Prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age.
Ageism, also spelled agism, is stereotyping and discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age. This may be casual or systematic. The term was coined in 1969 by Robert Neil Butler to describe discrimination against seniors, and patterned on sexism and racism. Butler defined “ageism” as a combination of three connected elements. Among them were prejudicial attitudes towards older people, old age, and the ageing process; discriminatory practices against older people; and institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about elderly people.
How are older people discriminated against?
You may be fully aware that you have been subject to ageism, but in many situations, it may not be so obvious – we are after-all non-judgemental folk are we not? However, we too can be guilty as research shows that the older we get the younger we feel compared to our contemporaries. As you age the younger you feel may also be a factor against developing dementia later.
It is interesting that adults 18–29 believe that a person becomes old at age 60, whereas middle-aged respondents (..and the young believe middle age starts at 30!) believe that a person becomes old at age 72; respondents aged 65 and older believed that a person becomes old at age 74
People’s perception of old age changes as they age. Essentially, the older we get, the younger we feel with studies suggesting by about 13 years! As we age we may view older adulthood as a negative experience and want to avoid it because it’s painful to think of ourselves as old but, of course, older adults can actually have really enriching lives and some studies suggest that they’re happier than young adults.
Although ageism is often seen as a workplace issue, you may face it when you’re out shopping, at the doctor’s surgery, or even when ordering products and services over the phone.
Some examples of ageism include:
- Not being recruited or losing a job because of your age.
- Being refused credit or travel insurance because of your age.
- Receiving a lower quality of service in a shop or restaurant because of the organisation’s attitude to older people.
- Being refused a referral from a doctor to a consultant because you are ‘too old’
- Being refused membership to a club etc. because of your age.
Note that the young are often ‘positively discriminated’ in that special lower rates are often given for students and children – plane / train tickets etc. The ‘elderly’ also get discounts so it is sometimes difficult to know where age discrimination starts and generosity and compassion ends or even where the line is. If it’s overt it can be challenged, if not it may be true discrimination.
What to do next?
How the law protects you from ageism
Implicit ageism : Implicit ageism is the term used to refer to the implicit or subconscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors one has about older or younger people.
Stereotyping : Stereotyping is a tool of cognition which involves categorising into groups and attributing characteristics to these groups. Age-based stereotypes can prime one to draw very different conclusions when one sees an older and a younger adult with, say, back pain or a limp.
We do it to ourselves too! An older person who forgets something might be call it a “senior moment,” failing to realize the ageism of that statement.
Prejudice: Ageist prejudice is a type of emotion which is often linked to the cognitive process of stereotyping. It can involve the expression of derogatory attitudes, which may then lead to the use of discriminatory behaviour.
“benevolent prejudice” is the tendency to pity when seeing older or younger people as “friendly” but “incompetent.” Age Concern‘s survey revealed strong evidence of “benevolent prejudice.” 48% said that over-70s are viewed as friendly (compared to 27% who said the same about under-30s). Meanwhile, only 26% believe over-70s are viewed as capable (with 41% saying the same about under-30s).
Digital ageism: Digital ageism refers to the prejudices faced by older adults in the digital world. A few examples of the subtle ways in which digital ageism operates in cultural representations, research, and everyday life: Generational segregation naturalises youth as digitally adept and the old as digital dunces. There is no empirical evidence, though, for a digital divide between older and younger people, with the former never and the latter always capable to use digital media; a far more accurate description is that of a digital spectrum. Ageism is also inadvertently embedded in the ways that we generate statistics, for example through data collected based on large age categories (e.g., ’60+’) foisting anyone over 60 into ‘the grey zone’ which obscures differences.
Visual ageism : The term visual ageism was coined in 2018 by Loos and Ivan. They define visual ageism as “the social practice of visually under-representing older people or misrepresenting them in a prejudiced way”. We are facing a shift from visual ageism characterised by under-representation and the negative representation of older people to a representation of older age characterised by images of stereo-typically third age older adults enjoying life and living their “golden years”, while older adults in their fourth age (inactive and unable to live independently) remain invisible.
