COVID-19 and American Ageism

yellow t-shirt with a design that includes the covid molecule and the words "boomer remover"
A “Boomer Remover” t-shirt for sale on a website.

This post was written by Dr. David Papke and Dr. Elise Papke.

In periods of social strain, assorted societal biases are more likely to come in play. That seems to be the case with American ageism, and as a result it has become even harder than before to be an older American.

Ageism is a multifaceted phenomenon that includes micro-aggression, inattentiveness, harmful stereotypes, and, of course, bias and discrimination. Ageist people often claim that they are trying to help seniors or that they are only joking. Seniors usually see through this, but ageism nevertheless leaves many feeling inferior or even worthless.

One example of ageist rhetoric that has surfaced in the midst of the pandemic is “Boomer Remover.” Offensive and even a bit frightening, this meme or catchphrase refers to and implicitly endorses the notion that the virus will reduce the number of annoying Baby Boomers.

For some time now, Baby Boomers have been thought to be a drain on society’s resources, especially because of their uninsured medical expenses and need for financial support. Boomers constitute, to invoke another piece of ageist rhetoric, a grey—or silver—Tsunami, that is, an enormous, destructive tidal wave.

Moving from rhetoric to actual social developments, we can consider where older Americans have been most likely to die during the pandemic, namely, in nursing homes. It’s estimated that 40% of the people who have died in the pandemic have died in nursing homes. Unfortunately, few have stopped to consider why nursing homes are so deadly.

One could point nursing homes’ poor design, inadequate staffing, and insufficient Medicare and Medicaid funding as contributing factors. More generally, our ageist society has for decades been inattentive to the places in which large numbers of older people spend the final months and years of their lives. This inattentiveness has come home to roost during the pandemic, as nursing homes have proven “ideal” for the spread of the virus.

In the workplace, meanwhile, negative stereotypes and bias have been obvious. Even before the pandemic, consolidating and declining businesses developed aggressive layoff and buyout policies with older, higher-paid employees in mind.

Universities have frequently been at the forefront of this. The professoriate, after all, is on average one of the oldest sectors of the workforce, and there are countless stories of older professors being driven or cajoled into retirement. Many universities, Marquette included, have buyout policies directly linked to age, with buyout amounts shrinking dramatically the older one gets.

In the midst of the pandemic, older people are more likely to be laid off or, to use a word that has become all the rage, “furloughed.” If a senior gets tired of waiting for a layoff or a furlough to end and seeks employment elsewhere, chances of securing a new job are slim. Studies have repeatedly shown that older workers are as adaptable, creative, and resourceful as younger workers, but bias and discrimination stand in the way of them being hired. After all, who wants to work with, to use a couple insulting terms, a “biddy” or a “geezer”?

Some societies honor and even worship their older citizens, but against the backdrop of the Protestant work ethic and a longstanding belief that we should make something of ourselves, Americans are inclined to see older people as unproductive and therefore less valuable.

American society is one of the most ageist in the world, and COVID-19 has sadly brought American ageism into higher relief.

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