What Is Ageism?

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What Is Ageism?

Ageism is a type of discrimination that involves prejudice against people based on their age. Similar to racism and sexism, ageism involves holding negative stereotypes about people of different ages.

Ageism affects everyone, both young and old. Age discrimination can be seen in a wide variety of settings and situations including the workplace and in healthcare.

This article discusses how ageism is defined and how stereotypes contribute to age discrimination. It also explores how often it happens, the effects it can have, and what you can do to help combat ageism.

History of Ageism

The term ageism was first used by gerontologist Robert N. Butler to describe discrimination against older adults. Today, the term can be applied to any type of age-based discrimination, whether it involves prejudice against children, teenagers, adults, or senior citizens.

The impact of ageism can be serious and while it was previously thought of as a problem that primarily affected older adults, there is now a much greater recognition of how age-based discrimination and stereotypes affect younger people and even children.

Recap

Since the term was introduced, researchers have gained a greater understanding of both the prevalence of ageism and how it affects people of all different ages.

Signs of Ageism

Ageism can range from subtle actions to blatant acts of discrimination. A few signs of ageism include:

  • Exclusion from a group, such as at school or at work
  • Being passed over for promotions or raises
  • Being laid off or forced to retire
  • Negative comments about a person's age
  • Having your input or ideas ignored or dismissed
  • Losing out on benefits such as paid time off
  • Not having access to learning opportunities

Types

There are two primary types of ageism. The term ageism is usually used to apply to discrimination against older adults, while reverse ageism has been used to describe how younger adults can also face prejudice and discrimination because of their age.

Ageism Against Older People

Researchers have suggested that stereotypes about older people often relate to how younger people expect them to behave.

  1. Succession: Younger people often assume that older individuals have "had their turn," and should make way for the younger generations.​
  2. Consumption: Younger people frequently feel that limited resources should be spent on themselves rather than on older adults.
  3. Identity: Younger people feel that those who are older than they should "act their age" and not try to "steal" the identities of younger people, including things such as speech patterns and manner of dress.

Reverse Ageism

Ageism has a damaging effect on younger people as well. Dismissing younger workers as too inexperienced, unprofessional, or not qualified for advancement are examples of how reverse ageism can hold younger people back. 

Some research indicates that reverse ageism may actually be more prevalent than ageism targeting older people.

A 2021 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General found that when asked to describe younger workers, some of the most common terms to come to mind were negative, including "entitled," "coddled," "radical," and "disrespectful."

How Common Is Ageism?

Researchers have also found that ageism is surprisingly commonplace: Perhaps one out of every two people hold moderately or highly ageist attitudes. Ageist attitudes were found to be most common among young men of lower educational status.

A study published in The Lancet suggested that one in three people report has experienced ageism, with the highest rates occurring between young people between the ages of 15 and 24. 

Factors that fuel ageism can vary. Social media may play a role in promoting ageist attitudes.

In a study published in a 2013 issue of The Gerontologist, researchers looked at how older people were represented in Facebook groups. They found 84 groups devoted to the topic of older adults, but most of these groups had been created by people in their 20s. Nearly 75% of the groups existed to criticize older people and nearly 40% advocated banning them from activities such as driving and shopping.

Older adults also feel the impact of this discrimination in the workplace. According to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission, almost a quarter of all claims filed by workers are related to age-based discrimination.

The AARP, an advocacy group for people over age 50, reports that 1 in every 5 workers in the United States is over the age of 55. Nearly 65% of workers say that they have experienced age-based discrimination at work and 58% of those surveyed believe that ageism became apparent starting at age 50.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated ageism against older people. In addition to having a disproportionate impact on older populations, the pandemic also revealed disparities and discrimination in health care services. Researchers also suggest that the pandemic increased the social stigma of being older and increased expressions of ageism.

Recap

Ageism is very common. Both younger people and older people report experiencing age-based discrimination frequently, and an estimated 50% of the population holds biased attitudes towards older people.

Impact

Examples of ageism are frequently cited in workplace situations. In such settings, this type of discrimination can lead to pay disparities, forced retirement, or difficulty finding employment.

Younger adults may have difficulty finding jobs and receive lower pay due to their perceived lack of experience, while older adults may have problems achieving promotions, finding new work, and changing careers.

Economic Effects

The World Health Organization suggests that ageism is a prevalent global problem that contributes to poor health, social isolation, premature death, and high economic costs. One 2020 study published in the journal The Gerontologist estimated the yearly economic cost of ageism in the United States was $63 million.

Effects on Mental and Physical Health

Countries that have a higher population of healthy older adults report lower rates of ageist attitudes, suggesting that ageism might be linked to health status and life expectancy. Ageism takes a serious toll on the health and well-being of older adults. It is associated with a shortened lifespan, more rapid cognitive decline, increased loneliness, and reduced access to education and employment.

Age can also affect health care. One 2020 systematic review found that in 85% of cases, age plays a determining role in the type of treatments and medical procedures that people receive.

The WHO estimates that 6.3 million cases of depression worldwide can be attributed to the effects of ageism. They also note that age discrimination also intersects with other types of bias including prejudice against people based on their race, sex, and disability.

Recap

Ageism has a detrimental impact on both physical and mental health. It plays a role in problems including social isolation, overall health, and reduced life expectancy. It also affects people in multiple areas including school, work, and healthcare.

How to Combat Ageism

The American Psychological Association (APA) says that ageism is a serious issue that should be treated the same as sex, race, and disability-based discrimination. The APA suggests that raising public awareness about the issues ageism creates can help. As the population of older adults continues to increase, finding ways to minimize ageism will become more important.

There is evidence that interventions can be effective for combatting ageism. These include:

  • Education: Intentional instruction that helps people better understand the aging process, ageism, and its effects
  • Intergenerational contact: Increased contact with people of different ages to reduce age discrimination and prejudice. 

Interventions that combine the two approaches appear to be the most effective, particularly when it comes to reducing negative attitudes towards aging.

The AARP says that age-inclusive training in the workplace can also help combat discrimination. The organization suggests that such training should help employees foster a growth mindset, promote learning and advancement for people of all age groups, and present training in a variety of formats.

A Word From Verywell

Ageism can take a toll on health and wellness. It's important for all people, both young and old, recognize age-related discrimination and prejudice. Taking steps to reduce ageism, such as increasing contact between people of different ages, is crucial. If you are experiencing ageism, seek an ally in the workplace or community for support, and contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if necessary.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are signs of age discrimination in the workplace?

    The AARP suggests that some warning signs of age discrimination in the workplace include the use of coded language, differing sets of opportunities for workers of different ages, insults, and ageist assumptions about worker abilities. Layoffs that target workers of certain age groups and a lack of promotions for older workers are also clear signs of ageism.

  • Is ageism illegal?

    Age discrimination can be illegal in some cases. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) does not allow employers to discriminate against workers who are over the age of 40. While the act does not protect workers under the age of 40, some states also have laws that help protect younger employers from being discriminated against based on their age.

  • How do I report age discrimination?

    To report age discrimination, you should call the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) at 1-800-669-4000 or visit the EEOC website to file a charge. In most cases, you will need to file a claim within 180 days of when the event occurred, although some states allow you to file a claim within 300 days.

    Once you file a claim, the EEOC will contact your employer to investigate. Your employer may choose the remedy the situation. While not common, the EEOC may decide to take legal action on your behalf. Once you have filed a charge with the EEOC, you can then file a lawsuit against your employer for unlawful discrimination.

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