Mitch Albom Column: Our Growing Ageism Issue

“America used to be a country where the longer you worked the more respected you were. We are becoming the opposite.” – Mitch Albom

In his Sunday column in the Detroit Free Press, author, talk show host, and columnist Mitch Albom used several age-related slights in the recent Democratic presidential debate targeted at Joe Biden to highlight how ageism is growing in America, yet few seem to care or notice.

“The issue of age discrimination is only whispered about, as if part of that stupid assumption that older people can’t hear. It’s wrong. It’s insulting. If you deride, don’t hire, or dismiss people based on their age, it’s a prejudice. Yet it doesn’t seem to invoke the anger that other biases do.”

Youth is now venerated. It used to be age (e.g. wisdom, experience, refined skills, and talents) was venerated. Albom writes,

“Why? Well, let’s face it. We live in a society that worships youth. Our entertainment chases teenage viewers (just count the comic-book movies). Advertisers have little interest in people over 50. Products to remove wrinkles or grey hair fly off the shelves. “The youngest to ever” is a coveted title in work, politics, and law, while “the oldest to ever” is usually reserved for human-interest stories, like an 80-year-old marathoner, or the 74-year-old Indian woman who recently gave birth to twins.

Meanwhile, there’s the increasing trend to lay off workers in their 50s — which is not exactly old in a world where life expectancies have increased to well beyond 80 — and not absorb those fired workers back into the workplace.

This should be a big issue for any presidential candidate. But do you ever hear it brought up? Virtually every form of discrimination is hashed and rehashed on the campaign trail. Yet with more than a third of our population over 50 — a third! — nobody seems to make this a topic.

A recent AARP study showed that nearly two out of three workers 45 and older have experienced age discrimination on the job. Another study of 2,000 workers over 50 showed that more than half were forced to leave their jobs at some point due to “layoffs, businesses closing, job dissatisfaction or unexpected retirement.” Of these, only 10% found another job of equal pay or rank.

It seems like everyone can tell you of a former executive or high-level salesman who is now scrambling to find any kind of career, or driving for Uber to pay the bills.

America used to be a country where the longer you worked the more respected you were. We are becoming the opposite.

Young people are just smarter,” Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, once said.

And now Facebook is considered, by many, to be kind of old.”

Ageism is a waste and loss to enterprises, the economy, society, and employers who can benefit from talented, skilled, and experienced older workers and entrepreneurs.

Baby Boomers have increased life-span and health-span and are doing something with it. Millions are choosing to keep working past the so-called retirement age. In fact, Boomers lead millennials in the number of business start-ups in the U.S by a two-to-one margin and are twice as likely to be successful.

When “older” people continue to thrive, contribute to the economy, mentor and teach young talents, and become social entrepreneurs we all benefit. That is if we can get past ageist assumptions that are often the opposite of reality.

Albom concludes:

“Ageism can come from senior citizens as well. It’s built into our culture. For the life of me, I don’t know why this isn’t a bigger issue — among candidates and society in general — considering the enormous attention we give to other forms of discrimination.”

After all, we will never be a single race or gender.

But all of us, if we’re lucky, will one day be old.”

Fact is, younger generations should be rooting for those of us who are older to keep going and prove by our actions how wrong ageist assumptions are.

Because someday, God willing, they will be “older” too. They, like us, will want to be relevant, impactful, and signify.