There are parallels between how older Americans are treated these days and how women were regarded 40 years ago, prior to the women's movement and the sustained flow of women into the workplace. It is not uncommon for older people to be viewed as incapable of meaningful employment roles, for example, especially if they have visible physical limitations. Women used to be regarded this way as well. Today, by contrast, women are broadly perceived as being able to do pretty much anything men can do, including fighting in combat.
"I think that's absolutely right," says, Muriel Fox, a co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in the 1960s. Fox, an 82-years-old, observes that older people often are stereotyped as were women 40 years ago. "When people see someone who has gray hair or who has wrinkles or is even unable to do certain things, like walking without a cane, they often stereotype that person and think that they may not be able to think clearly or do certain things."
"Women have been infantilized over the years," Fox adds. "And so are older people."
"I think there are some real similarities," agrees Terry O'Neill, current NOW president. "It's often assumed that older people don't do Facebook or social networking or even know how to turn on a computer." And while women may have made real gains, O'Neill says age discrimination continues to be an impediment to women at work. "Women over 50 are having a heck of a time finding employment" in this economy, she says.
Where O'Neill parts with the similarities is in ascribing reasons for the treatment of women and older people. In the 1970s, she says, treating women as having limited roles "served a larger purpose of subordinating women to the men in their lives. That's not the case with older people today."
What is true, she added, is that in both cases the prevailing attitudes for how to treat women (in 1970) and seniors (today) reflects people's slowness to embrace change. "We have our ways of doing things," she says, and have difficulty accepting people who don't conform to our stereotypes.
It will be up to seniors to lead the drive to change how they're viewed, O'Neill feels, just as it was for women. Fox believes that a lot of movement has already occurred. "One way it's been changing is that older people realize the changes in themselves, and they also are realizing it about their parents, and about their friends … So, you look around, and it's very hard to predict people's ages anymore. I certainly can't do it."
As with women, the workplace is likely to be a major stage on which shifting perceptions of older people plays out. Many boomers are not going to be retiring at 65 like their parents did. Driven by financial need but also by a strong desire to stay engaged with colleagues and friends, large numbers of older Americans say they want to continue working in their 60s and even 70s.
The recession has, for the time being, slowed the growth of older employees in the workplace. But many demographers and labor market experts forecast serious labor shortages in a few years. Millions of Americans will have turned 65 and retired by then, and their numbers will exceed the supply of new workers.
But over time the flow of older employees will grow. And more and more people will be exposed to seniors performing roles in ways that could bend if not break stereotypes about how seniors "should" behave.