“Harvard researchers reverse aging in mice, study suggests.” So proclaims a recent headline about a successful effort to improve the health of older mice. The story—one of many about the study that use the phrase “reverse aging”—betrays one of American culture’s deepest assumptions: that aging is bad and something to fight against.
The negative lens through which American society sees aging causes all kinds of problems. The challenges that can accompany aging, such as health issues, loom large, while the benefits of aging—the skills, knowledge, and wisdom we acquire as we age—fade into the background. And because we treat our aging as something to fight rather than embrace, many of us even become alienated from ourselves as we get older.
As a result of these ingrained ways of thinking, we fail to take full advantage of older people’s valuable insights and abilities. Worse, these attitudes lead to injustice. Ageism—discrimination based on age—is widespread; yet it typically goes unnoticed and unchallenged in employment, health care, and other parts of life. We need only look at mandatory retirement polices to underscore the point. Decades ago, Congress banned employers from forcing people to retire at a certain age, but the law does not cover all workers.
Many Americans think of aging as deterioration, decline, and dependency, according to research conducted by the Frameworks Institute. This assumption is so deeply embedded in American social and cultural life that many people rarely notice it. But when we start looking, we see it everywhere.
We see it in birthday cards that joke about being “over the hill.” We see it in the profitable industry of “anti-aging” creams—a market estimated to reach a value of $66 billion over the next five years. We see it in our own talk as we get older and mock ourselves for struggling with new technology or being out of touch with pop culture. Why do we tell our kids it’s rude to ask older people how old they are? We take for granted that age is an embarrassment that people wouldn’t want known or highlighted.
We talk about “fighting” or “battling” aging, a metaphor that both reflects and perpetuates the idea that aging is bad. Even supposedly positive attitudes toward getting older, like the ideas that older people can be “forever young” or “young at heart,” betray a deeper underlying antipathy. When we say that older people are “young at heart,” we’re unwittingly expressing a preference for youth over age. Have you ever heard anyone say they want to be old at heart?
An example from research illustrates the point. In focus groups conducted by FrameWorks, researchers found that participants, no matter their age, never identified as “older” people. Participants always thought of “older people” as “them,” not “us.” This shows the depth of Americans’ aversion to aging—and how this aversion injures our very self-conception as we make our way through life.
Tests that measure levels of unconscious bias (known as implicit association tests) consistently show that Americans hold deep unconscious bias against older people. We might deliberately pass over an older job candidate because we believe that “old dogs can’t learn new tricks.” Or, we might hire a younger, less experienced job candidate instead of the older, more experienced one—but not realize or admit why.
The good news is that if we change how we talk about aging, we can, over time, change how we think about it and act in response.
In 2015, FrameWorks teamed up with the John A. Hartford Foundation, eight other foundations, and seven leading aging-focused organizations to reframe aging. The project, which included not only the focus groups mentioned above but a wide range of research with over 10,000 total participants, identified empirically tested strategies to reframe aging that have the demonstrated power to change public thinking.
To cultivate more positive thinking about aging, we need a new metaphor for aging that can dislodge the entrenched “battle” metaphor. We found that comparing aging to a process of “building momentum” changes how people understand aging and helps them see how the force of experience and wisdom enables older people to improve their communities. By casting aging as a dynamic and forward-moving process and emphasizing the accumulation of “force” and “energy”—the momentum we gain as we age—we can help people see aging in a more positive light.
Research shows the metaphor’s power. Researchers drove the dialogue in new directions when they used the metaphor in conversations with individuals and groups. In interviews with research participants, researchers explained aging as a process of gathering momentum “through the build-up of experiences and insights,” which can “add power and force to moving our communities forward.” When participants heard this language, they were more likely to see the positive aspects of aging and the value of older people in our society. In an online survey experiment, people who read passages including the metaphor expressed more positive attitudes about aging than those who weren’t exposed to the metaphor. Perhaps most important, our research found that the metaphor reduces people’s implicit (or unconscious) bias against older people.
To determine whether the momentum metaphor can change these attitudes, FrameWorks conducted an experiment: Researchers asked some people to read a short paragraph that included the metaphor and then take an implicit association test); others read a short unrelated article that didn’t touch on aging and/or a brief, neutrally framed article about how the US population is aging and took the same test.
We found that the metaphor reduced implicit bias against older people by one-third in comparison to the group that read an unrelated article. The neutrally framed article about aging, by contrast, did not have any effect on bias. The metaphor’s ability to move unconscious, deeply entrenched attitudes suggests advocates can use it to reduce unintentional bias.
The momentum metaphor opens space for recognizing that discrimination against older people is grounded in unwarranted prejudice, but we need more than metaphor to make ageism visible. We need examples and values that bring ageism clearly into view and make it salient and relevant.
We found that talking about discrimination in the workplace and health care led people to reexamine how American society treats older people. And we found that framing the need for change around the value of justice helps people see the systemic nature of ageism and support the kinds of policies and practices that address it, such as stricter enforcement of laws banning discrimination against older people in the workplace.
National aging-focused organizations, such as AARP and Encore, and local groups such as LiveOnNY and the San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services have adopted these framing strategies. Advocates report that they have helped garner policymaker support for issues related to aging, secure larger budget appropriations for aging-related programs and services, and spark interest and involvement among the general public in aging initiatives.
To eliminate ageism, we must unravel it from the fabric of American culture. This requires telling a different story about aging. Ageist attitudes run deep and won’t disappear overnight. But if citizens and advocates and, eventually, journalists and policymakers begin to talk differently about aging, we’ll come to think about it differently, too.
Imagine how the Harvard mice study would be covered in the context of this new cultural fabric. Headlines wouldn’t hail the findings as a step toward “reversing aging,” because aging would be seen as a positive process that we wouldn’t want to reverse. Instead, we’d see the study as a step toward extending physical health and longevity as we gain momentum, a way to ensure that we can fully enjoy the growth of and realize productivity in older life—when we’re old at heart.