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Ageism, the Baby Boomers, and Elderhood 

By: Dr. Al Lauzon


Dr. Al Lauzon, Gateway CERH Board Member & Professor Emeritus, Guelph University

Statistics Canada recently reported that there are now more millennials in Canada than baby boomers, ending baby boomers 65-year reign as the largest age cohort that has dominated Canadian life since the end of the World War II. To say they have left their fingerprints on Canadian society would be an understatement. They have altered the very fabric of Canadian society in terms of institutions, beliefs and values. And now as the baby boomers enter the last stage of the life cycle, they are often viewed as a burden, ironically victims of their own making; it was the baby boomers who created a culture whereby the value of the individual was reduced to their economic productivity and if you were not engaged in economic productivity, then you have little value. I have often met many baby boomers who have retired and look to simply keep busy until the grim reaper knocks on the door and says your time is up and you need to come with me.  


But busyness is not enough and we know that meaning is as essential to humans as water and air; all people need to feel they are living meaningful lives. Just because we have retired from the workforce does not mean we do not have value, or are not able to make contributions to society, albeit the contributions we make may be different from those we made while working. There is a freedom in retirement where we have the freedom to speak our mind without worry of repercussions that would jeopardize our employment. In others words, free of ambitions and aspirations, those who have left the workforce are in a position to ask tough questions and challenge the status quo.  


Historically and currently in other cultures these people would become elders and would be turned to for guidance and wisdom that they had cultivated over a lifetime of experiences. But in Canadian culture, with the exception of Indigenous culture, we no longer value the wisdom of our elders, nor do we provide the supports and resources that would help them cultivate and develop their wisdom. As the psychoanalyst James Hollis has said, there are no “schools” to assist and support the development of older adults who are looking to make sense of their life lived to date. Failure to support the development of our older adults is a function of societal ageism. 


Ageism on a Global Scale

"Global Report on Ageism Title Page", The WHO 2021

Ageism is rampant across the globe. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) ageism is the only “ism” that remains socially acceptable and is more prevalent than sexism and racism. The WHO also noted in their Global Report on Ageism published in 2021 that globally one in two people express ageist beliefs.  As they noted, ageism is prevalent, ubiquitous, and insidious because it is unrecognized and unchallenged. They further report that ageism has serious and far reaching consequences for people’s health, wellbeing and human rights, and costs society billions of dollars. In other words, there is both a cost to the older adult and a financial cost to society at large, not to mention the lost potential of older adults who are ready to make contributions to our collective wellbeing.  


Too often we hold stereotypes of older adults, characterizing them as frail and vulnerable, and while some older adults may be frail and vulnerable, others are vibrant and can make significant contributions to society through caregiving, volunteering and assuming leadership and mentoring roles in communities.  


The idea of ageism was first introduced by Robert Butler in 1969. He described it as “a form of bigotry” we now tend to overlook. He maintained it was characterized by an uneasiness experienced by the young and the middle-aged and a personal revulsion to and distaste for growing old, disease, disability, and a fear of powerlessness, uselessness and death. Not a flattering picture of aging and one we must find a means of moving beyond.  

  

The WHO has suggested that by 2050 people sixty years of age or older will constitute 22% of the total global population. Are we simply to dismiss the social and economic contributions that can be provided by almost one quarter of the global population? Furthermore, we are seeing numerous older adults choosing to stay in the labour force beyond normal retirement ages either out of choice or necessity, but we know that ageism will continue to impact those who choose to stay economically productive.  And despite workplace perceptions of older workers often embodying positive stereotypes such as loyalty and reliability, the negative stereotypes of resistance to change, decreased capacity to learn, and decreased productivity tend to outweigh the positive stereotypes. 


Impacts of Ageism

These negative stereotypes can lead to the marginalization of older workers being passed over for further training or being placed in lower paying positions with less responsibility. Unfortunately, ageism permeates the lives of older Canadians and permeates the very fabric of our culture including the workplace, and in doing so, weakens our collective health and wellbeing.    

