"Ageism" is more common than generally believed and may have psychological roots, suggests a University of Southern California professor.
Martin Levine, a professor of law and psychiatry, reports that unfavorable attitudes toward the elderly may stem from people's ambivalence toward their parents or may reflect repressed anxiety about their own mortality.
"It's possible that unconscious attitudes toward one's parents are generalized to an attitude toward the entire older generation," says Levine.
Just as a young child has ambivalent feelings about his parents, young and middle-aged adults have both positive and negative feelings about the elderly, explains Levine, a specialist in seniorcitizen law.
People who have enjoyed positive relationships with their parents and other close elderly relatives will tend to view the elderly more favorably, he suggests. On the other hand, peopte who have had unsatisfactory parentchild relationships may tend to display "ageism."
Levine suggests, too, a possible correlation between a person's repressed anxiety about death and his attitudes about the elderly. One research study found that subjects who repressed high levels of anxiety about their own deaths were most likely to stereotype the elderly unfavorably.
"If it is true that unconscious death anxiety sometimes underlies ageist attitudes, then issues that unconsciously function as surrogates for the issues of death may be the most affected by such conflicts," Levine suggests.
An example of unconscious surrogates. he points out, is retirement. Employers who implement retirement policies may feel guilty because they unconsciously equate the retirement edict with a death sentence.
By the same token, persons who are anxious about their own mortality may unconsciously shun the elderly in order to avoid thinking about their own deaths, he says.
Most elderly employees no longer have to fear forced retirement. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act Amendments of 1978 prohibit larger employers from mandating retirement at age 65.
Levine notes, however, that the 32 million Americans past age 65 still suffer from stereotyping, both on the job and off. Surveys report that many young people think of the elderly as unhappy, full of self-pity, inflexible, and less intelligent than the rest of the population.
The most universal problem of the aged, Levine emphasizes, is insufficient income: "Many people who regard themselves as middle class throughout their working life become poor on the day they retire."
Revolving around the plight of the elderly, Levine says, is an ongoing legal argument about whether regulations that single out the elderly constitute the same type of unfair treatment as sexism or racism.
Proponents for the protection of senior citizens' rights argue that ageism is like any other form of discrimination. Others claim that everyone eventually becomes old, so the elderly cannot be considered a minority group. Thus, they say. regulations that single out senior citizens cannot be considered discriminatory.
Despite such problems, Levine, who serves as president of the National Senior Citizens Law Center in Los Angeles and Washington, DC, is optimistic that the financial and legal status of senior citizens will continue to improve.
He predicts that the 60 federal laws and numerous state statutes that now protect some rights of the elderly will be expanded in the near future, and that employment opportunities will begin to open up to the elderly.
"I expect a trend toward greater flexibility in employment, with people taking sabbaticals in midlife and older people working more flexible hours," he says.
He expects most of the remaining battles of the nation's elderly-who are expected to total about 17% of the population in coming years-to be won by law, not by lawsuit.
"Legislatures have been more sympathetic to the elderly than the courts." he explains, "and legislatures are likely to continue to understand the needs of the elderly."