By Virginia (Ginny) Merritt
The recent announcement of Canada’s Top 100 Employers for Young People (2021) made me wonder, will I ever see a competition for Canada’s Top 100 Employers for Old People? I don’t think so. Most people over 65 aren’t in the workforce today although many are healthy, active, and still wish to contribute their experience and knowledge. They would love to remain in, or re-enter the workplace, but it’s rarely an option in today’s ageist society.
I began to ponder the similarities between the Feminist and Women’s Liberation movement of the 1960s and the increasing spread of today’s anti-ageism movement across the globe. Even more striking to me is that some of the same women who were active in the earlier women’s movement are again stepping up, this time advocating for age diversity, equity, and inclusion. No, I’m not talking about celebrities here; I’m talking about people like you and me.
In the sixties, numerous books were written by well-known feminists. You’ll recognize a few of the names: Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Germaine Greer. Nowadays, you need only visit Amazon to see umpteen pages of books aimed at educating people about ageism, successful ageing, and ageism in the workplace. Check out This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, by Ashton Applewhite, and Bolder: Making the Most of Our Longer Lives by Carl Honoré.
We fought the good fight, heaved a big sigh, patted each other on the backs. Enormous strides were made, many that continued beyond the sixties. Although we knew there was still much to be done, we got on with life, raised families, and established careers. Life seemed good; that is, until we were confronted with the next big wave, a wave that none of us in the sixties had anticipated – ageism. Today we understand the power of waves as never before.
Throughout this period, a Longevity Revolution was percolating in the background. Lifespans and health-spans grew by leaps and bounds. According to the UN, globally the population aged 65 and older is growing faster than all other age groups. By 2024, 25 percent of the labour force will be 55 and older (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). That means an estimated 75% of the U.S. workforce will be Millennials with only 5 to 10 years experience. Think about the enormous gap in knowledge, experience, and cognitive diversity that could occur if older adults are not actively engaged in workplaces.
Just as feminism and the women’s liberation movement spread around the world so, too, is the global effort to eradicate ageism. The anti-ageism movement continues to build as, one-by-one, organizations like Canada’s Top Sixty Over Sixty, and individuals from around the world are learning from each other, connecting, attending each other’s conferences, webinars, meetings, and dialogues, forming networks and coalitions, and offering each other assistance and support.
Worldwide, governments have created ministries or departments dedicated to ensuring the greater health, well-being, and security of older adults. Canada’s current Minister of Seniors, Deb Schulte, is tasked with addressing health and mental health care, pharmacare, housing, income security, elder abuse, consumer protection, seniors programming. Alas, employment of older adults is not mentioned although we know that multigenerational workforces can boost business and productivity; see Building on Diversity by Top Sixty.
We know that, like systemic sexism, deeply entrenched bias against older adults will take a long time before it is significantly reduced or until we realise the aim of Australia’s EveryAGE Counts, “a society where every person is valued, connected and respected regardless of age and functional health”.
We must remember that age bias cuts more than one way and must be addressed on all fronts. Yes, older adults are targets of age bias and discrimination, but so are those of younger generations. Sometimes our own worst enemies are ourselves. By this I mean the self-directed ageism that we have internalized and that holds us back. My mother often remarked, “I can’t believe I am this old; I don’t feel old inside my head.” Mum was on the right track; probably one of the reasons she lived to the ripe old age she did.