‘How you gonna keep them down on the farm now that they’ve seen Paree?’ was a song popular after the first World War, with American soldiers returning home from the war in Europe, many to homes and farms in the country. After the bright lights and big cities overseas, like the glitzy and provocative Paris, farmers had good reason to fear their returning sons would abandon country life; that they’d been changed by what they saw.  Judy Garland (remember her?) reprised the song in a film in 2014.

Now educators in New York are hoping that they can change negative attitudes of teenagers in schools, not by showing them life in glitzy European cities but by watching videos of them doing yoga and callisthenics and spending time with them.  This time, the aim is not to work against change, but to bring it about. The videos and the conversations are part of a pilot educational course to eliminate ageism.

One video shows young adults performing feeble jumping jacks after being asked to do impressions of older people doing callisthenics.  Then older people show what they can do:  one woman holds a complicated yoga stance, lifting her legs above her hips while balancing on a yoga block.  The younger man she’s with cannot do it. The course also examines negative language used when speaking about older people.

The teenagers in New York are being helped to make connections between the discrimination they receive – such as not being treated seriously at work – and that experienced by older people.

Ageing Commissioner Lorraine Cortez-Vasquez describes ageism as an ‘insidious form of discrimination’ and that the goal of the program is to bring ‘the two bookends of our city, the youth and older adults together… In conversation’.  Announcing the scheme earlier this year, Eric Adams, the New York City Mayor, said it would help the city’s youth recognise biases, ‘so they can dismantle what may be their own and other people’s ageist views’.

Discrimination against older workers harming the economy

‘The curriculum is also being included in an economics course, to fight discrimination in the workplace.  Growth in businesses in the USA and in the UK is being held back because of employee shortages, and governments are encouraging older people who took early retirement to return to work.  In the UK, a Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee said that ‘ageist’ companies were responsible for the exodus of older workers with unfriendly policies, rather than a wave of early retirement.’  Now, coping with the financial crisis, many have chosen to go back to work but are prevented by younger recruiters with ageist attitudes.

In the USA, around 3.5 million people are missing from the labour force, according to the chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Recently, Elsevier journal Trends in Cognitive Science, published an article entitled, ‘The cognitive tenacity of self-directed ageism’, revealing it as a kind of self-harm.   In 2018 Yale Professor Becca Levy published a study showing it costs the US Government $63 billion a year in Medicare costs, hoping that the sum would initiate realistic efforts to tackle the attitude, but very little changed.  Perhaps now that ageist attitudes are holding back business in America and the UK, efforts to defeat it are being stepped up: looks like blows to the pocket are more motivating than appeals to the heart.


Louise Morse

Louise Morse MA (CBT) is media and external relations manager for the Pilgrims’ Friend Society. She is a writer and speaker, and author of books on issues of old age, including dementia, published by Lion Monarch and SPCK. She is a cognitive behavioural therapist, and her Masters’ dissertation examined the effects of caring for a loved one with dementia on close relatives.

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