Ageism, a concept made popular by Robert Butler (1969), is a way to describe prejudice and discrimination against individuals who occupy a specific chronological age. Ageism is therefore an all-encompassing concept that refers to negative beliefs, thoughts, and practices that disadvantage individuals who are defined by chronological age. Although typically used in reference to elderly individuals, the concept is applicable where prejudice and/or discrimination are practiced against any individual or group of individuals who are defined by chronological age. Just as an individual's sex or race can be a marker for negative attitudes and unfair or discriminatory treatment, one's chronological age or, often, even a perception of one's chronological age can be a marker for such attitudes and treatment. Furthermore, ageism can be individual or institutional, implicit or explicit.
Individual ageism occurs when an individual feels or acts in a discriminatory way because of chronological age. For example, a person could tell an ageist joke, publicly espouse the myth that older individuals are “all bad drivers,” or avoid talking to an elderly individual because of ideas about what that individual might be like because of his or her age. An individual employer might also avoid hiring or promoting an individual once he or she sees that individual's age. Institutional ageism is more complex than individual ageism. Institutional ageism is practiced through the enactment and adherence to laws, rules, policies, and practices that systematically disadvantage older individuals. For example, a mandatory retirement age would be considered institutional ageism since an individual cannot be held responsible for this practice of disadvantaging older individuals. Widespread denials of mortgage or credit card applications, grandparents’ rights to gain custody of grandchildren, or teenagers’ rights to make personal medical decisions, if based on the implementation of ageist policies, could all be considered clear-cut and explicit examples of institutional ageism.
Institutional ageism is not always clear-cut or even purposeful, however. Ageism may also refer to the practice of rendering older individuals as useless, a drain on economic resources, and a social and economic threat to society. It could also be exemplified by a lack of attention to widespread age abuses, such as the lack of attention to elder abuse in state policy. This is the difference between explicit and implicit ageism (Levy & Banaji, 2004). Whether ageism is implicit or explicit is dependent upon the perpetrator's intentions, whether that perpetrator is an individual, law, or policy. When an individual expresses ageism with awareness to their actions, thoughts, or feelings, we may consider this explicit ageism. That is to say, an individual purposefully behaves, feels, or acts in an ageist way. Implicit ageism, on the other hand, is an expression of prejudice or discrimination where the perpetrator does not intend to discriminate. Implicit ageism is not only more typical, but also it is more likely to be expressed in a negative way (Levy, 2001). For example, a common negative and implicitly ageist behavior is to use an overly accommodating or condescending tone (even “baby talk”) when interacting with older adults. Individuals who use such tones with older individuals do not always intend to be ageist; in fact, they might view their actions as helpful or well intentioned. This type of speech, however, is buried in a negative stereotype that older adults are incapable individuals who are child-like in their capacities. The distinction between explicit and implicit ageism is an important one because, as Palmore (2001) notes, ageism is not only potentially more prevalent than other isms, it is also widely accepted and difficult to detect.
Ageism may be more acceptable than other isms in society because of the many stereotypes that exist in the United States and elsewhere about older individuals. Older adults are often constructed in popular culture as sad, lonely, impoverished, greedy, frail, dependent, stupid, and unable to handle important decisions. Similar judgments are made about teenagers and young adults, reminding us that ageism affects multiple age cohorts simultaneously. For example, in June 2009, Pixar Animation Studios released the animation film called Up in which a newly widowed “curmudgeon,” Mr. Wilkinson, attaches his long lived-in home to hundreds of colorful balloons and floats toward Paradise Falls, Venezuela, instead of being forced by court order, two aides in medical scrubs, and a “paddy wagon” to move to a retirement community. Although well intentioned as a feel-good movie, the underlying message of this film is that older adults are incapable of making their own decisions, and children, the “do-gooders” of society, are victims to older adults’ choices.