  

Part of ageism is the belief that we all age in the same way, but this is not true and there is diversity in the older adult population; the longer we live the more diverse we become. We need to remember that age is the number of years we have been alive, but how we understand the meaning that we ascribe to age depends upon context, purpose and culture. In the context of ageism, it is often described as a social disease whereby we stereotype all older adults as frail, vulnerable and in decline, doing them an injustice while we all lose this untapped source of knowledge and experience acquired over a lifetime. And while it is true that aging comes with some loss, what is often not acknowledged is that even though there is loss as we age there are new capacities that become apparent as older adults seek to continue to live productive and meaningful lives. The gerontology literature highlights how as we age our creativity and imagination grow, and how we are more likely to challenge norms we think are unjust. It is in our elder years that we have a lifetime of experience that can be cultivated into wisdom, and wisdom is the foundation of elderhood.  

  

Thus, as we age we have two choices: we can choose to merely grow old and accept the stereotypes and the limits placed upon us by ageist beliefs and assumptions, or we can choose to age with awareness and intention. For those who choose to age with awareness and intention, elderhood becomes a possibility, but first we need to develop the capacity to escape our habituated patterns and ideas through awareness and intention, and not be constrained by the assumptions of an ageist society. This requires the development of our authentic self and as older adults engage in the necessary inner work they become capable of creating a new a vision of reality that draws upon and gives consideration to insights discovered and gained, allowing older adults to contribute to the collective wellbeing by offering these insights to the larger community. This developmental process for older adults requires courage and is not for the meek.   


Confronting Ageism

"SHED Talks Photo", Sage Milne 2023

Why is this task important? Ron Penvy’s answers this question in his book Conscious living, conscious aging: Embrace and savour your next chapter by stating the wisdom and gifts of elders has been universally valued as necessary for the emotional and spiritual health and balance of societies. We need the guidance of elders in these troubled times we now find ourselves living in. If we are to become a culture that values and cultivates the development of elders, we must provide the resources and supports that allow them to get in touch with their deepest desires and yearnings as they strengthen their connection to their spirit, their passions and their desires.  


They need to actively work to understand and remove any blockages that impede their development, including beliefs and attitudes that no longer serve them well as they explore and heal unhealed wounds, and explore unexamined life experiences. As they do this they move from a “me agenda” to a “we agenda”.  


This is a time of discovery and of letting go of personal aspirations and ambitions, it is a time to work for the collective good.  This letting go can be a disorienting process for older adults as they enter the liminal space that follows “letting go”; they do not know what will emerge on the other side of that space and this can be unnerving, requiring courage to “act”, and in many ways this is an act of faith that all will unfold as it should.  


If the older adult is successful in meeting the demands of this developmental journey, it can lead to an opening of both the mind and heart, increasing older adults’ capacity for empathy and compassion while deepening their capacity to reflect and think deeply. This is the preparatory work for the older adult to engage in to transcend ageist beliefs and assumptions, laying the foundation for becoming an elder. And as Penvy has argued, we are in need of our elders, and perhaps this is the journey that baby boomers can embrace as they complete the last stage of the life cycle, continuing to serve our collective wellbeing through their later years. 


 

This blog post is an expansion of an online lecture, Season 4, Episode 11 of Gateway Centre of Excellence in Rural Health's Virtual Lecture Series on June 4th, 2024. Dr. Al Lauzon alongside panelists, Amanda Mongeon and Lauren Van Ewyk, PhD Candidates from Guelph University discussed "From Ageing to Eldering: Exploring the Development of the Older Adult".



The views expressed in this lecture may not necessarily reflect Gateway CERH’s views or opinions, but we believe in providing a platform for a range of perspectives and thoughtful discussion. 


About Gateway Centre of Excellence in Rural Health

Founded in 2008 in the community of Seaforth, ON, Gateway CERH is a not-for-profit rural health research organization run by a community-based volunteer board of directors. Gateway CERH's main mission is to better the health and quality of life of rural residents through research, education and communication. Learn more on the Gateway CERH website at: https://www.gatewayruralhealth.ca/ and follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube 

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