We Should Talk About Ageism

Dec 2, 2022

Even within the limited studies of ageism, many have written about the issues that arise of when we get older — the latter end of life, however, very few studies show the discrimination that young people face in many facets of life. Sudhanshu Kaushik, founder of YIF, writes on ageism and India's youth.

Check out the adjacent Podcast episode here!

In 1999, Ziva Kunda theorized that when we talk about social perception, we — as society — tend to categorize along either race, sex or age lines. Each of the categories come with their own effects and concerns — often in prejudice. While it is obvious that countless hours of research have gone into racism and sexism, not enough attention has gone into the idea of ageism — discrimination that is based off an individual’s age — a term that was developed by Robert Butler and used, primarily, to describe dissemination of the elderly. Even within the limited studies of ageism, many have written about the issues that arise of when we get older — the latter end of life, however, very few studies show the discrimination that young people face in many facets of life.

Saskia Sassen, a sociologist based at Columbia University, informally discussed with me about how the discrimination based on age, especially towards the younger side of the spectrum, gets very little attention due to the fact that, in a way, it’s one of the only discriminations that you can grow out of with time. With race, you are born into a racial identity that you cannot separate yourself from. With gender, almost the same applies (even though you can be fluid in gender which brings up its own crop of challenges) as you face discrimination and cannot change or grow out of. With age, it is different, as young people who face discrimination issues are told that they can grow out of the discrimination faced on the basis of age. While there could be merit to the argument about growing out of this discrimination, what is at risk, and has been for a long time, is of the downplaying and trivializing how impactful the discrimination that young people face can be in formative years. Young people are often scapegoated and alienated due to their age, an age that supposedly lacks maturity and experience, and are stripped for decision-making power in their personal and public lives.

An issue for the limited research on ageism that exists within India and around the world is the focus on ageism from an elderly perspective. In most of my findings, I found extensive research on aging and the issues that arise with ageism (as you grow older) from political, social, economic and personal lenses. Yet, nothing on the alternative perspective; nothing about the discrimination that young people face in an ageist society. While a practitioner or a scholar might take a small paragraph to acknowledge that there might be a problem on the other end, no one has really procured research. The problem is so blatant that the World Health Organization, which primarily deals with health and demographic profile issues for the United Nations, lists ageism as a key issue that they tackle, yet their profile and research shows no interest in bringing to light the issues faced via ageism on the other end of a spectrum:

Ageism is the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of their age. Ageism is widespread and an insidious practice which has harmful effects on the health of older adults. For older people, ageism is an everyday challenge. Overlooked for employment, restricted from social services and stereotyped in the media, ageism marginalizes and excludes older people in their communities. Ageism is everywhere, yet it is the most socially “normalized”of any prejudice, and is not widely countered — like racism or sexism. These attitudes lead to the marginalization of older people within our communities and have negative impacts on their health and well-being.”

If scholars, practitioners, and those affected — whether young or old — want to solve the blatant discrimination that is faced when an individual’s age varies too far onto one end of the spectrum, then we must reconstruct the mainstream narrative of who ageism affects. Many sources you will find will allege that to due the modernization of society, and the pace in which it is progressing, that elderly face significant problems accumulating to the rapidly evolving environment and sustaining their lives to the society they live in, as many feel as if they become ‘second-class’ citizens, in a way. That is true. Yet, it seems that no one wants to tackle the issues that ensure that young people are alienated from the system, and also feel like ‘second-class’ citizens. Young people must vocalize this impending crisis for a remedy.

Ageism is an issue that affects young people too. You cannot, as the common narrative does, only attribute it to discrimination of those who turn old. Discrimination applies when you turn older but also when you are young. While it is evident that young people will grow older and be able to move beyond that discrimination as they become older, whereas those that face discrimination as an elder will suffer through the discrimination and eventually pass away, I still emphasize that when young people are discriminated upon, their hopes are stifled, their goals are trivialized, and their ambitions are purposely limited. And then what type of young are we molding and preparing? How will they fulfill that rhetorical fantasy that every leader places upon India’s young when they say, ‘yuva desh ko badlanga’ (the young will change the country)? How will young people be content with the life that they will live when everything they wanted was limited, sidelined and decided by someone else much older?

The objective of a ‘Founder’s Letter’ is to allow the founder of the Young India Foundation, Sudhanshu Kaushik to share his thoughts and opinions with the people through a regular series.