It is usually directed towards the elderly but can also involve discrimination against younger people. Such views about age are often socially constructed implicit biases, and due to their widespread nature, they are often internalized by people: many older people may themselves be ageists.
Ageism also combines with and worsens other forms of marginalization and social categorization, such as those related to sex, race, and disability. Examples of ageism include workplace discrimination against the elderly, patronizing attitude toward the young, “forever young” beauty standards, etc.
Let us begin by learning about the concept in more detail and then look at some examples. Later, we will discuss the effects of ageism and how we can challenge it.
Iversen, Larsen & Solem define ageism
as negative or positive stereotypes, prejudice and/or discrimination against (or to the advantage of) elderly people on the basis of their chronological age or on the basis of a perception of them as being ‘old’ or ‘elderly. (2009)
They add that it can be implicit or explicit and can be expressed on “a micro-, meso- or macro-level”. The term was originally coined in 1969 by Robert Neil Butler, who saw it as being similar to sexism and racism (1969).
For Butler, ageism was a combination of three elements. It was chiefly directed at older people, consisted of microaggressions, stereotyping, and discriminatory practices toward them, and also involved the institutional policies that perpetuated these, leading to social exclusion (Wilkinson, 2002).
- Workplace Discrimination: The concept of ageism was first developed to refer to prejudice and discrimination against older people in workplaces (Loretto, 2000). Palmore argues that managers often stereotype older workers as being resistant to change, lacking creativity, and difficult to train (1999). Women face greater ageism as they are expected to leave the workplace to have children.
- Stereotypes: There are several age-based stereotypes, most of which are directed toward the elderly. When older people forget something, people call it a “senior moment”, even though such mistakes can happen to anybody. There are many ageist phrases like “dirty old man”, “second childhood”, etc. Ageism also shapes perceptions about how dateable one is; for example, there is a term called the sexpiration date, which indicates the time after which one is no longer attractive.
- Adultism: Adultism refers to the predisposition towards adults and a bias against children and young people. Younger people are seen to be “too young” to give any meaningful contribution and are easily dismissed. They are also expected to behave in a certain way because of their youth. A related concept is “adultocracy”, which is the social convention of associating “maturity” with adults, placing them over younger people.
- “Benevolent Prejudice”: Benevolent prejudice refers to pitying or patronizing certain age groups. Directed at both young and old people, this kind of prejudice involves seeing them as “friendly” but “incompetent”. Age Concern’s Survey indicated that 48% of respondents see people aged over 70 as friendly (as against 27% saying the same for people under 30). Only 26% of respondents saw those over-70s as capable. (Go deeper on this topic in my article on stereotypes vs prejudices).
- Digital Ageism: Digital ageism refers to prejudice and discrimination against people based on their ability to use digital technologies. The common stereotype is that young people are always digitally capable while old people are completely incompetent with technology. This often stems from exclusion and a lack of training: older people may have limited access to devices and may not receive adequate training, leading to lower digital literacy.
- Visual Ageism: The term visual ageism, coined by Loos and Ivan, refers to the practice of “visually underrepresenting older people or misrepresenting them in a prejudiced way” (2018). They argue that we are currently moving away from the underrepresentation of older people to a kind of stereotypical representation: they are shown as third-age older adults who are enjoying the “golden years” of their life. But fourth-age old adults (who are unable to live independently) are never represented.
- Hollywood: Film industries all around the world are deeply ageist, especially toward women. As O. Burtch Drake says, “older women are not being portrayed at all; there is no imagery to worry about” (Kleyman). Older women are never the center of attention; there are limited job opportunities for older actresses, who are expected to act young. Those in the industry face huge pressure to adhere to high beauty standards, and these standards also make people outside the industry face self-esteem issues.
- Ageism in Statistical Research: The way statistics are collected is inadvertently ageist. For example, Sawchuk points out that when data is collected for large age categories, everyone over sixty is clubbed together in the “60+” group; Sawchuck calls this the “grey zone”, which obscures differences. (2010). Similarly, the dependency ratio simply assumes that older people are always dependent on younger people for care.
- Healthcare Discrimination: While defining the term “ageism”, Robert Bulter pointed out how it goes beyond casual stereotypes and significantly affects the healthcare system. Ageism exists in all physician-patient interactions, from screening procedures to treatment decisions. When interacting with older patients, doctors often view them negatively (as being “depressing”). Doctors pursue less aggressive treatment options for older people, focusing on managing the disease rather than curing it.
