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Ageism Against Youth and Seniors: Parallels Between Age-Based Oppressions

Written by Kathleen O'Neal Aug 25, 2011

Perhaps due to our animosity towards older adults who have oppressed us and perhaps due to our desire to forge our movement’s identity in a context in which senior citizens already have a powerful movement to protect their rights, youth rights activists have often refrained from discussing the parallels between ageist oppression against youth and ageist oppression against the elderly. While understandable, this is a mistake. As another group facing age-based oppression that has built a successful movement around this oppression, the senior citizens’ movement has in many ways provided us with a rough guide of how to challenge ageist oppression. Additionally, by not courting seniors and their allies who may have experience with fighting ageist oppression we run the risk of not seeking allies where we may be potentially likely to find them.

There are meaningful differences between the struggles for youth self-determination and self-determination for the elderly. We are already all too aware that older Americans often possess financial, cultural, and legal rights and resources that young people lack. However, there are parallels in our respective plights as well.

Both young people and the elderly are often made to feel like a burden when they cannot or do not want to work in a society in which paid labor is still seen by many as the defining feature of human worth and productivity. Because they are both often forced to rely on wage-earning people in their middle years for the necessities of life, both youth and the elderly are often in a vulnerable position in regards to exerting their personal autonomy, especially in matters of medical care. I have heard of doctors stating that since an elderly person would simply be a burden on his or her family were they to live, the quality of care they receive and efforts made to keep them alive longer are not important. Many elderly people are often deemed too senile to understand or advocate for their best interests and are therefore denied the right to make meaningful choices about their medical care. Some, who lack the mobility they perhaps once possessed, are abused or neglected by caregivers and while this is seen by almost everyone as wrong, it is rarely seen as part of a wider social, economic, and political problem. If all of this sounds incredibly familiar, it is because young people face many of the same issues and their struggle also lacks politicization.

Like the young who are forced to live in their parents’ community regardless of how suitable they find it and who are forced to attend schools regardless of how happy they are there, the elderly are also often denied the right to make their own choices about where they will live. Many older Americans are forced into nursing homes they despise despite the ability to care for themselves in more suitable places with or without assistance. In these institutions elderly people are often prevented from interacting meaningfully with the rest of the world. Perhaps this is because in our society family members (parents, children, spouses, etc.) are viewed mostly as private problems, private burdens, and to some extent private property and perhaps it is also because those who remember their parents oppressing them in their youth do not wish to be stuck caring for these individuals in their old age. Some of it is certainly due to the fact that many families and individuals lack the means they need to really care for seniors in the most optimum ways. While some elderly people may wish to live in some of the better retirement communities, they are often the exception and not the rule, much as excellent schools are often the exception and not the rule. Much like the problems affecting youth, these issues require both individual and collective solutions.

Finally, both seniors and youth are victims of widespread social stereotypes and are all too often seen as members of an age group with stereotyped interests, values, and personality traits as opposed to being viewed as unique and complex individuals. It is extremely common to hear people casually say that “old people are…” or “teens really love…” or “children fear…” without taking into account that “old people,” “teens,” and “children” are individuals first and group members later. What they need to be happy, healthy, and engaged varies from individual to individual. People do not start being complex persons at age 20 or so and then cease to be so around age 60. People maintain a unique character throughout their lives and while they may change with experience, they do not ever really start or stop being individuals.

It is important to remember that when we speak out against ageism, we take into account the fact that although youth-based oppression can and should be our focus, it is not the only type of age-based oppression. As youth rights activists committed to fighting ageism in all of its forms, we should dedicate ourselves to building a society in which individual autonomy is respected from the cradle to the grave. That would indeed be the best society for all people.

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