What is ageism and why should we care?
There is a mythical custom in Japanese folklore called “ubasute,” which refers to the practice of abandoning an elderly relative on a mountain, where they are left to die. In the stories, food was scarce in the community and old people were seen as an unnecessary burden. In one Buddhist allegory, a man who was carrying his mother on his back during the journey noticed that she kept snapping twigs and dropping them on the ground. When he inquired what she was doing, his mother replied, “To make sure you can easily find your way back.”
Although ubasute is morally unacceptable in modern society, ageism, or showing prejudice against someone because of their age, is still a pervasive problem. Donna Wilson, a professor who conducted a comprehensive review of all aging-related research, found that 48 to 91 percent of older adults surveyed from different parts of the world shared common experiences of age bias, while 50 to 98 percent of younger people admitted to having discriminatory thoughts or behaviors toward older people.
Ageism affects all genders. Studies show, however, that older women face the greatest disadvantage because they often have to deal with the cumulative effects of both ageism and sexism. In the workplace, older women are more vulnerable to being seen as less competent or less productive, and start losing access to hiring, promotion, and training opportunities much earlier than men from the same age bracket. These setbacks affect their financial security and quality of life, making women at a higher risk for poverty in their senior years.
An example of this is the Halagueña, et al. v. Philippine Airlines case. In July 2004, a group of flight attendants filed a case against the flagship carrier after it set the compulsory retirement for females at age 55—five years earlier than the mandatory age of 60 for their male counterparts.
To combat ageism, we must understand the cultural narratives that reinforce negative stereotypes about older adults. Popular media has a tendency to portray them as victims, out of touch, or a convenient source of laughs. For women, this is further compounded by unrealistic and narrow beauty standards that expect them to maintain a youthful look even as they age, to keep being considered attractive or relevant.
Representation influences the way we see ourselves, as well as how we view other people. When Michelle Yeoh became the first Asian to win the best actress award at the Oscars at 60 years old, she emboldened a lot of women to believe that there are no limits to one’s timeline for dreaming and achieving great things. Highlighting the contributions of older people, especially those of women, helps make the ground more fertile for an age-inclusive society.
Another important way forward is to normalize intergenerational wisdom-sharing as an integral part of the equity framework. Instead of privileging the knowledge and strengths of one generation over the other, we need to value how the fresh perspectives of younger people complement the experience-shaped insights of older adults; and that having all these diverse voices in one room make for a far more enriching discourse.
I personally benefited from this approach. I was an inexperienced 23-year-old when we first started Mano Amiga. What helped me thrive as a leader was having a board of trustees in their mid-60s whose cautious optimism provided a good balance to my highly idealistic self, and whose open-mindedness toward my ideas never made me feel like a kid sitting at an adults’ table. Fostering connections between individuals of different ages engenders mutual respect and empathy, which, in turn, helps quash ageist stereotypes.
The Philippines has several legislative measures that prohibit discrimination against women and older persons, but the political will to implement them is not always visible. Once in a while, however, we are fortunate to witness the transformative power these laws could wield. Last January, in a decision penned by Senior Associate Justice Marvic Leonen, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the female flight attendants—claiming that Philippine Airlines “deprived them of benefits attached to employment, such as income and medical benefits … without any factual basis.” The landmark case is an important victory, not just for those in the airline industry, but for every woman who fears losing job security because of her age.
People may not be abandoning their elderly mothers in the mountains, but undervaluing their societal importance to the point of compromising their quality of life is equally unjust. Much needs to be done in ending gender and age-based discrimination, but today, I take a moment to tip my glass to Patricia Halagueña and her fellow petitioners for the roads they have paved, and the doors they have helped keep open.
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