The Coronavirus and Ageism

The Coronavirus has severely affected the United States, and the world in general. However, one population that has been particularly affected by this horrid pandemic is the 65+ population, for about 8 in 10 Americans killed by COVID-19 thus far have been 65 and older.[1]

One would hope for a compassionate response to this fact, a response that tries to make sure that the populations that seem most vulnerable (older persons as well as the immunocompromised) are taken care of. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case; instead, some have responded with something along the lines of “oh, it’s just old people.” There are several issues with this “it’s just old people” response:

  • Such comments come across as if older persons are not of as much value as the rest of us and are therefore not worth saving as much as everyone else is.
  • Such comments are also, in a way, attacking our future selves—many of us may end up being older persons at some point, so devaluing older persons is in a way devaluing some of our future selves.
  • Such comments are also attacking of some of our family members. You know what? If you’re saying “it’s just old people” and you have family or friends who are over the age of 65, you are, de facto, attacking those family members or friends.
  • While the virus has disproportionately affected older persons, it’s not just old people dying of the virus. Younger persons, including and especially those who are immunocompromised, have also been seriously affected by the virus, and in some cases, killed. I wrote about one such person—a family friend—in my most recent COVID update post.

If we are to rid ourselves of this “it’s just old people” sort of attitude, we will need to completely change our mindset in terms of how much the lives of older persons matter. In my observations, at least, this issue with how much many people in our society value the lives of older persons dates back to long before COVID. The pandemic may have heightened our awareness of this issue, but the issue did not start with the pandemic.

As to how we go about changing those perceptions, I’m not completely sure, but addressing a couple of problems may help address the “it’s just old people” attitude:

  1. There can be this attitude of “such-and-such old person will die soon anyway, so there’s no need to worry” (an attitude that I know my mom’s mother, who is in her nineties, has experienced herself since before the pandemic). With many people living to their eighties, nineties, and even sometimes over 100 years old, the assumption that a person will die soon is in some cases a mistaken assumption. Even if it’s not a mistaken assumption, it is vital to make someone’s quality of life as good as it can possibly be while they are on this earth.
  2. Who matters most, at least in the United States, feels like it is often tied to who is making the most money. As the overwhelming majority of those 65 and older in the United States are not employed or looking for work,[2] the non-working older population is less likely to be viewed as being of value as the rest of the population. A key here might be to realize that someone need not make lots of money to be of value of society.

Regardless of the source of the “it’s just old people” mentality, it is a mentality that needs to be gotten rid of, for the sake of older persons and the pandemic as a whole. People’s lives may very well count on a shift of attitude towards older persons.


[1] https://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2020/coronavirus-deaths-older-adults.html

[2] https://www.aarp.org/work/employers/info-2019/americans-working-past-65.html

Addressing the “Good for Your Age” Compliment

“You’re smart, for being a young person.”

“You look good for your age.”

“You are athletic for your age.”

The “good for your age” compliments seem nice and flattering at first. But actually, these “compliments” are a backhanded knock on people your age.

For people who think that I’m being too sensitive, consider the implications of the compliments I expressed at the beginning of my piece:

  • “You’re smart, for being such a young person.” Implication: Young people are usually not that smart.
  • “You look good for your age.” Implication: People your age usually don’t look “good” (whatever good is).
  • “You are athletic for your age.” Implication: People your age aren’t athletic. By the way, I’ve known of people over the age of 100 to run marathons, so people can be athletic at any age.[1]

In summary, these compliments of being “good for your age” are indirectly critical of others of a particular age in ways that are ageist. It’s ageist because people (or groups of people) are judged solely on the basis of the age they are or the age they look.

Instead of making such ageist comments, we can just avoid the age-based compliments. Instead of saying that someone is smart for their age, say that the person is smart. Instead of saying someone looks good for their age, say that the person looks good. Instead of saying that someone is athletic for their age, say that someone is athletic. Ultimately, your traits need not be based on age because, really, age is just a number.

