Earlier this month Michelle Yeoh won the Best Actress Academy Award for her work in the film Everything Everywhere All at Once. In her moving acceptance speech, she said, “For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities. This is proof that dream big, and dreams do come true. And ladies, don’t let anybody tell you you are ever past your prime. Never give up.” Yeoh’s victory was a milestone for Asian actresses in Hollywood. It also affirmed the potential and excellence of older women who are, as Yeoh observed, “never past your prime.”
The “past your prime” language was no doubt inspired by a comment made a few weeks earlier by CNN anchor Don Lemon. In response to presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s suggestion that politicians 75 and older take mandatory mental competency texts, Lemon said, “She says people, politicians are not in their prime. Nikki Haley is not in her prime, sorry. A woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s, 30s, and maybe her 40s.” As you can imagine, this comment got Lemon in a lot of hot water. He later apologized for making it. Haley, by the way, is 51.
Ageism is Global
Ageism is “everywhere all at once.” According to research from the World Health Organization, “Globally, one in two people are ageist against older people.” WHO’s Global Report on Aging 2021 goes on to observe, “Ageism pervades many institutions and sectors of society, including those providing health and social care, the workplace, the media and the legal system.” A 2022 report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open found that “93.4% of 2035 adults [in the U.S.] 50-80 years reported regularly experiencing some form of ageism.” A 2021 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that in popular forms of media in the U.S. and the U.K., “Negative descriptions of older adults outnumber positive ones by six times.” As an article in a December 2022 edition of the Washington Post proclaims, “Ageism is one form of bigotry that never seems to get old.”
Everywhere All at Once
If you start looking for ageism, you’ll see it “everywhere all at once.” Some forms of ageism are obviously hurtful and hateful. But often ageism comes packaged more attractively, even with apparent sweetness. For example, a few years ago when I couldn’t remember someone’s name I’d say with a smile, “Oh, I’m having a senior moment.” I didn’t mean to hurt anyone, least of all myself. But my seemingly benign comment was actually prejudicial against older people, including me. It assumed that older people are forgetful, which is not necessarily true. Of course, if I made a particularly astute comment in a meeting, I never thought to say, “Oh, I’m having a senior moment,” even though that comment may have been based on wisdom that comes from many years of life. My “senior moment” language was prejudicial in multiple ways. And, while it’s true that some older adults can forget certain things at times, my bias missed scientific reality by a mile and reinforced a common ageist perspective.
One of the striking things about ageism is that it is often internalized by older people. Ageism around me becomes ageism in me. If, for example, the culture in which I live assumes that I’m too old to make a positive difference in the world, pretty soon I’ll think that’s true about me. Then I’ll decide that the rest of my life is mainly a matter of living for myself and my own pleasure, whether through golf, pickleball, travel, or just hanging out with friends all day.
Conquering Ageism – An Unexpected Opportunity for the Church
When I began the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative four years ago, ageism was not on my radar screen. I knew that ageism was a problem “out there,” but had no idea it was also a problem “in here,” that is, in me. Moreover, I had no idea how pervasive and pernicious ageism was, how many people it hurts, and how many institutions, including churches and countries, are debilitated by it. The WHO Global Report on Aging 2021 observes,
This report shows that ageism is prevalent, ubiquitous and insidious because it goes largely unrecognised and unchallenged. Ageism has serious and far-reaching consequences for people’s health, well-being and human rights and costs society billions of dollars. Among older people, ageism is associated with poorer physical and mental health, increased social isolation and loneliness, greater financial insecurity and decreased quality of life and premature death.
In case you’re wondering what ageism is, the Global Report supplies a helpful definition:
Ageism refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) directed towards people on the basis of their age. It can be institutional, interpersonal or self-directed. Institutional ageism refers to the laws, rules, social norms, policies and practices of institutions that unfairly restrict opportunities and systematically disadvantage individuals because of their age. Interpersonal ageism arises in interactions between two or more individuals, while self-directed ageism occurs when ageism is internalized and turned against oneself.
I have come to believe that one of the greatest barriers to people flourishing in the third third of life is ageism. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I also believe that the church has an unprecedented opportunity to fight ageism for the benefit of our members, our neighbors, and the common good. We are uniquely positioned to conquer ageism because anti-ageist convictions are part of our theological DNA. We believe that all human beings, no matter our age or condition, reflect the image of God and are therefore worthy of profound respect. We believe that all human beings have been called to live fruitful lives, no matter how old we might be.
The Bible, our foundational document, is full of stories of God using older people for extraordinary purposes. Think, for example, of Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Abraham, Sarah, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, and Anna. Of course, God also uses younger people such as David and Jesus. Ageism in any direction is ruled out by Scripture.
We also have passages of Scripture that affirm the potential of older adults to flourish, such as Psalm 92:12-14:
The righteous flourish like the palm tree,
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the LORD;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
In old age they still produce fruit;
they are always green and full of sap,
showing that the LORD is upright;
he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.
Scripture acknowledges some of the struggles of aging (Eccles 12:1-8). But one cannot derive from Scripture any support for ageism of any kind. On the contrary, the Bible teaches us to value all people and recognize their potential to flourish. Therefore, the church should be the leading institution in the world when it comes to conquering ageism.
As we begin to realize our potential in the fight against ageism, we will find that our congregants are encouraged and empowered in new ways to live with purpose so as to make a difference in the church and the world. Moreover, we will discover that our older adult neighbors will be drawn to our churches because they have no other place in which to affirm their value and clarify their purpose as they journey through the third third of life.
Today, on average 10,000 people in the U.S. turn 65. A high percentage of these adults are living according to the ageist narratives that lurk everywhere all at once in our culture. But their hearts long for more. They would like to live with meaning and make a difference that matters. We can show them the way even as we demonstrate in our corporate life the flourishing of all of God’s people.
This is the fifth article in a series on the Third Third of Life by Mark D. Roberts. If you are interested in reading the other articles in the series, here they are in order:
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative.
Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership.
With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.
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