Age discrimination is rampant

Photo by Jixiao Huang

Whether you’re 8 or 88, age is one of the first things we notice when observing other people. However, age is often used to categorize and divide people in ways that harm, and create disadvantage, injustice, and miscommunications across generations. 

Ageism is defined by the stereotypes we accept, the prejudice we feel, and the discrimination we show towards others or ourselves, all based solely on age.

According to a 2021 World Health Organization global report on aging, this prevailing attitude is pervasive, affects people of all ages, and can have severe and far-reaching consequences for people’s health, well-being, and human rights. 

How pervasive is ageism? According to the findings, it’s alarming. 

Today 1 in 2 people are considered ageist against older people. Equally disturbing, in Europe, younger people see ageism as a detriment to their own well-being more so than other age groups do.

Despite its broad reach and negative impact on individuals and society, ageism remains largely invisible, accepted, and ignored. 

With ageism ingrained into the public psyche, why has the issue of age-specific competency tests received such little public outcry and greater acceptance in recent polls? 

Despite readily available research to the contrary, misperceptions about age and ability continue to remain the norm.

According to a 2017 Harvard Health Publishing report on How Memory and Thinking Ability Change with Age, “Scientists now see the brain as continuously changing and developing across the entire life span. There is no period in life when the brain and its functions just hold steady. Some cognitive functions become weaker with age, while others improve. These changes enable the aging brain to become better at detecting relationships between diverse sources of information, capturing the big picture, and understanding the global implications of specific issues.”

While we generally believe that a person’s skills and abilities diminish with age, there are people whose ability to do something well and efficiently extends into their 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond. 

Here are some examples*:

· At 75, cancer survivor Barbara Hillary became one of the oldest person and the first black woman to reach the North Pole.

· At 82, William Ivy Baldwin became the oldest tightrope walker to cross the South Boulder Canyon in Colorado on a 320-foot wire.

· At 83, famed paediatrician Benjamin Spock championed world peace.

· At 86, Katherine Pelton swam the 200-meter butterfly in 3 minutes, 1.14 seconds, beating the men’s world record for that age group by over 20 seconds.

· At 87, Mary Baker Eddy founded the Christian Science Monitor magazine.

· At 89, Arthur Rubinstein performed one of his most outstanding recitals in Carnegie Hall.

· At 94, comedian George Burns performed in Schenectady, NY, 63 years after his first performance there.

· At 98, Beatrice Wood, a ceramist, exhibited her latest work.

· At 99, Teiichi Igarashi climbed Mt. Fuji.

· At 100, Frank Schearer became the oldest active water skier in the world.

*Examples referenced from Edgy Conversations: How Ordinary People Can Achieve Outrageous Success.” Copyright © 2013 by Daniel E. Waldschmidt.

You may perceive these individuals as exceptions, but what we think, feel, or say about ourselves as we age does make a difference in what we believe is possible., a leading global mental health website, defines healthy aging as finding new things you enjoy, staying physically and socially active, and feeling connected to your community and loved ones. One of the more damaging myths of aging they cite is the assumption that after a certain age, you won’t be able to try anything new or contribute to things anymore. 

On the contrary, says the opposite is true. “Middle-aged and older adults are just as capable of learning new things and thriving in new environments, plus they have the wisdom that comes with life experience. If you believe in and have confidence in yourself, you are setting up a positive environment for change regardless of age.”

Creating a positive environment and maintaining a positive attitude is sound advice at any age, and also begs a few questions about what is possible for you. 

To Lela Burden, what’s possible meant getting her high school diploma at the age of 111. She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in May 2014. 

To Nola Ochs, it meant graduating from college with a 3.7 grade point average at the age of 95 and earning a master’s degree in history at the age of 98. 

To Leo Plass, it meant receiving his associate degree from Eastern Oregon University at 99 after dropping out of college in 1932 when he was only 20. 

Having started his Ph.D. at the University of Manchester some 77 years before, the passage of time did not dissuade Lucio Chiquito from submitting his Ph.D. thesis at the age of 104. 

The oldest Ph.D. recipient? According to a 2015 NPR report, that honor may belong to Ingeborg Rapoport. Ms. Rapoport was a 25-year-old Ph.D. student at the University of Hamburg in 1938 when the Nazis derailed her studies. Seventy-seven years after writing her thesis, she successfully defended her doctoral dissertation at 102.  

We can find countless examples of people of all ages where age and competency are desired, sought after, and are rewarded in every field, passion, or profession. 

Agnes Zhelesnik was fondly called “Granny” by her students and coworkers and was widely considered America’s oldest schoolteacher at 102. 

She began her career as an educator at The Sundance School in North Plainfield, N.J., at 81, working almost full-time teaching preschool and elementary-aged pupils how to cook and sew. Zhelesnik passed away in 2017 at the age of 103. 

An article in the January 2022 edition of the Ceoworld magazine identifies the world’s top 10 CEOs who are over 70. Among them are the following:

  • Warren Buffett, age 92, is considered the oldest head of a U.S.-listed firm. He is currently the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and is one of the most successful investors in the world. 
  • Michael Bloomberg, age 81, founder of Innovative Market Systems, now Bloomberg LP, and the head of Bloomberg News, Bloomberg is now the 9th richest person in America. 
  • Li Ka-Shing, age 94, is a Hong Kong entrepreneur with a portfolio from various industries, including transportation, real estate, financial services, retail, and energy. According to Forbes, Li Ka – Shing in 2021 was considered Hong Kong’s richest person, with net assets topping $35.40 billion USD.
  • Frederick Smith, age 79, is the Founder and CEO of FedEx. 

Assigning limits to one’s abilities based merely on age robs us of the wisdom and experience longevity represents, lessens the opportunity for exploration and personal growth, and ultimately is a disservice to all. Instead of denying the possibilities that come with age, we should embrace them.

Let’s encourage more examples of achievements as exemplified by the following people:

Wang Deshun, at 80, became a profile fashion model in Beijing. After earning fame and the nickname “World’s Hottest Grandpa,” Wang defied stereotypes again by becoming the oldest person to undertake flight training in China at 85. 

Sister Madona Buder, also known as the ‘Iron Nun,’ an American Senior Olympian triathlete, who at 92, holds the world record for the oldest woman ever to finish an Ironman Triathlon, considered one of the most difficult one-day sporting events in the world.

Gloria Tramontin, Struck at 97, still rides her Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Since she started riding at 16, she has travelled nearly 700,000 miles. 

Rosemary Smith, a rally race champion in the 1960s, at 79, became the oldest person to drive a Formula 1 race car. 

Unfortunately, in today’s environment, people are often seen as “old” earlier and earlier. Other people’s perceptions about age have been allowed to cloud our judgment. 

Whether in business, government, sports, or society, those considered competent one day are no longer considered capable the next day. 

What we choose to do about ageism through our thoughts, actions, and deeds can make all the difference in influencing current attitudes about aging and changing perceptions about tomorrow. 

If you knew you’d live to be 100, what could you possibly do that you aren’t doing now?  What might you do differently?