Please note that I will not publish a post next Monday because it will be Presidents’ Day.


[1] https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/01/01/568665002/at-age-101-shes-a-world-champ-runner

Rejecting the Notion that a Presidential Candidate Can be “Too Old”

Recently, some of the younger candidates for President of the United States have argued that certain prominent presidential candidates, especially Joe Biden (who is 76) and Bernie Sanders (who is 77) should “pass the torch” to a new generation of leadership. Congressman Eric Swalwell (now a former candidate), former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, in particular, have made these sorts of arguments. Even CNN moderators at the recent presidential debate had questions directed at the older candidates which implied the “old is bad” thinking. Such arguments have received attention—so much so that the anti-ageism organization that I am a part of, the Gray Panthers, has gotten quoted by the media such as the Boston Globe and Daily Beast about the question of whether these candidates are “too old.”

The aforementioned candidates are wrong—there is no such thing as a candidate being “too old” for the presidency.

However, I’m going to go one step further, and also reject a number of common notions about presidential candidates and age that are ageist.

One such notion is that old candidates lack ideas. In 2016, Bernie Sanders, all by himself, rejected that notion. Some of the ideas embraced now by some on the left—Medicare for All, tuition-free public universities, and a $15 an hour minimum wage—became prominent at least in part because those were (and are) things that Sanders advocated for at times when even most Democrats suggested that these ideas were too radical. I should also note that Elizabeth Warren, who is also one of the oldest candidates in the race, has come out with many policy ideas as well. In contrast, the candidate often most criticized for a lack of policy ideas, Beto O’Rourke, is over 30 years younger than Sanders.

Some people also believe that old people lack the capacity (whether it be physical, mental, or otherwise) to serve as a president.Julian Castro’s “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” line directed at Biden in a presidential debate seemed to go along with the idea that Biden is too old and senile to have the capacity for the presidency. I can refute the “old and senile” stereotype by pointing out that arguably two of the greatest world leaders of the second half of the twentieth century were leaders in their seventies and eighties. Nelson Mandela, who was instrumental in the healing of post-apartheid South Africa, was President of South Africa from the age of 75 until he was 80. Konrad Adenauer, who helped build West Germany from World War II ruins into an economic power, started as Chancellor of West Germany when he was 73…and he served until he was 87! These two individuals, as well as many others, demonstrate that a person’s capacity to serve a country effectively does not have to do with age.

Finally, there’s a belief among some that we need to move on from the old generation, and to a new generation of people.I am thoroughly understanding of where this argument comes from—it stems from the fact that we’ve had three presidents of approximately the same generation as Warren, Sanders, and Biden. Those three presidents include the scandal-marred Bill Clinton; George W. Bush, who led the country into two wars and the Great Recession; and Donald Trump, who is currently mired in an impeachment inquiry. That being said, just because previous presidents come from the same generation as some of the current candidates does not necessarily predict how those current candidates will do in the White House.

At the same time, I caution against the opposite notion, that age is an advantage. There is sometimes a stereotype that older candidates have wisdom that younger candidates inherently lack, or automatically have the experience that younger candidates lack just because of age. Ironically, Buttigieg, who I criticized earlier in the piece, is the prominent candidate who is most prone to falling victim to anti-younger-candidate ageism. These stereotypes should also be challenged and dismantled, as positive qualities such as wisdom and experience don’t have to do with age, but with a variety of factors that have nothing to do with age. However, negative age-related stereotypes about the older candidates in the presidential race seems particularly prominent right now, hence my focus on ageism against the older candidates.

Ultimately, the question should not be what age a candidate is, but whether a candidate is capable of making the United States, and the world as a whole, a place that is more fair and more just than it currently is. If the answer is yes, then seriously consider voting for that candidate. If not, then avoid voting for that candidate.

Ageism and Technology

A few weeks ago, I was waiting for a train, and a woman came up to me asking how to fix her problems in WhatsApp.

