A “gerontocracy” is a form of oligarchical rule in which an entity is ruled by leaders who are significantly older than most of the adult population. And according to a number of media outlets—from the San Francisco Chronicle to Time magazine—America is in the midst of a “Boomer Gerontocracy.”
These outlets point to 88-year-old Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and 82-year-old House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Rep -12) as powerful octogenarians who are holding onto their seats no matter what.
Just last week, when President Joe Biden was diagnosed with COVID-19, news stories specified the concern that he was 79 years of age and the oldest person elected to the presidency — although he was determined to be in overall good health during a November physical.
A number of speakers at a recent Ethnic Media Services webinar believe ageism is just another form of discrimination. It is another division in American society which singles out “baby boomers,” the generation born between the end of WWII and the mid-1960s.
“Our study found that most older adults experienced everyday ageism, said Dr. Julie Allen. “Non-Hispanic Blacks had lower amounts.”
Allen is an adjunct faculty associate at the Research Center for Group Dynamics, Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. She was the lead researcher on the recent JAMA paper: “Experiences of Everyday Ageism and the Health of Older US Adults.”
“Ageism is embedded within the healthcare system,” she added, noting that seniors often suffer from the “digital divide” and cannot participate in online consultations with doctors. “They’re often excluded from clinical trials…they get brushed off.”
The study confirms that everyday ageism affects many older adults as they seek healthcare.
“Age alone shouldn’t be an indicator for anything,” Allen said, noting that those who discriminate against this population often assume older adults have memory issues or hearing loss. “A lot of assumptions are linked to age. Repeating yourself, for example.”
Dr. Louise Aronson, geriatrician and professor of medicine at UC San Francisco, specified that women get older in larger numbers than men. This results in “gender ageism.”
In 2016, in those aged 65 and older, there were 79 men for every 100 women. For those 85 and older, there were 55 men for every 100 women.
“The effect is augmented,” Aronson said. “Part of it is financial. Women make less than 82 cents on the dollar.”
She added that Black women make 65 percent of what a White man makes for the exact same work and education.
“Women start with lower earnings and that means there is less contribution toward their pension,” Aronson said. “Then there’s lookism, which impacts women. The importance of a youthful and attractive appearance matters more for women than men.”
Aronson said that this lookism erodes women’s self esteem and confidence.
To another point, women are most likely to be unpaid caregivers. Ninety percent of poorly paid caregivers are women.
“Even after retirement, there are more burdens to getting things done,” she added. “Women are more likely to become old, men more likely to die. Women are more likely to have loneliness, likely because they have outlived their husbands. There is longterm care discrimination… gender inequality in healthcare.”
Although some lifestyle changes have equaled longevity for many who are eating less meat and processed foods while becoming more active, that longevity looks like a burden to some.
“We say get out of the way and retire, then see older people as a burden, because they’re not working. We can’t have it both ways,” Aronson said.
Paul Kleyman, editor of “generation beats” often talks about senior power and growing old rebelliously.
“Predjudice is a cockroach that never stops, it keeps coming back,” he said, noting that the President has a low approval rating due to what he called some “unfortunate” stumbles, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Additionally, some media have declared that Biden is too old. “He deserves scrutiny on his merit, not on his age.”
Kleyman believes that gerontocracy is an ugly term that doesn’t take into account the current age of mass longevity.
“They’re blaming old leaders for the gridlock in legislation,” he said. “The average life expectancy is now almost two full generations longer than it was for people who lived only 100 years ago.”
Agism affects society. In addition to healthcare, there is employment discrimination, where too many business leaders see the rapdly aging population as a looming burden.
Patirica D’Antonio, editor of the Reframing Aging Initiative was also on hand for the webinar.
“Ageism impacts health, social life, work and wellbeing,” she said. “How are we to shift that understanding of aging?”
D’Antonio insists that there are more productive ways to think about aging.
“We have an accumulated wisdom that comes as we age,” she said. “Americans value ingenuity. We have a collective responsibility in society. We are all interconnected.”
Once we recognize that we are all aging, inclusiveness can begin. For example, the necessity of assistive devices can be viewed as supportive, rather than a disability.
“It’s a good thing you have a hearing aid, or access to a wheelchair,” D’Antonio said. “There is still an opportunity to contribute, because of that accumulated wisdom.”
The panel suggests that everyone needs to call out ageism when they hear it — when someone jokes, when seeing TV shows, etc.
“When we make people aware of those implicitly biased statements, we can start to look at it differently,” D’Antonio said. “Diversity of all ages in advisory committees is needed because there’s a richness there.”
This article is a part of a series of articles for Our Weekly’s #StopTheHate campaign and is supported in whole or part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library.