Ageism Unmasked

March 1, 2024 • Article, Third Third, Third Third Journal

What’s happening in the current presidential election in the United States could be good news for those of us in the third third of life. I’m not referring to the fact that the two leading candidates have an average age of 79. And I’m certainly not happy with much of what is being said about the age of these candidates, including the oft-repeated judgment, “He’s too old to be president.”

Why am I thinking what’s going on in this election could be good news for older adults? Because we are witnessing a remarkable unmasking of the pervasiveness of ageism in our culture. Of course, the fact that so many of us think poorly of older people is not something to applaud. But if we are ever going to vanquish ageism and move toward a more fair, inclusive, and flourishing society, then we need to identify what’s preventing our progress. Ageism is one of these things, along with more familiar barriers like racism and sexism. So, though it can be painful to watch public displays of ageism, the unmasking of ageism in our day could be a very good thing, a necessary initial step toward a more just, prosperous, and non-ageist society.

The Pervasiveness of Ageism

The constant repetition of “He’s too old to be president” begins the unmasking of ageism in our culture. One might fairly say of any candidate of any age “She’s not articulate enough” or “He’s not intellectually capable enough” without being ageist. But simply to state that one’s advanced age disqualifies a person from being president is blatantly ageist. It’s assuming that all older people are unqualified for the office simply because of their age. Yet this ageist bias is terribly common and widely acceptable. Thus, Mark Zuckerberg once felt no qualms about saying at an event at Stanford University, “Young people are just smarter.”

The unmasking of ageism has been happening, not only in the wider culture but also in research on older adulthood:

  • An AARP survey found that nearly 2 out of 3 workers age 45 and older have seen or experienced age discrimination on the job.
  • A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 93.4% of older adults experienced some form of ageism.
  • In a recent survey by the De Pree Center, 96% of Christian adults age 55 and over reported regularly experiencing some form of ageism.
  • An investigation of word usage in American and British media found that “Negative descriptions of older adults outnumber positive ones by six times.”
  • The World Health Organization’s recent Global Report on Ageism asserts that “Globally, one in two people are ageist against older people” (p. xvi).

Ageism and Research on Older Brains

“But,” we might quietly wonder, “isn’t it true that older people’s brains don’t function as well as younger people’s brains? Aren’t we right to be concerned about having a president with an older brain?” There aren’t easy, one-size-fits-all answers to these questions. Certainly, some people do lose cognitive ability as they get older. For example, a Columbia University study found that 10% of U.S. adults over 65 have dementia. This means, by the way, that the vast majority of older people do not. If we’re going to think rightly about the mental capabilities of older adults, we need to learn from people with genuine expertise in this field. Here are some fascinating recent examples:

  • “A host of studies in the past decade have shown that the more mature brain actually has advantages over its younger counterpart. . . . Even in professions where youth is valued, testing has shown that maturity has advantages.” (Harvard Health, 2015).
  • “[T]wo key brain functions, which allow us to attend to new information and to focus on what’s important in a given situation, can in fact improve in older individuals.” (Georgetown University Medical Center, 2021).
  • “Although aging may lead to some cognitive declines, it may also lead to gains in the insight and wisdom needed to make the best decisions.” (Psychological Science, 2011).

So, while it is often true that older people aren’t as good as younger people when it comes to things like remembering names or making quick decisions, older brains sometimes have strengths that younger brains do not.

An Older Brain in Action

I experienced this reality when I worked with Howard E. Butt, Jr., at Laity Lodge in Texas. From the moment I first met the 79-year-old Howard, I knew he had an amazing mind. For years, Howard and I, along with our colleagues, spent countless hours talking about the mission of Laity Lodge, the speakers we should invite, the retreats we should host, and how our work would make a difference in the church and the world. Howard, well into his 80s, was deeply engaged in leading the strategic work of our organization.

In meetings with Howard, sometimes I would think we were ready to make a decision about some matter. But he would often hesitate because his brain was reflecting on more data than my brain was. “We haven’t considered this angle,” he’d say, or “We haven’t thought about this implication.” So we’d have to go more slowly than I would have preferred. If I had thought, “Well, he’s just old and his brain is too slow,” I would have missed the truth entirely. Now I see clearly that Howard was drawing from his vast life experience. He’d refer to articles in the New York Times, books written by notable theologians, people he knew from Laity Lodge, quotations from his parents, stories about his work in the grocery company, or you name it. My brain was wired to make speedy decisions. Howard’s brain was wired to take into account far more than I would have considered. This led to slower decision-making but much wiser decisions.

I’m not saying that every older person exhibits wisdom in the way of Howard Butt. He was a unique individual. We must remember that when it comes to aging, we’re talking about millions of unique individuals, unique stories, and unique capabilities. Ageism that tries to jam all older people into one single mold is not only unkind, it’s also unscientific and just plain wrong.

Ageism in Biblical Perspective

Ageism is also unbiblical. To be sure, there are passages of Scripture that testify to the challenges of getting older. Ecclesiastes 12:3 says, “In old age, your body no longer serves you so well. Muscles slacken, grip weakens, joints stiffen” (The Message). Yet other biblical passages speak glowingly of old age, “The glory of youths is their strength, but the beauty of the aged is their gray hair” (Prov 20:29). Psalm 92:12-14, the foundational passage for the De Pree Center’s third third work, proclaims that “The righteous flourish like the palm tree . . . . They are planted in the house of the Lord . . . . In old age they still produce fruit.” So, yes, as we get older our muscles slacken, our grip weakens, and our joints stiffen. But if we are planted deeply in God, we will flourish. We will live fruitfully, honoring God while we make a difference in the world.

Of course, God recognizes the potential of younger people. Jesus, after all, was around 30 when he began his messianic ministry. But God also sees the vast potential of older people. God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt when he was eighty years old. God didn’t think Moses was too old for this crucial leadership role. If God isn’t ageist, perhaps we shouldn’t be either.


If you would like more information about the research cited in this article, you can find it on my Substack.

Banner image by Getty Images on Unsplash.

One thought on “Ageism Unmasked

  1. Rev. Sophia Neczypir Snyder says:

    Today’s society is attacking those who are the wisest while other culture’s or generations have done the opposite.

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