Age discrimination (watch the video – it’s ‘funny’!) is the result of actions taken to deny or limit opportunities to people based on age. These are usually actions taken as a result of one’s ageist beliefs and attitudes. Age discrimination occurs on both a personal and institutional level.
Ageism has significant effects in two particular sectors: employment and health care. Age discrimination has contributed to disparities in health between men and women. Reducing ageism and sexism would promote improved doctor-patient relationships and reduce ageist stereotypes in the healthcare industry.
The concept of ageism was originally developed to refer to prejudice and discrimination against older people and middle age, but has expanded to include children and teenagers. Like racial and gender discrimination, age discrimination, at least when it affects younger workers, can result in unequal pay for equal work. Unlike racial and gender discrimination, however, age discrimination in wages is often enshrined in law. For example, in both the United States and the United Kingdom minimum wage laws allow for employers to pay lower wages to young workers.
There is considerable evidence of discrimination against the elderly in health care. This is particularly true for aspects of the doctor-patient relationship, such as screening procedures, information exchanges, and treatment decisions. In the patient-physician interaction, physicians and other health care providers may hold attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours that are associated with ageism against older patients.
After being diagnosed with a disease that may be potentially curable, older people are further discriminated against. Though there may be surgeries or operations with high survival rates that might cure their condition, older patients are less likely than younger patients to receive all the necessary treatments. For example, health professionals pursue less aggressive treatment options in older patients,and fewer adults are enrolled in tests of new prescription drugs. It has been posited that this is because doctors fear their older patients are not physically strong enough to tolerate the curative treatments and are more likely to have complications during surgery that may end in death.
However in most healthcare systems specialisms such as gerontology or ‘care for the elderly’ the teams are more holistically focused on the older person rather than their chronological age and take into account the social, cultural, psychological, cognitive, and biological aspects as well as the differences in pharmacology such as the increasing likelihood of side effects to medicines, especially with poly-pharmacy.
Effects of ageism
Ageism has significant effects on the elderly and young people. These effects might be seen within different levels: person, selected company, whole economy. The stereotypes and infantilisation of older people by patronising language affects older people’s self-esteem and behaviours. After repeatedly hearing a stereotype that older are useless, older people may begin to feel like dependent, non-contributing members of society. They may start to perceive themselves in terms of the looking-glass self- our reflection of how we think we appear to others. Studies have also specifically shown that when older and younger people hear these stereotypes about their supposed incompetence and uselessness, they perform worse on measures of competence and memory. These stereotypes then become self-fulfilling prophecies. According to Becca Levy‘s Stereotype Embodiment Theory, older people might also engage in self-stereotypes, taking their culture’s age stereotypes—to which they have been exposed over the life course—and directing them inward toward themselves. Then this behaviour reinforces the present stereotypes and treatment of the elderly.
Many overcome these stereotypes and live the way they want, but it can be difficult to avoid deeply ingrained prejudice, especially if one has been exposed to ageist views in childhood or adolescence.
Thanks to a steady growth in life spans over recent decades, a child born today in a developed country has more than a 50 percent chance of living to at least 100. These lengthening life spans mean that by 2050, about 20 percent of the world’s population will be 60 or older. Some people view these lengthening lives as the potential for burdening our health care and our Social Security systems. At 20, you’re at college. At 40, you’re at work. But in this multistage life, this longer life where we’re rearranging things, that’s no longer the case. You could be 20, 40, or 60 in undergraduate, 30, 50, or 70 and a senior manager. Plus, we’ll be inventing whole new stages, like taking mid-career breaks, a gap year when you’re 40 or 50. Because the three-stage life is very sort of age-segregated. Longevity is the fact that, on average across the world, we’re living longer, and we’re healthier for longer. And that’s a great opportunity that we should be positive, and we should seize and then technology is just a tool. How we use it is kind of up to us.
Listen to this from one of the book’s authors!
So rather than focus on how many more old people there are, really what this book is saying is biologically we may become be ‘younger’ for longer and that is a rather positive rather than negative thing!
Q1. How would your life change if you knew you would, in relatively good health, live to be 100 years old?
Q2. How do others discriminate against (..or for you) in terms of your age?
Q3. What do YOU do to reinforce ageism toward yourself or others?