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ageism and bia

Image by Bud Helisson on Unsplash.

It’s bad enough when younger people display bias against older people. But what are we to say when we see bias in blogs and articles targeted “for older women” or “elder” or “midlife?”

Recently I came across a blog post titled, “Why We Need To Challenge Our Biases As We Age.” Well, all of us need to keep challenging our biases.

The blog post begins when the contributing writer’s college-age son called home one day to “share an observation.” The observation was that “While his older professors are wise and erudite, they aren’t necessarily as open to new ideas as some of his younger professors.”

Did this mom challenge her son? Did she question the accuracy of his observation? Did she suggest he might be biased?

None of the above. She goes on to talk about the importance of avoiding a closed mind. None of her observations suggests that older people are more likely to be “challenged” to keep an open mind.

I would question the son’s observation on two grounds.

First, the older professors will be less open to new ideas because they’ve been around longer. It’s not because they’re older.

When I was a new professor, I was fascinated with the creative ideas my students brought. After awhile, I started seeing the same ideas, over and over again, over the years. College sophomores tend to re-invent the wheel.

Older professors are more likely to be tenured. If they have tenure, they’re less dependent on student evaluations. So they may be likely to challenge their students.

And, as time goes on, they become more authoritative. They’re convinced their ideas are good. After all, they’ve got the credentials: published articles, awards, industry reputation and recognition of their peers.

Second, I’d challenge that student’s assessment of older vs. younger professors.

Hopefully your Psych 101 course taught you that memories aren’t stored like chocolates in a box. The young man may be comparing one or two professors. He may be comparing professors from different departments.

He may even perceive the professors’ reactions inaccurately. An older professor might say exactly the same thing as a younger professor, but will be seen and heard through a different lens. Study after study shows that we filter perceptions through race, gender and age.

I haven’t seen any evidence for the belief that older people are more likely to be biased. People of any age will become biased if they only talk to people like themselves and refuse to leave their comfort zone. It’s not clear why older people are particularly likely to be challenged by bias; we’re more likely to be harmed by biases that are more deeply built into society than other biases. . Claude Steele makes the point win his excellent book, Whistling Vivaldi.