Ageism is a type of bias based on a person’s age. It can take three main forms:
- Stereotypes, or preconceived beliefs about the ways age affects interests, personality, and abilities
- Prejudice, which might involve feelings of disdain, dislike, pity, and irritation
- Discrimination, or behaviors that harm, belittle, or isolate people because of their age
Generally, ageism describes stigma against older adults. That said, there’s no set age where people become targeted, since “old” and “young” tend to be relative. Someone around the age of 40 may seem “old” to the local high schoolers but downright youthful among the neighborhood retirees.
Some people also face discrimination due to their youth, such as when companies underpay younger workers in the name of providing “exposure.” This bias is often referred to as “reverse ageism.”
If you’ve come across the term “childism,” this specifically refers to discrimination against children.
One example? Some public parks have put up sonic devices to drive away teenagers with high-pitched noises. Many people consider these devices discriminatory, since they effectively punish teenage park-goers for “loitering” while encouraging older park-goers to enjoy the premises.
Sure, children and teens may not have the same knowledge or capabilities as adults. But they do have the right to be treated equally.
Read on to learn more about ageism, including its causes and impact. You’ll also find a few actionable strategies to address it.
Ageism shows up in many areas of life.
Ageism in the workplace
Popular media often stereotypes older adults as technologically illiterate and stuck in their ways. These portrayals can easily contribute to real-world prejudice.
In an AARP survey of workers 45 years and older, 61 percent of respondents had witnessed or personally experienced ageism at work:
- 24 percent had received negative comments about their age from a boss or co-worker.
- 16 percent were not hired for a job though they matched the qualifications.
- 12 percent were passed up for a promotion.
- 7 percent were laid off, fired, or forced out of a job.
- 7 percent were denied training and networking opportunities.
A 2018 survey from ProPublica and the Urban Institute followed nearly 20,000 adults from the age of 50 through the remainder of their lives. According to their findings, 56 percent of full-time workers over the age of 50 experienced at least one involuntary, employer-driven job loss.
In short, ageism can derail a career, particularly since hiring discrimination can make it difficult to get another job in the same field at similar pay.
Career disruption can have long-term effects on financial health, not to mention emotional and physical well-being. According to a 2018 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, in fact, 1 in 3 people over the age of 65 are economically insecure.
Unexpected challenges can deplete savings and make it difficult to pay bills and purchase necessities. The resulting stress can:
Ageism in healthcare
Society often portrays older adults as inherently unhealthy. Many people believe that chronic pain, depression, or cognitive decline happen as a natural consequence of aging, yet that certainly isn’t the case.
But if you believe health concerns are inevitable, you may avoid seeking treatment. You might also feel less inclined to take care of your body if you believe there’s no point in staying active or eating a balanced diet.
- Excluded from clinical trials. People of different ages respond differently to certain medications. If older adults don’t participate in experiments, researchers have less safety data on potential side effects.
- Denied access to potential treatments. Healthcare professionals may dismiss the health concerns of older adults as exaggeration. Or they may conclude the treatment will prove too difficult or expensive for someone whose health is already in decline.
- Devalued during triage. Medical workers are more likely to ration care for older adults than younger ones with a similar prognosis. This has become a particular concern during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ageism and sex
Modern media bombards consumers with plenty of implicit and explicit messages about youth being necessary for beauty. Advertisements insist upon the need to disguise the passage of time on your body by eliminating wrinkles, fighting flab, and banishing gray hairs.
However, unless you can afford a suite of personal trainers, cosmetologists, and hair stylists, chances are good that you’ll eventually show your age. Of course, this can have a profound impact on your body image when you’re constantly confronted with the message that aging is something bad. If you believe you’re no longer desirable, you might find your libido plummeting. As a result, you might avoid seeking out sex and intimacy entirely.
Maybe you don’t have any issues with libido. But you do encounter plenty of stigma for acknowledging yourself as an attractive, sexual being, along with myths about sex in older adulthood.
A common stereotype is that older adults should gradually evolve into nonsexual beings and fade from view. If you don’t, you might face accusations of “trying too hard.”
In reality, plenty of people find their sex lives actually improve as they get older:
- With age comes the knowledge of what you do and don’t like in bed, along with the maturity to communicate those desires to your partner.
- You’ve also had a lot more time to practice your foreplay skills.
- After a certain age, you no longer have to stress about potential pregnancy. (You’ll still want to take steps to protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections, though).
- Long-term couples may find it easier to make time for sex as children become independent and leave home.
Ageism has become incredibly common.
