(Editor’s note: September is the month with the most birthdays, In honor of this, we wanted to remind you that birthdays are a great time to reframe aging and share this guest blog from one of our volunteers and the creator of her own line of anti-ageist cards.)

Ageist Cards are Not Clever. They’re Harmful.

Have you ever found yourself running 15 minutes late to a birthday party, desperate to find the nearest grocery store or pharmacy so you can run in and grab a birthday card?

Standing in front of the card rack, you scan cards implying that after the age of sweet 16, freedom of 21, we’re all suddenly over the hill and crashing into mental and physical decline. Or worse yet, you’re looking at cartoon-like visuals of sagging body parts paired with clever sentiments about how awful it is to be old.

These types of cards are ageist, and they contribute to the negative stereotypes associated with getting older.

What is ageism?

  • Ageism is any judgment on the basis of age, whether directed at people older than us, younger than us, or our own selves (internalized ageism).
  • When directed at older people, it often involves assumptions that older people are less competent, capable, and attractive.
  • By marginalizing older people and minimizing their contributions, ageism has tremendous negative impacts on every aspect of life for older people and also negatively impacts communities.

Ageism is everywhere.

  • It’s not just the greeting card industry taking potshots at people getting older. In our youth-obsessed culture, you can find ageism everywhere.
  • A recent survey conducted by the National Poll on Healthy Aging showed that 82% of people age 50-80 experience ageism in their everyday lives.
  • Ageism was exposed during Covid-19 by declaring it an ‘old persons’ disease, making policy decisions that increase isolation, and lack of addressing the digital divide in older adults.

Ageism is harmful.

  • When negative beliefs about aging are internalized, they become a self-fulfilled prophecy which studies by Becca Levy have shown can take up to 7.5 years off of lifespan.
  • Ageism Impacts financial security due to unfair employment practices and workplace discrimination. 61% of working adults have experienced age discrimination in the workplace.
  • Pitting young against the old creates a generational divide, magnified by the digital divide which not only harms individuals but has negative effects on society.

It’s all in good fun.

But it’s not fun. We need to stop buying ageist birthday cards.

  • Nobody wants a reminder of the natural declines that come with aging, especially the physical aspects. Would you buy a birthday card making fun of a one-year-old that’s still bald? Would you give a sweet 16 card making fun of adolescent pimples?
  • You may think buying an ageist card is ok if your loved one is the type that jokes about getting older. People that use self-deprecating humor are showing you their greatest fear. Please don’t contribute to that fear, especially on their birthday.
  • After you finish chuckling at that snarky card, stop and think for a moment how you’d feel if you received it. No age is immune from being considered old. Even gymnast Simone Biles is deemed old at 24.

The message conveyed in a birthday card does matter. It’s a personal exchange of a sentiment from one person to another, making it powerful. Stop and think before you convey an ageist sentiment to your loved one–on their birthday.

Be part of the solution.

  • Annual sales of greeting cards exceed $7.5 billion. As the consumer, you control the types of cards produced based on the types of cards you buy. If you stop buying ageist cards, there will be less demand.
  • If you’re a procrastinator, grocery stores and pharmacies may be convenient, but they are some of the worst offenders. Buy the birthday card when you buy the gift, or better yet, stock up on age-friendly birthday cards.
  • If you receive an ageist birthday card, think of it as an opportunity to educate about the harmful aspects of ageism. Even if you don’t receive an offensive card, your birthday is the perfect time to let your loved ones know how you feel about getting older, including ageism.

There are plenty of ageist birthday cards available for purchase, especially as an impulse buy. It will take awareness of the harmful effects of ageism and multiple seasonal cycles to reduce the number of ageist cards on the greeting card rack significantly.

age-friendly birthday card example

Age-Friendly Vibes, card by Jan Golden

In the meantime, the next time you find yourself staring at a rack of cards running 15 minutes late to the party, look for an artsy, clever, or better yet, inspirational birthday card. If you care enough to give someone a birthday card, then care enough not to hurt their feelings by choosing an ageist birthday card.

Are you coming up empty? Choose a simple birthday card and if you must be snarky, write it (if you dare) in your own words on the inside of the card. Don’t give the greeting card company another sale of an ageist birthday card.

Let’s all stop buying ageist birthday cards.

Jan Golden is a Change AGEnt for Changing the Narrative, as well as the creator of Age-friendly Vibes, a resource for age-friendly products. Visit Jan’s Etsy shop, Age-Friendly Vibes for a robust collection of anti-ageist birthday cards.

Check out Changing the Narrative’s age-friendly birthday campaign and their cards, produced by Colorado artists.