Feature Article

Talk of Ages

by Joann M. Montepare

We live in a world of stereotypes, where our age and generation imply behaviors and traits we assume people embody at different stages in the life course. Learning that someone is 75 years old conjures impressions of senior moments, bad backs, and rigid thinking in the same way that our image of Millennials is rife with earbuds, selfies, and entitled youth. Such stereotypic and largely derogatory views of older and younger people pervade our conversations, humor, media, workplace, and treatment of one another. Moreover, the biased assumptions we hold about aging shape worries we have about our future selves. Welcome to ageism in America.

What drives ageism? Social psychologists have offered several explanations regarding its foundation. At the individual level, ageist beliefs and actions can serve ego-protective functions. For example, we stigmatize and ignore older adults to offset our fears about getting older. Other theories focus on face-to-face interactions and overgeneralizations. In this respect, casual observations of young peoples' personal use of technology suggest that they are self-absorbed. Age-segregated social and institutional practices compound matters by isolating age groups and providing little opportunity for people of different generations to interact and challenge assumptions.

More recently, unprecedented changes in our population's age demographics have called attention to the potential for intergenerational tensions and threats to fuel the simmering fires of ageism. That is, the anticipated aging of our population along with competition over resources has created a contemporary atmosphere that fosters reciprocal ageism and intergenerational threat. Thus, the problem extends in all directions; no one is immune to resentment between generations. Never before has our population had such a significant percentage of older adults. Around 1930, America's older population was fewer than seven million, only about 5% of the population. Today, over 45 million Americans are 65 and older, and between now and 2050, the United States will experience even more significant age growth with the number of older adults swelling to over 85 million and constituting nearly 25% of the population. Forecasts about increasing economic demands and strained resources have given rise to alarmist characterizations of our aging population as a "silver tsunami" or a "demographic time bomb." These generalizations put older and younger generations at odds as they struggle to navigate historic and unprecedented shifts.

Lasell students and Village residents work together in class.
Lasell students and Village residents demonstrate how dictatorships rise and fall in Betsy Leondar-Wright's Social Movements class. 

With the generational divide wider than ever, is there a way to bridge the gap? Our institutions of higher education offer a teaching and learning environment in which we can begin to turn ageist beliefs and practices around in a timely, powerful way. Our campuses are poised to become more "age-friendly" through a variety of means including recognizing the needs and values of an age-diverse population, developing lifelong learning opportunities to extend healthy living, and perhaps most important, promoting intergenerational interaction to break down negative assumptions and build solidarity. In 2015, Lasell College committed itself to doing just that by becoming the first institution of higher education in Massachusetts (second in the United States) to join the pioneering Age-Friendly University (AFU) initiative, along with global partners in Ireland, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Korea, and beyond. Launched by an international team convened by Ireland's Dublin City University, AFU offers ten guiding principles (see side panel), endorsed by the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education (AGHE), to respond to our emerging age-diverse population and to reduce ageism.

The RoseMary B. Fuss Center for Research on Aging and Intergenerational Studies at Lasell is leading the charge by using the AFU principles to guide creative intergenerational programming across the curriculum, in collaboration with the college's affiliated continuing-care retirement community (CCRC), Lasell Village. At Lasell, it is not uncommon to see younger and older people gather for a "Talk of Ages" to hear speakers and join in discussions of issues of mutual interest. Tackling ageism becomes easier when members of different generations can find common ground on topics such as healthy living, the environment, changing family structures, sports, or even fact-checking in a presidential election.

Each semester, Lasell's age-friendly campus offers new occasions for younger and older people to get to know one another, whether it be in the classroom working on an art project or at a social event such as the senior prom, at which Lasell students and Lasell Village residents gather for an intergenerational celebration. It also offers opportunities to explore other innovative approaches to learning and living environments, such as in age-friendly entrepreneurial design competitions. Bringing younger and older people together around common educational goals, making intergenerational connections, and engaging in creative teaching and learning experiences are all actions aligned with well-known social-psychological strategies to reduce prejudice and discrimination. By building on these age-friendly actions, we can address ageism more broadly and deeply than through any other single effort.

Joann M. Montepare, PhD, is the director of the RoseMary B. Fuss Center for Research on Aging and Intergenerational Studies. She will receive the Administrative Leadership Honor from the Association of Gerontology in Higher Education in March 2018. For more information about Lasell's AFU efforts, email her at jmontepare@lasell.edu. To learn more about the Talk of Ages initiative, visit lasell.edu/talkofages.

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