grandparents in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s.

According to the National Association of Realtors, buyers who've purchased homes since March 2020 were more likely to purchase a multigenerational home than in the months before the pandemic.

Chart showing increase of young adults living at home during pandemic, ageism, Next Avenue
Credit: courtesy of Pew Research Center

Some newly formed multigenerational households will break up when the economy opens up fully, of course. But far from all.

One of the more striking, yet underappreciated, social and economic trends of recent decades in the United States has been the shift toward multigenerational living. More than 20% of the American population now lives with parents, grandparents, grandchildren and other relatives. That's up from 12% in 1980.

The multigenerational home is a sort of safety net. Shared living lets young adults build up savings and the older generation draw down less of their savings. The demographics of a changing America is also influential since immigrant newcomers are more likely to live in multigenerational homes.

Politically, although former President Trump tried playing the ageist card by calling septuagenarian Joe Biden "Sleepy Joe" during the campaign for the White House, the nickname never took (possibly because Trump himself is in his 70s.)

Hopefully, the pandemic will finally convince business leaders that ageist stereotypes cut into profits.

Far more noteworthy, however, is how the two most powerful economic jobs in the country are now occupied by a woman who's 74 (Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen) and man who's 67 (Federal Reserve Board chair Jay Powell). Few question their competency to do their jobs.

Many leading policymakers are in their 70s and 80s, too, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg became "a legal, cultural and feminist icon" in her 80s, observed NPR legal correspondent Nina Totenberg.

Even the performance of Tom Brady, quarterback of the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, may have slightly shifted the national conversation about the value of experience and longevity. Yes, he's just 43, but that's considered old for his sport.

How Businesses Will Respond to Ageism

Hopefully, the pandemic will finally convince business leaders that ageist stereotypes cut into profits.

The research has long been compelling that too many companies were leaving money on the table by ignoring prospective older customers. But thanks to COVID-19, consumers 65 and over are now the fastest growing group of online shoppers, according to the NPD Group's Checkout Tracking. The Washington Post notes that the older demographic spent $1,615 online per person from January through October of last year, on average, 49% more than a year earlier.

The realities of ageism in the job market were even shown in a compelling commercial that ran during the Super Bowl and games leading up to it (you can watch it below).

Job search site Indeed featured Sarah, who was working in casting for a show and says she was let go at age 56. "I was experiencing ageism in the industry," said Sarah (who was compensated for sharing her story). "I didn't know if I would ever work again." But the commercial has a happy ending (it's promoting Indeed, after all). The job search site helped her land a job as a casting producer in a digital ad agency.

"This is the first time I fell like I'm actually valued for all my experience," she says at the commercial's end.

Uneven Progress on Ageism

Still, progress on the ageism front is uneven. Odds are that age discrimination in the job market has actually worsened during the pandemic.

That's a reasonable conclusion from the paper, "Age Discrimination Across the Business Cycle" by economists Gordon Dahl, of the University of California San Diego and Matthew Knepper, of the University of Georgia. They looked at the years 2005 to 2015 — before, during and after the Great Recession — analyzing Equal Employment Opportunity Office data and studies that sent out fictitious resumés of women applying for administrative support jobs. Both analyses offer compelling evidence that high unemployment increases age discrimination — and vice versa.

"Older workers face a lot more discrimination when the labor market gets bad," said Dahl in an interview. "But age discrimination got less likely after the Great Recession."

In other words, there is anti-age discrimination hope in their data once the pandemic lessens and the U.S. economy improves.

Economic policymakers like Yellen, Powell and Cecilia Rouse, nominated to head the White House Council of Economic Advisors, favor the policy goal of "full employment" as  the new vaccines sideline the virus.

"Steady employment provides more than a regular paycheck," said Powell in a talk before the Economic Club of New York on February 10. "It also bestows a sense of purpose, improves mental health, increases lifespans and benefits workers and their families."

Translation: When the balance of power shifts and employers need workers young and old alike, the costs of ageism will be too steep to accept.  

Photograph of Chris Farrell
Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor for American Public Media's Marketplace. An award-winning journalist, he is author
 of the books Purpose and a Paycheck:  Finding Meaning, Money and Happiness in the Second Half of Life and Unretirement: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Think About Work, Community, and The Good Life. Read More
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