It's no wonder 84% of older adults claim to have experienced ageist treatment (Palmore, 2004). According to Palmore (2004), in fact, the most prevalent type of ageist incidents are initiated by a general disrespect for the elderly and assumed (yet false) connections about sickness and growing old. For example, we might assume that because a person walks with a limp it is because they are old, instead of merely injured. In other words, once they reach a certain age individuals are equated with their medical conditions and illnesses rather than viewed as the individual they still are. In addition, older individuals’ desires are overridden by younger family members and medical providers at times, simply because an assumption is made that they do not have their own best interests at heart. Although most incidents of ageism occur at an individual level, like the examples above, ageism is also addressed at the policy level to protect older individuals’ civil rights.
In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) to address ageism in the work environment. The purpose of the ADEA is, “to promote employment of older persons based on their ability rather than age; to prohibit arbitrary age discrimination in employment; [and] to help employers and workers find ways of meeting problems arising from the impact of age on employment” (Feder, 2010, p. 1). The ADEA protects individuals over the age of 40 from ageist hiring practices—for example, refusing to hire a worker over the age of 50 for a position. Before the ADEA, employers could discriminate in hiring practices, working conditions, and termination practices for employment (e.g., stating a person is too young or old for a job). In addition, the ADEA prohibits forced retirement and guarantees reinstatement of employment or retroactive pay if the ageist offense is found to be intentional. However, most acts of ageism are not explicit or intentional. Most acts of ageism are implicit, or unintentional. Although the ADEA is a policy that protects older workers and individuals and the result of this has been increased employment of older workers (Dennis & Thomas, 2007), it does not eradicate personal ageist feelings in U.S. society. In fact, since 2008, between 23,000 and 25,000 claims were made about age discrimination, which represents a 17% jump from 1997 to 2007 (www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2013/04/30/what-it-takes-to-win-an-age-discrimination-suit/). Yet, age discrimination cases are nearly impossible to prove since employers can find other reasons to treat older adults different in the work force.
Perhaps one of the reasons ageism is such a widely accepted social phenomenon is because of the negative language associated with growing old. For example, we express ageism when we say, “Don't be an old maid!” or, “Stop acting like an old geezer!” Negative language extends beyond what words we choose to use personally as well. In the 1980s, older adults were characterized as “greedy geezers” as initial cuts in Social Security were made and those sentiments are still housed within debates about Social Security and Medicare today (Schulz & Binstock, 2006). Consider also the negative language situated around the Baby Boomers, a generation of individuals born between 1946 and 1964 that is just now entering into old age. Baby Boomers are currently being blamed for creating an economic and social “crisis” in American society because of a shift in the demographics of the population (Estes, 2001).
As students, practitioners, and scholars of age and aging, we should pay close attention to both structural and personal instances of ageism in our everyday interactions, studies, and work. Many scholars of aging have suggested that ageism is even buried within the discipline and practice of gerontology; thus, we should be especially careful when considering what theories we use and the sociopolitical contexts of growing old that surround our research projects and gerontological practice (Dillaway & Byrnes, 2009). While we work to solve societal and individual issues and problems related to aging, it is also necessary to check whether the theories we read about and use, the studies we construct, the policies we influence are not unintentionally ageist as well.
- Age-ism: Another form of bigotry. The Gerontologist, 9, 243-246. (1969).
- Clueing in on successful aging: A call for academic critiques and conceptualizations. Journal of Applied Gerontology, 28(6), 702-722. ; (2009).
- Social policy & aging: A critical perspective. Sage Thousand Oaks CA. (2001).
- The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA): A legal overview (Report to Congressional Research Service Report to Congress). Retrieved June 30, 2013 from http://www.aging.senate.gov/crs/aging21.pdf. (2010).
- What it takes to win an age discrimination suit. Forbes. Retrieved July 2, 2013 from http://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2013/04/30/what-it-takes-to-win-anage-discrimination-suit. (2013).
- Eradication of ageism requires addressing the enemy within. The Gerontologist, 41(5), 578-579. (2001).
- Implicit ageism. In Nelson, T. (Ed.), Ageism. The MIT Press Cambridge MA. ; (2004).
- The ageism survey: First findings. The Gerontologist, 41(5), 572-575. (2001).
- Ageism in Canada and the United States. Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology, 19, 41-46. (2004).
- Aging nation: The economics and politics of growing older in America. The Johns Hopkins University Press Baltimore MD. ; (2006).
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