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A Discriminatory Trend That Has Somehow Become Acceptable Behavior: Ageism


Like many Americans, I’ve witnessed anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism up close. I vividly remember running home from Jewish School after swastikas and racial slurs were painted all over the windows and doors of my school. In another incident, I woke up on a Sunday morning to the smell of smoke, looked out my bedroom window, and was horrified to see a cross burning on my neighbor’s front lawn.

As a young adult, while attending UCI Medical School, I was told by my pathology professor (and the former dean of the UCI School of Medicine) that I needed to go home and take care of my toddler instead of “taking the place of a man.”

Today, I’m witnessing another form of discrimination that has, sadly, somehow become acceptable behavior. I am talking about ageism.

During the 2020 election, now-president Joe Biden was characterized by both the right and the left as an old man, out of touch with reality. His stuttering was used as a weapon by the media, as though his lifelong speech impediment was somehow related to his age.

While other nations celebrate elders and actively seek out their wisdom gained through experience, we treat our elders as though they need to get out of the way for the next generation.

Seniors are often portrayed as being attached to racist ideologies that need to be left in the past. But when you look at who actually attends white supremacy rallies in our country, the majority of the participants — and virtually all of the leaders — are under 40.

This past year, older teachers were ridiculed for demanding that they be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus before returning to the classroom. Many suggested that teachers over 50 should resign to make room for younger, “healthier” teachers.

Our country no longer seems to appreciate — or even acknowledge — that our parents and our grandparents created most of the civil rights breakthroughs and opportunities we enjoy today.

For example, my mother, Lena Friedman, always wanted to be a doctor, but circumstances forced her to dream a little smaller. Instead, she became a microbiologist, working at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland before transferring to UCLA Medical School where she was a researcher and lab instructor under famed Obstetrics and Gynecology researcher, Dr. Nicolas Assali.

Throughout her life, my mother worked with groups that promoted civil rights, as well as equal pay and equal opportunities for women. Her determination to help make life better for the next generation is one of the things I admired most about her … and something I have tried to emulate in my own life.

My mother’s dream of becoming a doctor became my reality when I was accepted to UCI Medical School in the early 1970s.

Although opportunities had expanded since my mother attended college, my generation also faced barriers. In many of my classes, UCI professors refused to call on the female medical students. Determined to prove I was worthy of being in medical school, I excelled in my studies and became a member of Alpha Omega Alpha, the national medical honor society. I went on to become a practicing pediatrician and a tenured full professor at UCI Medical School.

When I became a professor, my husband Larry and I, along with other advocates for women, created a branch of UC WAGE (We Advocate Gender Equity). We focused on recruitment, retention and salary equity for all University women. Joined by community partners, we moved the needle closer to full equity for women throughout the UC system.

Today, men and women are provided with family and personal leave to care for newborns and family members requiring special attention. In the School of Medicine, we have numerous policies that promote economic, racial, and social justice.

At this stage of my career, advocacy for children and mentoring the next generation of health professionals are my top priorities. However, I also want to spotlight the ageism that is so prevalent in our society today.

There is no question that my mother’s generation helped pave the way for me to become a doctor. And my generation was on the front lines of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. My brother and I participated in Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964, and Larry and I met at a civil rights strategy meeting later that summer.

Each generation has worth, and we are a better society when we all have a voice.

Unfortunately, the sad reality is that many of today’s seniors — who spent decades fighting to make sure that life was better for future generations — must now bear witness to younger Americans who somehow feel entitled to openly discriminate against these social justice pioneers, simply because of their age.

Phyllis Agran, MD, MPH, FAAP
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