I wasn’t able to fix the problems that she was encountering with her WhatsApp. But my inability to fix the woman’s issues with her WhatsApp was not what led me to write this blog post.

Instead, it was something that the woman said, after concluding that I would be of no help in fixing her issues. She said something along the lines of: “I thought that, since you were a younger person, you would know how to fix this issue.”

“Since you were a younger person, you would know how to fix this issue.”

Now I really believe that this woman was well-intentioned, and I’m not mad at her. Not one bit. But at the same time, I think that this quote is only a microcosm of ageist attitudes when it comes to technology. Namely, the idea that all young people know their technology, and that all old people don’t know their technology.

Such attitudes are widespread. From a YouTube video with over 4 million views called “Old People vs Technology” to that one person at the subway station asking me about WhatsApp the other day, there is this generalized assumption that old people are technologically clueless while younger people like me are technologically adept.

Based on many statistics, as well as personal experiences, that isn’t necessarily a fair assumption to make. While it is true that people ages 65 and older have internet, cell phones, and broadband at lower rates than the rest of the United States population, 47% of seniors had broadband, 59% of seniors had internet, and a staggering 77% of seniors had cell phones as of 2014.[1] Basically, there is a large population of seniors who are technologically adept and buck the notion that seniors have no clue when it comes to technology. While more people under 65 than over 65 know these things, the population of “over 65s” who know technology and work with it is quite large.

So, the next time you are encountering technology struggles, don’t automatically think that a young person will automatically bail you out of your troubles, or that an older person would automatically be clueless on how to help you. Sometimes, the person most able to help you with technology woes is not who you expect. 


[1] http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/04/03/older-adults-and-technology-use/

Ageist Responses to Florida Shooting Survivors-Turned-Activists

“Well, let’s ask ourselves, do we really think—and I say this sincerely—do we really think 17-year-olds on their own are going to plan a nationwide rally?”

“The big question is: Should the media be promoting opinions by teenagers who are in an emotional state and facing extreme peer pressure in some cases?”

“I absolutely know these children are heartbroken. But I also know they probably do not have the logistical ability to plan a nationwide rally.”

While some of the conspiracy theories about the Florida shooting survivors-turned-activists has both gotten attention for all the wrong reasons and been debunked (and rightfully so), the ageist sentiments such as the ones in the quotes above (all of them coming from prominent political commentators) should not just be debunked but also called out for what it is: ageism.

Ageism—defined by me in a blog post many months ago as “a form of discrimination where people are judged based on the age they are or the age they look”—is very apparent in some of the ways people are viewing and judging the shooting survivors-turned-activists. By saying that these teens are not capable of organizing a nationwide rally since they’re seventeen, or shouldn’t be promoted just because they are “teens in an emotional state,” we’re judging them as being too young (and therefore incapable) of doing certain things. And by promoting such messages about these teens not being capable of certain things because they are teens, we’re actually promoting ageism.

But it’s not enough to say that people are ageist for saying that high school kids are not capable of being activists on a national level. I urge us to go a step further, by promoting narratives that debunk such ageist thoughts. I urge us to promote the story of Malala Yousafzai, who became internationally known for advocacy at the age of 12 and nearly died because of her advocacy. I urge us to promote the story of Mo’ne Davis, who at age 16 has gone from being a pioneer (a girl starring in Little League Baseball, a sport traditionally for guys) to launching a shoe collection that benefits impoverished girls. I urge us to promote stories like that of my fellow Dickinson College alum Noorjahan Akbar, who was featured in major publications as early as when she was 19 and 20. Stories like these are the most powerful rebuttals to any notions that young people are not capable of doing something special just because they’re young.

People of a wide variety of ages are capable of doing special things. Young people are capable of doing special things. Old people are capable of doing special things. Middle-aged people are capable of doing special things. Ultimately, there are some things that do keep us from doing great things, but age is not one of them.