Nobody ever told Jane Fonda that at age 81 she shouldn’t go to Washington, D.C., to protest climate change. It’s hard to imagine anyone telling her that women her age don’t have the stamina or energy to start a movement and risk getting arrested. Or that their place should be in assisted living, not making headlines from the Capitol steps.
Fonda would likely dismiss any naysayers as ageist, and rightfully so, because she’s a badass who defies ageist assumptions and challenges the status quo. And we should all follow her lead.
Ageist stereotypes such as lack of stamina, ambition, technical savvy and the ability to learn new skills are common in our culture. In the workplace, they dictate the way companies hire, promote and compensate. These stereotypes are based on commonly held assumptions about older workers.
Blair Davis-Garrett was hired as a pre-holiday salesperson for Anthropologie in Long Island, New York, in 2012. At 52, she was excited about restarting her career after raising two children. Her goal was to move to a managerial position and incorporate the skills she’d previously learned as an art director. She told her manager early on, “I love it here. This is the career of my future.”
The first step to owning your power at any age is to understand the influence your negative assumptions have on how you view yourself as well as how others perceive you.
But Blair’s enthusiasm was soon dampened. She was sidelined, assigned to the fitting room at the back of the store, and passed over for managerial slots. About six months in, her 34-year-old manager took her aside for a come-to-Jesus meeting. “Listen, you’re just too old for this company. You’re not going to have the stamina or energy for the job,” she told her. Blair was later fired.
One can be outraged by the seemingly unfair treatment older workers receive. But are we each without ageist bias? The fact is we can be our own worst enemy when we adopt these assumptions as our truth. While we can’t change how others think, we can certainly tackle our own deeply held beliefs about aging that sabotage our financial future and well-being.
In the past six months, I’ve interviewed more than 100 professional women over the age of 45 to better understand what, if any, ageist behavior they are experiencing in the workplace. Eighty percent said they have personally experienced ageism, and 90 percent reported that they’ve witnessed that women in their company experience ageism earlier than men.
But these women aren’t doing themselves any favors. A whopping 51 percent of them buy into age-related assumptions about themselves, clueless to the impact such beliefs have on their quality of life and sustainability in the workforce. Many believe they’re too old to get promoted or learn new skills and, in some cases, that they’re too old to master technology. These beliefs, in turn, cause them to modify their behavior, lose their ambition and play small.
Negative assumptions about age diminish us and render us powerless, dependent and weak. Research by Becca Levy, a professor of public health at Yale, has shown that when we internalize age-related stereotypes our health suffers. Negative-age stereotypes “can have a detrimental impact on older persons’ cognitive, physical and mental health,” Levy says. But the opposite is also true. “Older persons can resist these negative-age stereotypes and bolster positive-age stereotypes,” she advises, noting how doing so can have a beneficial impact.
Negative age-stereotypes significantly increase the risk of cardiovascular events as well as recovery from such events. They actually age us, and the more we believe them, the more likely we will self-actualize them.
In a study comparing the memory of young and old Chinese with young and old Americans, Ellen Langer, a social psychologist, and Levy found that older Chinese people, who are respected by their culture, performed memory tests more like their younger compatriots. The Americans, meanwhile, “demonstrated significant memory differences between the old and young.” Our culture teaches us how to be old, and in America, being old means losing your memory and other cognitive functions. And here’s the shocking conclusion: The negative stereotypes we adopt may, in fact, cause us to lose our memories sooner.
Elaine Soloway, the real-life Shelly Pfefferman in the TV series Transparent, is a great example of a woman defying ageist stereotypes. For her 80th birthday, Soloway celebrated by getting a tattoo of a seahorse, which she sees as the perfect symbol for her current life. She explained to the Huffington Post that the seahorse represents her belief that “it’s never too late to reach your goals,” as swimming has been one of her long-held ambitions.
“I’m attempting to use my tattoo to start a dialogue about ageism and how women my age are seen and treated. I worry that some women in my cohort are the biggest offenders,” she adds.
She’s right about women being the biggest offenders. We don’t want to get old or look old. We have a deep, dark fear of aging. After all, we’re the byproduct of an American society that loves youth and beauty, and we’ve internalized the way our culture views older women. But as a result, we become more focused on maintaining a youthful outward appearance than doing the inner work to maintain our power and respect our own wisdom and experience.
How old are you? Have you ever skirted around that question or felt the pressure to just say “middle-aged” or “40-something” so as not to reveal the truth? What does that say about how we feel about ourselves? We need to stop refusing to offer our age when asked and instead be proud of our years. It’s time to stop diminishing who we are by believing the ageist stereotypes that harm us.
The first step to owning your power at any age is to understand the influence your negative assumptions have on how you view yourself as well as how others perceive you. Identify and challenge these assumptions. Call them out for what they are and don’t give them the energy or focus to marginalize your life and career.
Set your own expectations without judgment about how you want to live and how you want to age. You may not choose to protest in D.C. or get a tattoo, but you can choose to powerfully defy ageist assumptions. Your battle with ageism, in other words, starts within you.