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News August 2019

Tunnel Visions

When and How We Grow Old: Public Opinion About the Aging Process

By Bonnie McCune

In 2019, Baby Boomers/Silent Generation (loosely defined as pre-1945 and 1946-54) were far less likely to perceive people to be “old” by their 70s, while Millennials and Gen Xers (born 1955 to 1980) are significantly more inclined than their older counterparts to perceive people to be “old” by their 70s.

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Well over a majority of Americans felt 80 is not too old to engage in spirited activities that involve risk-taking, including falling in love (88%), running a marathon (72%), starting a business (69%), getting a tattoo (68%), even riding a motorcycle (62%)!

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I figured by the time I reached my 60s, I’d be decrepit and hardly able to shuffle along, let alone perform abstract thinking or take adequate care of myself. To my surprise, as the years increased, I and many of my peers have found we feel no different on the inside than we did decades ago.

Turns out, I now know that mature adults, or aging adults, or whichever term is preferred, are quite capable of dancing, running a political campaign, debating about issues, climbing mountains, or writing a book. (That’s what I’m doing post-retirement.) But what about the people around me? The clerk in the store? My neighbors? The newspaper delivery person? How do they view me? What about my contemporaries?

Seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same. According to the Aging in America Survey, findings from the Parker Health Group, conducted in 2019 and two prior years via telephone, younger people continue to define “old age” at a much younger time than we whose days are greater in number. In 2019, Baby Boomers/Silent Generation (loosely defined as pre-1945 and 1946-54) were far less likely to perceive people to be “old” by their 70s, while Millennials and Gen Xers (born 1955 to 1980) are significantly more inclined than their older counterparts to perceive people to be “old” by their 70s. So the younger the individual watching and judging us well-seasoned folks, the more she might be thinking, “That guy’s too old to be doing that.”

Hold your tongue! Another question had to do with aging and ability. While the time at which a description of “old” is pertinent, that doesn’t mean others think we shouldn’t be participating. Well over a majority of Americans felt 80 is not too old to engage in spirited activities that involve risk-taking, including falling in love (88%), running a marathon (72%), starting a business (69%), getting a tattoo (68%), even riding a motorcycle (62%)! although you couldn’t get me on one even if you paid me. Baby Boomers/Silent Generation were a bit more realistic about these doings at 80, weighing in on the average about 5 to 15 percent less per category than Millennials/Gen Xers, but they all seemed eager not to eliminate the possibilities to rev their motors in a variety of ways as folks age.

More good news: over one-third of Americans identify gaining experience and wisdom as positives for the maturation process, while nearly as many (30%) credit time spent with family and friends as benefits. Embracing a new life chapter ranks a distant third on the list (12%), followed by getting close to retiring (10%). And finally, Americans seem willing to loosen their death grip on gaining wealth and consumer goods, as only one percent list that as an advantage of aging. Maybe they figure if they haven’t become rich by the time they’re old, they might as well give up that goal.

Few surprises percolated to the top of the survey. The vast majority (88%) of respondents expressing at least one age-related fear. Specific fears were what I expected, with physical health issues ranked as #1 by one-third, while mental health matters, such as memory loss, placed at nearly a quarter. Millennials/Gen X worry more about this issue (28%) than Baby Boomer/Silents (20%).

When asked to choose the top three fears, physical health issues (66%) again ranked highest among respondents, trailed by mental health issues (59%). Running out of money was a top-3 fear for two in five adults (40%), while roughly half as many worry about being lonely (22%), being bored (21%), or not having the lifestyle they expected (19%). Just 13% rank losing their physical attractiveness among their three greatest fears related to aging.

We hear plenty these days about the “isms” such as racism and feminism, and how they can subtly influence people’s thinking, actions, even laws and policies. Seniors aren’t exempt, and examples of “agism” abound in newspapers, television, movies, and social media. Of course these might be positive or negative. Americans are evenly split in their views of media portrayals of older people, with 38% believing they’re portrayed positively while 36% opt for the negative. This leaves nearly 25% with neutral views, saying portrayals are neither positive nor negative.

About one-third of respondents have experienced ageism in some form. Discrimination in the workplace has affected more than one in four, but nearly twice as many (19%) say it was because they were too young, while 11% referred to being too old. Outside the workplace, one in five have faced harassment or discrimination based on age, which divided into too young (15%) and too old (10%).

How do we designate ageism, and is every possible example truly ageism? Two-thirds of respondents were able to choose at least one example from a list of five as a type of age discrimination. Topping the selections was “Describing minor forgetfulness as a senior moment,” with 40% of answerers feeling this exemplified ageism. I hear my aging contemporaries use this as an excuse or reason for their behavior quite often. In the workplace, advertising for applicants to join a “young, dynamic team” gets the goat of 31% of those surveyed as ageism.

Nods were also given to social media campaigns that compare current photos of people to their old ones (24%), birthday cards that joke about aging (19%), and dressing children as Centennials on the 100th day of school (14%). Women tend to be more sensitive to these forms of ageism than men.

Now that they’re aware of the subtleties of ageism, will those who took the surveys change the way they think and act in the future? One in five said “yes,” with Millennials/Gen Xers more inclined than Boomer/Silent to expect a change in themselves.

The survey has been given annually for three years so far. It will be interesting to see what occurs as the world around us alters. Could a recession make a huge impact on our satisfaction with our lives as we grow older? Will an increasingly aging population change our usual perceptions about important factors to staying young at heart? Will we begin thinking there are definite age limits to activities we find appropriate? Let’s not forget that views from the old and the young have always been dynamic and viewed from opposite ends of life’s spectrum.

Lewis Carroll surely knew this 165 years ago when he composed his masterpiece inquiry about agism. It contains insights into the aging process still applicable today.

"You are old, father William," the young man said,

"And your hair has become very white;

And yet you incessantly stand on your head —

Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

"In my youth," father William replied to his son,

"I feared it would injure the brain;

But now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,

Why, I do it again and again."       

— (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

 

(Bonnie McCune is a Colorado writer and has published several novels as well as other work. Reach her at www.BonnieMcCune.com.)

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