In some ways, bullying and age-discrimination feel very similar. When I was a child, I felt powerless when bullied. But now when I feel bullied as a result of age-discrimination, I fight back; I know that I have power and am willing to use it.
Growing up, kids at school could plainly see that I was different. My mother routinely cut my hair with kitchen scissors and I wore Good Will clothes and durable shoes that my grandmother might have worn. The harder I tried to become invisible, the more obvious a target I was for bullies.
Sometimes the bullying I experienced involved name-calling and teasing. Other times, the bullying was more subtle like being left out of conversations or being the one who wasn’t invited to sit with other kids at the lunch table. Some of the worst bullyings involved physical aggression including shoving and kicking. At the time, I felt powerless and didn’t have the words to tell others what I was experiencing. I suspect plenty of adults knew what was going on but also felt powerless to stop it.
It took me decades to find my voice. When I learned to speak up, I realized I had a lot of personal power—influence over others that I could use in positive ways. Eventually, I became a speech educator. I chose to teach at a community college where a larger percentage of students came from challenging backgrounds. I wanted my students to have a voice so they could speak up for themselves.
When I was sixty-five, I had the opportunity to give a TEDx speech; I was an older woman who had learned about the power of having a voice. But I was also learning about something else that I hadn’t expected—I was learning about ageism—a form of discrimination that felt familiar.
Ageism and Bullying
According to the World Health Organization, ageism is the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people based on their age. Ageism is widespread and an insidious practice which has harmful effects on the health of older adults.”
To me, ageism feels similar to bullying. Both bullying and age discrimination involve issues related to power over others. Both can involve demeaning or hostile treatment and aggression. Both can harm our health. Like bullying, ageism can involve subtle slights like being excluded from conversations. Like bullying, ageism can also involve hurtful comments or even a disregard for the physical well-being of older adults.
As an older woman, I have no patience for bullying or disrespect—whether it is directed at me or at someone else. I have power and am not afraid to use it; I am willing and able to call out ageist behaviors. For the most part, however, I try to be patient and use my voice to educate and inform. Other times, when I believe someone is being mean-spirited, I get mad as hell and am ready for a fight.
Even though ageism feels similar to bullying, it is different in some ways. Bullies generally target individuals they perceive as vulnerable. Ageism is a form of discrimination that targets a group of people based on their age.
Ironically, those of us who may experience ageist treatment are part of a very large and growing group. Collectively, we have a huge amount of power. We have economic power, we have power in numbers, and we can use our voices. I believe it is time for us to recognize our power. I believe it is time for us to call out ageism for what it is—a form of bullying and an attempt to take away our power.