Ageism!? I thought there were enough -isms already!

You’ve heard a lot of other -isms, like racism and sexism. You know about social “phobias” like homophobia and xenophobia. They’re all about people who are oppressed by social bias and power. Do we really need another -ism to bring us down?

Survey says: ABSOLUTELY YES!! Actually, what’s great about talking about social power and oppression is that you’ve got to understand what’s going on in order to do something about it. Here at the Bus, we’re all about doing stuff to spread equality and positivity, particularly via young people! That means ageism is especially good for all you spry young folk reading our blog to wrap your agile and witty brains around, since young folks are most often the target of ageism. In fact, sometimes ageism is called adultism, to mean the same thing. I like both terms, but ageism is a bit more inclusive, as elderly folks often experience ageism as well.

Wait, wait – what the heck does ageism actually mean? Let’s break it down.

There’s this handy-dandy equation that can help define ageism, and any kind of -ism. It goes like this:

Power + Bias = Oppression

Whoa. That is deep!

Ageism is “stereotyping and discriminating against individuals or groups because of their age. It is a set of beliefs, attitudes, norms, and values used to justify age based prejudice, discrimination, and subordination.”  

There are certainly subtle power differentials between every generation, but the most prominent cases are that of adults who have power over young people, and adults who have power over the elderly. It is difficult to define what an “adult” is exactly, particularly when you are in your early 20s like me, but lets just keep the term broad for now, so you can decide for yourself what an adult is.

There are certain age ranges that have more power over other age ranges. When age ranges that have more power also have a bias about the abilities or value of other age ranges, they are being ageist. This equation is helpful to keep in mind, because if someone who does NOT have power based on their age has biases about age, it does not mean they are ageist. Oppression always comes from a combination of power and bias. If a young person thinks that young people are incapable of doing something, they have a bias. Or if a middle-aged person thinks people of all ages are awesome people and they respect their experience and opinions, they just have power (which is by no means a bad thing to have! Power to the people!) To make an analogy, this is why “reverse racism” does not exist.

Wooo! Clear as the methamphetamine Walter White cooks up in Breaking Bad! Which, by the way, is totally rock candy.

One more sweet knowledge-nugget for y’all before we blow this popsicle stand. Ageism, along with all other forms of social oppression, takes place in three distinct forms:

1. Individual oppression. This occurs directly between people, like when an adult says to a child, “what would you know? You’re just a kid!” Another example is calling someone a “baby” if they’re afraid to do something – it’s actually a lot like calling someone gay. I don’t know about you, but that blew my mind the first time I learned about it!

2. Institutional oppression. This is when an institution, like public schools, work places, companies or the government has specific rules or ways of treating people that are based on age. For example, when the government doesn’t allow people under age 21 to drink, but does allow people who are 18 to fight for our country and get married and be legally independent from their guardians, that is ageist. There is an assumption that young people won’t be able to be responsible enough to drink safely, even when they are assumed to be responsible enough to start families and go to war.

3. Systemic oppression. This is when a whole society systematically oppresses a type of person based on a certain trait, like their age. It is the normative effect of a lot of individuals and institutions having similar discriminatory practices and ideas.

Young people are powerful, and have a lot to say. Also, there’s a freaking bunch of us, so WATCH OUT, YE NON-YOUNG PEOPLE! There are over 46 MILLION eligible voters between 18 and 29 years old in the United States this year. That’s 24% of all eligible voters in the US! Dang, young people: you are impressive!

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