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ageism and stereotyping in the new york times

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On October 26, 2023, the New York Times published an appalling opinion piece: Why Do We Enrich Older Americans at the Expense of Everyone Else? By C. Eugene Steuerle and Glenn Kramon

The authors savagely attacked Social Security and Medicare with baseless recommendations based on inaccurate facts.

People are living longer. They can work longer.  People are traveling and enjoying life with their Social Security, causing harm to the rest of society.

The New York Times may be justified in presenting a variety of viewpoints. Yet the Times would never allow such a biased depiction of any other demographic group. You’ll never see attacks on groups based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion.

Even worse, the Times would never publish an illustration that’s essentially an insulting, biased caricature of any other demographic. 

Imagine an article questioning tax breaks for religious groups with a similar cartoony image of a figure in ritual realistic garb…or a stereotype of a Black, gay, or Asian person. All hell would break loose. A recent article about obesity showed an abstract statue – not a cartoon of a fat person – and rightfully so.

Yet the Times regularly uses cartoonish images of older people to accompany their articles on aging. This one is particularly ugly and offensive.

The article drew over three thousand comments, nearly all negative.  

Hundreds (maybe thousands) of comments described the anguish of people over 50 forced out of jobs, desperately seeking work. Some took jobs for which they were vastly overqualified. Some accepted jobs demanding physical strength that threatened their health. 

Some of the milder comments were:

I thought this was tongue-in-cheek, but realized that you both must have tripped on a rock and hit your heads.

Is this a joke? Do you actually live with real people?

and my favorite: 

This article fills me with hope, not because of the impractical solutions proposed here, but because it’s easier for any random idea to get published in The Times than I feared. 

Several people pointed to flaws in the math and the facts of the article. Some suggested that the US government has actually borrowed from Social Security. I haven’t researched the point in-depth, but I did find a source suggesting the government owes 2.7 trillion to Social Security. I leave this to economists and finance pros.

Serious and Obvious Flaws With This Article

First and foremost, the authors assume that employment at market rates is available to anyone willing and able to work.

Hundreds of comments described the anguish of people over 50 forced out of jobs, desperately seeking work. Some took jobs for which they were vastly overqualified. Some accepted jobs demanding physical strength that threatened their health.  AARP’s “job board” lists low-end or highly specialized jobs.

Forbes columnist Liz Ryan wrote in an article:I hear more examples of age discrimination than I hear about sex discrimination, racial discrimination, and every other kind put together.” 

Even if you start a business, you’ll have trouble getting referrals and clients. An accountant told me bluntly, “They tell me, don’t refer me to one of those old people.”

Second, people aren’t exactly living large on their Social Security checks.

Ironically, the very same New York Times recently published a fact-based column showing that more seniors are living in poverty. The average Social Security payment is $1792 monthly, taxable by the US government and many states. This number could be skewed upward by a small number of highly paid recipients; the median doesn’t seem to be reported anywhere.  

The vast majority of older people struggle to make ends meet. Many lost their savings because they experienced age discrimination as early as 40 or 50. They couldn’t work. They’re totally dependent on small Social Security checks, which many supplement with Medicaid, food stamps, and other sources. 

The US has a notoriously thin safety net. Outside the government, pensions are rare.

Third, the article references “studies” showing that volunteer and paid work will increase cognitive ability. 

That may well be true. In my book, I cite several studies showing that people who avoid retirement do better, mentally and physically.

However, the link in this article doesn’t lead to studies – just a puffy article from Fidelity Investments with interviews. Not exactly a scholarly source! Why didn’t the editors do a basic fact-check?

If you’re looking for waste in spending on “older” people, why not go after the insurance companies instead of Social Security? United Health Care reported a $5 billion profit in one quarter. (If you buy AARP insurance, you buy United Health Care through AARP takes a commission.)

Medicare Advantage programs cost Medicare more than traditional Medicare. In 2021 NPR reported that Medicare Advantage costs to the taxpayer are “soaring.” The New York Times itself published an article about the fraudulent practices of the largest Advantage Plans.

Yet we’re not seeing any suggestion to reduce costs by going after these insurance companies instead of the people they’re supposed to serve. We’re certainly not seeing any efforts to improve the quality of care in nursing homes and hospices, which (like the insurance companies) increasingly operate on a for-profit model. Doctors go to jail for Medicare fraud; insurance company executives get rewarded with government support.

Just when we thought it couldn’t get worse…

On October 27, the Times published another opinion piece on the same topic, with another cartoony image that insults older people. 

This time the author (a regular columnist for the Times) argued that people in the 50-70 age group were spending more than younger people and weren’t saving. He quotes an economist who claims people don’t save because they figure they have fewer years left.

Apparently, it never occurred to anyone that people don’t save because they’re not working and bringing in an income. Age discrimination keeps people as young as 50 from employment, regardless of qualifications or experience.

The article is illustrated with 2 graphs, showing consumption across age groups in a given year. The vertical axis shows consumption at each age with the average labor income of people ages 30 to 49 in that year.” 

There’s a huge jump in government-provided medical care starting at age 65; the other categories seem pretty flat. This jump doesn’t seem to reflect discretionary spending so much as the reality of medical expenses, which rise faster than other categories. Many people get a lot of medical care in the last months before they die; usually, it’s care they can’t control and couldn’t stop even if they wanted to. 

The author pointed to the discrepancy in spending on older people vs. children. We need to ask an important question: Are the legislators who question the value of Social Security and Medicare also sponsoring bills to help children and parents? The New York Times reported, not long ago, that Republicans voted almost unanimously to kill Head Start, a popular and effective program for children. Why aren’t they voting for more bills that protect children?

A perfect trifecta…

Earlier in the month the Times published yet another opinion piece on “What They Don’t Tell You About Getting Old.” The 83-year-old author trotted out all the stereotypes to claim that aging created serious impairment. I wrote about this article elsewhere on Medium, “Please please don’t tell us how it feels to grow older.”

Ageism is here to stay…with the support of our most distinguished mainstream newspaper. 

I don’t think ageism will end in the lifetime of anyone reading this article. I offer some defensive strategies in my book, which has a frivolous title and a serious message. 

One of the most important things we can do is to call out prejudice and insults. We can write to our legislators and ask them to focus on what’s really draining the system. We can ask them directly, “How are you voting on Social Security and Medicare?” 

If you’re an AARP member, you can ask what they’re doing to fight for Social Security, as well as fight against misperceptions in articles like these.  

Related article:
Job-hunting at 78? Hit the Reset Button