Ageism refers to discrimination or prejudices based on a person’s age. Ageism can be overt, manifesting as abuse or mockery. It can also appear in microaggressions, such as when a nurse talks condescendingly to a nursing home resident.
Both young people and old people can be victims of ageism. For example, a successful older programmer fired from a trendy tech company might be experiencing ageism. A teenager whose well-researched ideas are dismissed by an adult could also be a victim of ageism. However, most ageism research has focused on discrimination against older individuals.
Ageism can be present in many areas of life, from health care to media. People targeted by ageism may feel anxious, angry, or isolated. When older adults internalize stereotypes about aging, they may live 7.5 fewer years than their peers. A mental health professional can help both young and old individuals address ageism in their everyday lives.
Ageism in the workplace
The Federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (FADEA) is designed to protect people over the age of 40 in the workplace. Companies with at least 20 workers are not allowed to make hiring, firing, or promotion decisions based solely on age. However, discrimination can sometimes be hard to prove. Potential employers may claim a person does not fit in with corporate culture rather than state explicitly that they are not hiring someone due to their age.
Despite current laws, ageism in the workplace is quite common.
- According to an AARP survey, two in three older employees (ages 45-74) have seen or experienced ageism at work.
- 92% of AARP survey respondents believe ageism is “somewhat” or “very” common.
- Between 2008 and 2015, Silicon Valley saw more lawsuits around age bias than for sexism or racism.
Younger workers can also experience ageism. In one survey, many employers were hesitant to hire people under 30. They believed younger Millennials would be “unpredictable” and wouldn’t have a good work ethic. Other companies may refuse to pay young interns for the same duties that older trainees would get a paycheck for. That said, people under 40 are not protected under FADEA, so they generally cannot sue for age discrimination the way their older peers can.
Ageism in Health care
Among Americans over 50, one in five say they have experienced age discrimination in a health care setting. Many individuals have their health concerns dismissed as a natural part of growing older. Chronic pain and fatigue are especially undertreated among this population. These trends cause many serious health issues to go undiagnosed.
Ageism can also affect communication. In a 2001 survey, nearly two in five older individuals felt that their doctors talked down to them. Medical professionals may speak in a high pitch with oversimplified vocabulary. They might also ignore older patients, speaking directly to the person’s caregiver as if the patient was not there.
Research shows even counselors are not immune to ageism. Even when old and young clients have similar backgrounds and symptoms, many mental health professionals assume older clients will be less likely to recover. Other common stereotypes include:
- Believing it is harder to form a good therapeutic relationship with older individuals.
- Believing depression and worrying are a natural part of aging.
- Believing older people are less desirable clients overall.
Partly due to ageism, there are much fewer geriatric specialists than America’s population requires. A lack of Medicare funding for psychotherapy has also become a significant barrier to treatment. Thus, many older individuals are not getting the mental health care they need.
Ageism in Hollywood
Celebrities have frequently expressed concerns about ageism. Movie stars can have an especially hard time finding work as they get older. In a study from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, only 12% of speaking parts in Oscar-nominated movies belonged to characters age 60 or older.
Ageism can affect people of all genders, but female stars often face it at an earlier age than their male peers do. In a study by Time Magazine, male actors see their careers peak at age 46. Meanwhile, actresses start getting fewer roles after age 30. Men see a noticeable career advantage until roughly age 75.
Media representation can influence a culture’s opinions on age.Media representation can influence a culture’s opinions on age. When moviegoers rarely see characters over 60, they may begin to view older people in their own lives as “background characters” instead of unique and interesting individuals.
Ageism may also have an impact on dating behavior. In Hollywood, it is more common to see a 50-year-old man with a 20-something love interest than with a character his own age. When moviegoers only see young women painted as sexually desirable, they may begin to internalize those beliefs. One 2018 study examined how online daters ranked potential dates. For heterosexual men, the average woman’s desirability peaked at age 18. For heterosexual women, the average man’s desirability didn’t peak until age 50.
WAYS TO COMBAT AGEISM
Most people have biases about people from different age groups, whether they acknowledge them or not. Here are some ways you can help reduce ageism in your community:
- Spend time with people of various ages. Getting to know people who are older or younger than you can help you relate others as complex human beings. Social contact can also help break down misconceptions others may have about your own generation.
- Identify stereotypes that you have about age. Once you examine your beliefs about age, you can begin to challenge inaccurate ideas or change any discriminatory behavior.
- Speak up if you believe you are a victim of ageism.You don’t have to accept discrimination as a fact of life. You can seek help from support groups, your company’s Human Resources department, or attorneys if necessary.
If you have experienced ageism, you can get help from a compassionate therapist.
- The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. (n.d.). U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Retrieved from https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/adea.cfm
- Alexander, S. (2015, September 8). As males stars get older their romantic interests get younger. The Telegraph. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/goodlife/11813000/As-males-stars-get-older-their-romantic-interests-get-younger.html
- Beaton, C. (2016, November 11). Too young to lead? When youth works against you. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/carolinebeaton/2016/11/11/too-young-to-lead-when-youth-works-against-you/#812965a3c2a5
- Bruch, E. E., & Newman, M. E. J. (2018, August 8). Aspirational pursuit of mates in online dating markets. Science Advances, 4(1). Retrieved from https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/advances/4/8/eaap9815.full.pdf
- Fleck, C. (2014). Forced out, older workers are fighting back.AARP Bulletin. Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/work/on-the-job/info-2014/workplace-age-discrimination-infographic.html
- Frequently asked questions: Ageism. (n.d.). World Health Organization. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/ageing/features/faq-ageism/en
- Fullen, M. C. (n.d.). Ageism and the counseling profession: Causes, consequences, and methods for counteraction. The Professional Counselor. Retrieved from http://tpcjournal.nbcc.org/ageism-and-the-counseling-profession-causes-consequences-and-methods-for-counteraction
- Ouchida, K. M., & Lachs, M. S. (2015). Not for doctors only: Ageism in healthcare. Retrieved from https://www.asaging.org/blog/not-doctors-only-ageism-healthcare
- Pecci, A. W. (2015, April 10). 1 in 5 adults report age discrimination in healthcare settings. Retrieved from https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/clinical-care/1-5-adults-report-age-discrimination-healthcare-settings
- Swartz, J. (2016, September 15). Silicon Valley’s not-so-secret bias: Ageism. USA Today. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/columnist/2016/09/15/silicon-valleys-not-so-secret-bias-ageism/90120616
- Unpaid internship rules. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://smallbusiness.findlaw.com/employment-law-and-human-resources/unpaid-internship-rules.html
- Watercutter, A. (2017, February 17). Tina Fey nailed it: Hollywood has a serious ageism problem. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2017/02/ageism-in-hollywood
- Wilson, C. (2015, October 6). This chart shows Hollywood’s glaring gender gap. TIME Magazine. Retrieved from http://time.com/4062700/hollywood-gender-gap
- Woolf, L. M. (2012). Ageism. Retrieved from http://faculty.webster.edu/woolflm/ageism.html
Last Updated: 05-9-2019
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