A 2020 study analyzed survey results from over 83,000 participants in 57 countries and found that over half of respondents (56 percent) held attitudes that were moderately or highly ageist. The same was true for 34 of the 57 countries.
Conventional wisdom suggests that individualist Western societies are more ageist than collectivist Eastern ones. However, research has put a damper on those generalizations.
For example, the study mentioned above ranked the United States as 42nd in terms of anti-aging bias, making it one of the less ageist countries. Meanwhile, a 2015 study suggests Thailand and India have some of the highest levels of ageist attitudes.
Although some collectivist cultures place heavy emphasis on respecting one’s elders, the authors suggest respect for family members doesn’t always translate to respect for older adults in general. Likewise, cultural emphasis on individual freedom doesn’t always lead to ageism.
At the end of the day, no country is a monolith. Every nation will likely have some people with ageist attitudes.
According to a 2020 review, several factors can play a part in ageist attitudes.
On a cultural scale, two factors tend to make a society more ageist: a scarcity of resources and the percentage of older people in the population.
When money, food, healthcare, or housing are limited, competition for these resources increases. If a society believes older people take up most of these resources (whether that’s true or not), cultural resentment may fester.
These include social circles, such as families, neighborhoods, and workplaces. Four interpersonal factors that can affect ageism include:
- The person’s age. The older a person is, relative to the group, the more likely they’ll face age-related stereotypes.
- Presentation. Ageism tends to become more common when treated as socially acceptable. If media and institutions portray older adults in a positive light, then a social group may be less likely to engage in ageism.
- Quality of contact with older people. People with more opportunities to interact positively with older adults are less likely to hold ageist beliefs.
- Quality of contact with grandparents. Having a strong personal relationship with grandparents can influence feelings about older adults in general.
Individual factors that can contribute to ageist attitudes include a fear of death and anxiety around aging.
Few people enjoy thinking about their own mortality. According to the terror management theory, ageist stereotypes and prejudice can act as psychic buffers. Basically, they create some distance from reminders that everyone eventually grows old.
On the other hand, a few factors make age-related prejudice less likely.
- Personality. People who are more extroverted, agreeable, and conscientious tend to have less ageist beliefs.
- Collectivist mindset. People who value cooperation and community may have a less ageist mindset.
- Health status. Physically and mentally healthy people often feel more positive about their own aging.
Wondering how to counter ageism in your own life? These ideas offer a place to start.
Start a mentorship program in your community
When people of different ages spend time together, both sides can benefit. Younger people can receive career guidance, not to mention a less fatalistic view of aging. Older people can get a sense of meaning from passing on knowledge, along with social connection.
The more contact generations have with each other, the easier it becomes to recognize each other as individuals instead of members of a group. Getting to know the nuances of someone’s personality and experiences leaves less room for ageist or reverse ageist stereotypes.
Push back against assumptions
If you hear someone repeating ageist tropes, challenging those stereotypes can remove their social power. For example, say a friend expresses some worry about becoming a “burden” and needing to depend on others when they get older.
You don’t have to reject their fears entirely, since aging can contribute to health issues and financial hardship. Your friend may indeed need help from loved ones in later life. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, or even all that unusual.
So, you might remind your friend that people need support at every stage of life. Children need adults to teach and protect them. Young adults often need mentorship and emotional guidance. Adults of middle age often benefit from help with child care and financial support. Most people aren’t entirely self-sufficient, and that’s just fine.
Include older people proactively
Aging often means losing some sources of social support. Co-workers retire. Children move out and start their own families. Loved ones move away or pass on. As such, isolation is common among older adults.
If you know an older adult who shares your love of sci-fi, yoga, or gardening, consider inviting them along to your next class, meeting, or hangout. You may have more in common than you think, and other members may find a new perspective refreshing.
Maybe you don’t have any interests in common — that you know of. You can still offer a friendly greeting and strike up a conversation. Nothing says people of different ages can’t develop strong friendships.
Media messages commonly present old age as a thing to fear and forestall at all costs, so the prevalence of ageism may not be terribly surprising.
Keep in mind, though, that aging is a natural part of life. To put it another way, old age serves as a mark of experience, not a flaw.
People are worthy of love and respect at every age — 9 months, or 99 years.
Emily Swaim is a freelance health writer and editor who specializes in psychology. She has a BA in English from Kenyon College and an MFA in writing from California College of the Arts. In 2021, she received her Board of Editors in Life Sciences (BELS) certification. You can find more of her work on GoodTherapy, Verywell, Investopedia, Vox, and Insider. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.