In 2011, it was Occupy Wall Street; in 2013, Black Lives Matter; in 2017, the Women’s March, and Me Too; and in 2018, the student-led March for Our Lives. The past decade has seen the rise of significant civil rights movements. The longstanding issues of these causes have taken on new energy in response to growing frustration with income inequality, racial conflict, sexual harassment and gun violence.
Amid all of this sociopolitical churning, another movement rumbles, quickly growing in volume and awareness: the fight against ageism. Why now? And what’s fueling its power?
To begin with, the time is right for a resurgence of attention focused on age-based injustice. Not since the 1960s and ’70s, with the newly founded—and still active—AARP and Gray Panthers organizations, have people demanded so strongly that older adults claim their rightful roles in the workplace and community.
“Gray Panthers was the original ‘radical fringe’ movement to defeat ageism,” says Jack Kupferman, president of the Gray Panthers, NYC Network. “For all that has…improved, little has changed. We are still at the point where ageism is everywhere—overt or subtle, personal or institutional, acknowledged or self-loathing. It’s only when there is greater visibility of what ageism means and how it is manifested, [that] there will be an opportunity to defeat ageism.”
Today’s timing is not coincidental. As a generation, the Baby Boomers redefined every segment of the lifespan as they moved through it, from childhood to adulthood. Many of them who protested social injustice in their teens and 20s continue to bring that same energy to their current lives—sometimes as members of newer grassroots organizations such as The Radical Age Movement (RAM).
According to Alice Fisher, RAM’s president and founder, “[Our] name was arrived at because most of our initial steering committee members were referred to…as ‘radicals’ during the ’60s. We were part of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the anti–Vietnam War movement, and the LGBTQ movement, to name a few…. As ageism is just as onerous as racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, etc., why would we assume that we could gain equality for older adults without a movement?”
Unlike other civil rights causes, however, anti-ageism faces unique challenges. “The consequences of the newer civil rights are dramatic, visible, and create fury and fear among millions,” says Kupferman. “There is not an equivalent powerful template with regard to older persons and to ageism.”
Part of the problem is the pervasiveness of age prejudice to the point where many people aren’t even aware of its presence. Explains Fisher: “Ageism, age discrimination, is so embedded in our society that even people who are the victims of ageism often don’t recognize it….most people need to be educated and made aware of ageism in all its forms.”
To some activists, progress can start with non-mainstream, or “fringe,” responses to injustice that get attention and inspire society as a whole to take action. “We need some passion and push,” asserts Dr. Joanne Lynn, geriatrician and director of the Altarum Institute Center for Elder Care and Advanced Illness in Washington, D.C.
“The fringe’s claims need to gather attention and force discussion, but they do not need to be thoroughly reasonable. Having a strong and energetic ‘fringe’ would force policymakers and the public to take seriously our more evidence-based proposals, which now languish for lack of ‘newsworthiness’.”
What forms of resistance does today’s anti-ageism activism take?
As with all civil rights movements, activism usually begins on the grassroots level by the disenfranchised. Ironically, anyone can fall into this category, because everyone is aging and is, or will be, directly affected by age discrimination. So it’s not surprising that anti-ageism activism groups embrace an intergenerational approach.
Today’s anti-ageism activism is broad-based, ranging from the efforts of individuals to those of nonprofit organizations and government agencies.
A prime example of individual work is that of author and speaker Ashton Applewhite, whose popular This Chair Rocks website and book have been resources for people wanting to learn more about what ageism is and how to defeat it. She recently launched Old School, an online clearinghouse of anti-ageism resources.
Nonprofit organizations, too, have established anti-ageism campaigns, such as AARP’s #DisruptAging, LeadingAge’s An America Freed from Ageism, and geriatrician and author Dr. Bill Thomas’ ChangingAging tour.
Other countries are also taking on ageism in significant ways around the world. Notable campaigns are the U.N. World Health Organization’s Global Campaign to Combat Ageism, HelpAge International’s Age Demands Action, AGE Platform Europe’s Ageing Equal, and Australia’s EveryAGE Counts campaign.
Perhaps the greatest influence on the anti-ageism movement has been the rise of social media as a crowd-sourced warning system to alert others to ageist products and messages. A perfect example was the quick and strong reaction to a recent Millennial-voter-recruitment-campaign ad that resorted to ageist depictions of older adults. The ad went viral—and so did the objections to it.
Anti-ageism as a civil rights movement is gaining momentum. New grassroots and established activists alike are discovering one another and sharing ideas and strategies in order to spread the word about the injustices of age discrimination.
“The essence of ageism is invisibility,” says Kupferman. “One of the ways to counteract invisibility is to bring it to light.”
“We still do not see ageism getting the attention it truly deserves,” Fisher admits, “but we are on our way.”