No more wicked witches and scary grandmothers turning into wolves: NYC high school students get an education on ageism


To stamp out prejudice against older people, New York City schools are starting young.

A pilot program in 13 Brooklyn high schools has started teaching teenagers to identify ageism and prevent age-based discrimination.

The idea for the program grew out of two high school internship programs where the students worked with older adults. The students spoke up about wanting to learn more about ageism, citing negative portrayals of older people in the media and pop culture.

“They said Disney has all these characters that were old and wicked, or spooky, or scary. Or grandmothers that turned into wolves,” said NYC Aging Commissioner Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez. “Just out of the mouths of these young people came this idea to talk about ageism. And where better to talk about ageism than schools, where so many impressions are made and learning happens?”

The pilot program began this spring semester and the goal is to expand it throughout New York City in the next several years, Cortés-Vázquez said.

The New York City Department for the Aging and the city Department of Education partnered on the program, which is called Intergenerational Connections to Fight Ageism. The program is incorporated into the curriculum and no additional staff or costs are involved. A resource guide will help teachers develop classroom lessons, activities, and discussions about the effects ageism has on older adults.

“People don’t understand that all of us will experience ageism. Ageism cuts across all sectors and ‘isms’,” Cortés-Vázquez said. “It’s subtle, it’s insidious, it is pervasive.”

Read: ‘Americans don’t believe ageism is real.’ This state wants to stamp it out.

She cited different forms of ageism from “benevolent ageism,” where people often call older adults cute for holding hands, to hostile forms of ageism when people criticize older adults for not being able to think, hear or walk the way they used to. There’s also insidious ageism that is internalized when people criticize themselves as having a “senior moment,” Cortés-Vázquez said.

“It’s pervasive. It’s very hard to escape it,” she said of ageism, a term coined in 1969 by a doctor named Robert Butler in a Gerontologist journal article.

High school students themselves can be victims of ageism, being slighted for being too young or inexperienced, she said.

Training on ageism at a young age will help these students throughout their lives, she said.

“This is an opportunity as they can go out and be influencers in their future jobs and lives,” Cortés-Vázquez said. “Corporations lose talent and society leaves a lot of money on the table with ageism. Advertisers – unless they’re selling anti-aging ointments – ignore this market and it’s foolhardy.”

New Yorkers 50 and older account for more than a third of the state’s population, contributing about $600 billion a year to the New York state economy, according to AARP. 

More research from AARP found that nationally, the lost economic activity from older Americans not being able to find work, change careers, or earn promotions because of age discrimination cost the U.S. economy $850 billion in lost gross domestic product in 2018. In the long-term, age discrimination could cost the U.S. more than $3.9 trillion in 2050, AARP found.

“I love the thought of this idea of a new crop of anti-ageism advocates being cultivated,” said Ashton Applewhite, anti-ageism activist and author of “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.”  

“Bias is learned. No kid is born racist or ageist. I do think progressive kids are becoming more aware of sexism and racism and it absolutely makes sense to add ageism to the agenda. I would love to see it in every school,” Applewhite said.

Jess Maurer, an anti-ageism activist and executive director of the Maine Council on Aging, said the New York City program is important because it reaches young people who will likely live longer than their older generations.

“As we’re experiencing an unprecedented new longevity, the youth who are learning about ageism today will likely live to be 100. It’s so important that they understand that older people who live in age-positive cultures with age-positive views live longer, healthier, and happier lives than those who live with negative views. This generation is going to help us fully design the new map of life,” Maurer said. 

Cortés-Vázquez acknowledges that fighting something as big and pervasive as ageism will take time.

“It took the suffragettes 100 years to get the idea of women’s suffrage through. But hope springs eternal. And the suffragettes didn’t have the internet,” she said.




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