The aging of America and the world is arguably the biggest story of our time and place. One might think that having more older people in this country and on the planet than at any other time in history would put an end to ageism. Negative attitudes and practices toward older people are facts of life, however, especially in the youth-obsessed media industry. Ageism is now a pervasive force in American life that, like racism and gender discrimination, runs contrary to our democratic ideals.
The tens of millions of still very much alive and kicking Baby Boomers, who are currently in their late 50s to mid-70s, are the bull's eye in the target of ageism. Boomer bashing is in vogue these days, a backlash against the once-largest generation in history who undeniably achieved great things but are now commonly blamed for many of the world’s problems.
There is, however, some good news. Efforts are being made to end ageism around the world via an "age-friendly" movement. The World Health Organization (WHO) is currently leading the movement, focusing its effort on making cities and communities more age friendly. The United Nations is also taking steps to propel an age-friendly movement, with a proposed Convention on the Rights of Older Persons likely to be the next major human rights treaty adopted.
Age friendliness is taking root at the local level as well, as more innovative communities across the country take steps to keep older residents active and engaged. And with its "Learning, Learning, and Earning Longer" initiative, AARP and its partners the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the World Economic Forum are also doing yeoman's work to advance an age friendly movement by encouraging employers to create an intergenerational and inclusive workforce.
An Age-Friendly Model for Big Business
Despite these steps in the right direction, ageism remains a staple of American corporate culture, where people in their third act of life are generally not welcome as workers, consumers or citizens. Many myths surround older people, and these untrue stereotypes shape employment practices, marketing strategies and how companies approach social responsibility. Just as it has done with the vast inequities regarding race and gender by establishing Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) initiatives, it's time for Big Business to step up and enlist in the age-friendly movement to put an end to ageism.
There are three components of a holistic and synergistic platform or model that businesses can and should adopt in order to become age-friendly organizations. This can be dovetailed within an existing D&I initiative or can be independently set up. The three pieces are:
No. 1: Work
The American workplace is decidedly unfriendly to both current employees over age 50 and to job applicants with a college degree from the 1980s or earlier. An intergenerational workforce would be in the best interests of not just Baby Boomers but companies themselves, however, as studies show that age brings experience, perspective and wisdom -- just the right skill set for both short- and long-term decision-making.
No. 2: Marketing
Baby Boomers are still the key to the marketplace despite marketers' obsession with youth. It's difficult to not subscribe to ageist thinking, however, as it's thoroughly woven into everyday life. Ageist thinking prescribes a marketing approach steeped in a consciousness of age and, specifically, negative feelings about older age. Companies should embrace marketing strategies that are grounded in universal human traits that transcend age, race, gender, sexual orientation and other socially constructed divisions.
No. 3: Citizenship
The third way for big business to end ageism is through corporate citizenship or social responsibility. Supporting age-friendly causes by donating money or goods and services is just one way this can be done. Encouraging employees to volunteer time to programs dedicated to older adults represents another opportunity to help people in need and at the same time align with the huge Baby Boomer market.
Seize the Age Friendly Day!
It’s clear that there are things big business can and should do to make the United States a more age friendly place -- a worthy and long overdue endeavor. We're all aging, after all, making the reality of getting older an experience to which each of us can relate. Sending this message to corporate America -- specifically the Fortune 1000 -- represents our biggest opportunity to address virulent ageism, which has no place in this country.
Taking proactive steps to change the narrative of aging in America is not just the right thing to do but a smart business strategy. At the intersection of two mega-trends -- aging and diversity -- age friendliness promises to yield bottom-line results for years to come, and its effects are likely to spread across society like kudzu. Let's build on the momentum and seize the age-friendly day.
Photo credit: Ben Rosett / Unsplash
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