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Ageism can hit the young and old. Here's how 'othering' leads to age-based mistreatment.

An illustration by Lauren Ibañez shows two younger people imagining two older people as physically weak, forgetful and easily confused — surrounded by medication. The two older people imagine younger people as always on their phones, skateboarding and listening to loud music and always buying things like pizza and drinks.
Lauren Ibañez for KUT

We typically think about ageism — the discrimination against people based on their age — as mostly affecting older people. A company refuses to hire people over a certain age, or someone makes a joke that paints older generations as out of touch or stuck in their ways. But young people are not immune to it either, says Central Texas neuropsychotherapistBella Rockman.

“Ageism can work in the reverse for the younger generation,” Rockman says, “when we talk down to small children or toddlers and dismiss … their knowledge or their opinion or their understanding.”

Ageism has many roots. Rockman says it can arise from our tendency to “other” people who are different than us, a desire to feel stronger than those around us and a need for power and control over others.

So, how can people undo ageist attitudes? Rockman says it all starts with awareness.

"We need to remember that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason so that we are quicker to hear than we are to speak,” Rockman says, “and to pause before we say things, and to have the humility to go back and correct ourselves when we've made a misstep."

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to learn more about the roots, causes and remedies for ageism.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Jennifer Stayton, KUT: Please define ageism. What is it?

Bella Rockman: Ageism is whenever we find ourselves or other people showing prejudice, stereotyping, stigmatization, discriminating on the grounds of a person's age. We do typically think about this only in terms of our aging population or seniors, by the way. But ageism can work in the reverse for the younger generation, or even when we talk down to small children or toddlers and dismiss or [were] dismissive of their knowledge or their opinion or their understanding.

Why do we treat people poorly and make unfair assumptions about them just because we think they're either “too old” to do a good job [or] “too young” to know enough about what to do? Why do we behave that way?

There's this “othering” kind of thing that happens when we look outside of ourselves and point at other people and say, "Well, I'm not them. They're different from me." And especially if there's any association with weakness or lack of resources or opportunity or availability, right? There's even an association with aging and disease — with being closer to death, to sickness, to fragility, to frailty. And so I think that when we “other” people, it removes us from it. "That's not me."

I think some of it also has some anthropological primitive roots, kind of survival of the fittest — sizing up people that are around us to some extent, from a primitive standpoint and wanting to feel more powerful than those people.

And then the last part, I think, is that any of the "isms” that are out there — sexism, ageism, racism, ableism, the mistreatment of other people — it's never really about that thing. That's just the focal point. It's always about a quest for, a need for, a fear of — it's always around the topic of power and control.

We were all young people at one time if we're not right now. Most of us will progress into old age, and we will all be older at some point. So at some point we're actually not the others; we are “they.”

I would challenge you to go through your day — just take one day, and if one day feels like too much to take half a day — and every expression of humanity that you see, I want you to find a way to connect and say, "I am that."

The high powered, successful CEO you see walk into the building, say, "I have that capacity within me." The mom that you see struggling with several toddlers who are acting out of control and you want to quickly maybe judge her and be like, "Oh, if that were me." No, say, "I am that, because there are things that I struggle with juggling or I have before, and if I haven’t, I will."

The person that you see looking for food and asking for money on the side of the road. "I am that because if it weren't for some amazing grace that has shown up in my life, it could be me, too." So when we do that "I am" exercise it really levels the playing field and we're able to connect.

There are other cultures and other places in the world where people who are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s are revered for their wisdom and are celebrated and well taken care of. What have other societies figured out that we haven't?

There's a type of therapy called commitment and acceptance therapy. And a part of the work of that therapeutic model is seeing through and following through and working through life and finding spaces that you are resisting, and accepting the reality of what is so that you can better enjoy, engage and create a rhythm for yourself without resisting reality, without resisting what is.

So I think other societies, many of them, anyway, they understand that there's this reverence for things that have accumulated time and wisdom and age and there's not as much of an obsession around anti-aging.

Anti-aging is not even — that doesn't exist because it's a part of life. If we can embrace the truths and commit and accept that we're all perfectly imperfect. I think that it will help to shift our mindset around ageism, even the stuff that's like "30 is the new this and 50 is the new that." It might just be OK that 50 is 50.

How do we undo these attitudes then, and how do we get on a different track so we're not dismissing young people simply because they're young or dismissing and discarding people who are in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s because they've been around for a while?

I think that we have to practice awareness. I think we have to remember that our brain is a sophisticated muscle. It is the most sophisticated muscle in our body, I would argue, and we have to become first of all aware so that we're not the "walking dead" — just thinking thoughts and saying things mindlessly.

We need to remember that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason so that we are quicker to hear than we are to speak and to pause before we say things and to have the humility to go back and correct ourselves when we've made a misstep with someone or in a group.

And as we're doing that, we're creating the repetition, the neural repetition that's needed to rewire our thinking, to rewire our brain. And it doesn't mean that we will be perfect, but we can be better. And when we get better, we give a hope for each generation to do better than the last.

Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @jenstayton.
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