- Sacrifice and Resentment of the Elderly: The health vulnerability of the elderly has historically been seen as a problem that could be solved by indefinite segregation or even euthanasia. The Sociological Review called this kind of treatment “intergenerational discounting”. On Twitter in 2021, the term “Boomer remover” trended, indicating people’s resentment towards older people who needed to be protected from public health risks during that vulnerable era.
- Age Limitations: Placing maximum age limits on people’s right to work, vote, run for office, or drive. This may be considered ageism because its focus is not on an individual’s ability but their age.
Effects of Ageism
Ageism has a range of negative effects on individuals and society.
- Stereotypes & Discrimination: Ageism reinforces negative stereotypes and leads to discrimination. It leads to false assumptions about a person, such as seeing them as unproductive or technologically incompetent. These stereotypes can become self-fulfilling prophecies, as older people internalize them and limit their own potential. Older people are also treated unfairly in employment, healthcare, public services, etc.
- Social Exclusion & Economic Consequences: Ageism can lead to the social isolation of older people and harmful economic consequences. They may get reduced opportunities for social engagement and participation. If older people face difficulties in finding employment, they may also suffer from economic insecurity and poverty.
- Mental & Physical Health: Ageism affects the mental and physical health of individuals. The glorification of youth and ageist stereotypes can harm the self-esteem of people, who might also self-stereotype. On the other hand, when people defy ageist stereotypes and demonstrate greater independence in their lives, they are more likely to be mentally and physically healthy than others of their age.
Measures Against Ageism
There are several ways of combating ageism, including policies, educational initiatives, etc.
In the United States, the Age Discrimination Employment Act (ADEA) of 1967 restricts age discrimination. It protects workers over the age of forty at all levels of employment, from hiring through employment relationships to layoff decisions.
An age limit can only be applied to those jobs that have a “bona fide occupational qualification”; for example, a young actor for playing a young character. It also includes jobs where public safety is a concern, say pilots or bus drivers.
In the United Kingdom, the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations of 2006 restrict age discrimination, and similar laws exist everywhere. Besides restricting discrimination, laws also protect children: those under the age of 14 are not allowed to work (except for a few exceptions), and those under 18 cannot work in hazardous conditions.
Besides laws and policies, we can also combat ageism through education. Educational initiatives can create empathy for different age groups. They also help to dispel misconceptions by providing accurate information and counter-stereotypical examples.
Intergenerational activities that bring together people of different age groups can also help to reduce prejudice and promote understanding.
It is mostly directed at the elderly but can also include discrimination (such as a patronizing attitude) against younger people. Ageist stereotypes are often internalized, which can lead to negative effects on both individuals and society as a whole.
However, we can counter ageism through legal measures that protect older people against discrimination. We can also dispel stereotypes through educational initiatives and intergenerational activities.
For an alternative perspective on how our society creates hierarchies of value placed on age, consult our piece on the age stratification theory.
Butler, R. N. (1969). “Age-ism: Another form of bigotry”. The Gerontologist. Oxford University Press.
Iversen, T.N.; Larsen, L.; Solem, P.E. (2009). “A conceptual analysis of ageism”. Nordic Psychology. Taylor & Francis Ltd.
Kleyman, Paul. (2002). “Images of Aging.” Encyclopedia of Aging. Macmillan Reference USA.
Loos. E. F., & Ivan, L. (2018). Visual Ageism in the Media. In: L. Ayalon & C. Tesch-Roemer (Eds.), Contemporary perspectives on ageism (pp. 163–176). Springer.
Loretto, W.; Duncan, C.; White, P.J. (2000). “Ageism and employment: Controversies, ambiguities, and younger people’s perceptions”. Ageing & Society. Cambridge University Press.
Palmore, E. B. (1999). Ageism: negative and positive. New York: Springer.
Sawchuk, K., & Crow, B. (2010). “Into the grey zone: Seniors, cell phones and milieus that matter”. In B. Poppinga (ed.), Observing the mobile user experience: Proceedings of the 1st international workshop held in conjunction with NordiCHI. Oldenburg, HaptiMap.
Wilkinson J and Ferraro K. (2002). “Thirty Years of Ageism Research”. In Nelson T (ed). Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice Against Older Persons. MIT Press.