We are all aging every single day. Yet widespread bias on aging exists, and there are many things that society deems not to be “age appropriate.” But why?
Ageism is the stereotyping and discrimination against individuals or groups based on their age. It can take many forms, including prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory practices, or institutional policies and practices that perpetuate stereotypical beliefs.
Ageism is often considered the third “ism” similar in many ways to racism and sexism. Research from the American Society on Aging suggests that biases against older adults are comparable—or even larger—than those observed in other forms of discrimination. Ageism, nonetheless, is distinct from racism and sexism, and this discriminated group is one that we all will eventually join.
Ageism in the Media:
Ageism can be found in almost everything we see. The media—from advertisements to film—often caters to younger adults. Adults over 50 are less likely to be shown in media images. Research conducted by AARP indicates that when older adults are portrayed, they are often shown in a negative light and are more commonly depicted as being homogeneous, with many images showing this age group with grey hair and wrinkles and being isolated. Photos of people under 50 generally show individuals as more engaged and connected in their community, whereas older adults are portrayed as needing a caretaker, shown seated, dependent, without technology and rarely shown in the workplace.
Images are powerful ways to connect with consumers. They affect attitudes and expectations. Currently, the older adult population is not equitably represented with all they do and all they can do. Unfortunately, this develops at a young age. According to a report by the Royal Society for Public Health, children as young as six begin to develop stereotypes about older people which is often reinforced throughout their lives. Children’s television shows and movies often have older characters portrayed as wise or crazy, rarely as the main character, and usually in an unflattering light. By infiltrating the market with authentic, real images we can start to change the bias and misrepresentation that is contributing to the rise of ageism.
Ageism in the Workplace:
Ageism in the workplace occurs every day across America, and it is cutting work lives short. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, each year many cases of age discrimination are filed across the country. In 2016, there were 20,857 claims of age discrimination, making it the ninth-consecutive year where employees alleged more than 20,000 cases of ageism in the U.S. workforce. In 2019, these numbers decreased to 15,573. However, while these numbers have recently gone down, it still represents over 21.4 percent of the most frequently filed complaints and ranks fifth behind retaliation, disability, race, and sex.
On a broader level, city, state, and federal legislators are fighting for stricter anti-discrimination laws. In July 2020, the New York City Commission on Human Rights released legal enforcement guidance on employment discrimination on the basis of age, providing recommendations on how to attract and sustain an intergenerational workforce.
Unfortunately, ageism shows up in the workplace in different forms, such as being overlooked in the hiring process, demotions, disciplinary action, salary reduction, shift reassignments, and being bypassed for promotion. When layoffs occur, older workers are more vulnerable than younger workers. According to the World Health Organization, employers often have negative attitudes toward older workers. To make matters worse, older workers who lose a job have much more difficulty getting hired than younger workers.
Additionally, older workers are often subjected to age-specific stereotypes, such as being stubborn and resistant to change, not being technologically competent, or perhaps more difficult to train. These stereotypes often coincide with the notion that older workers are “more expensive” than younger workers.
Furthermore, economic inequalities also exist both between older adults and the rest of the population. The Department of Economic and Social Affairs explains that only a minority of the global population accumulates enough savings and assets to provide for their own economic security in old age, making it so many older adults will need to rely on family support or pensions, or continue to work late in life.
However, a 2009 report from the Sloan Center on Aging & Work found that hiring managers identified older workers as being more loyal, reliable, and productive employees compared to younger workers. Older adults’ skills, knowledge and experience are strengths and often make them the most valuable people in the office: they retain information longer, show higher motivation, and have better attention spans. It also continues to be proven that teams with mixed ages perform better than single generation teams.
Ageism’s Impact on the Economy and Marketing:
Did you know older adults are among the biggest consumers in the country, amassing twelve times the net worth of the average millennial household? However, while America is getting older, corporate America continues to ignore this age bracket.
People over the age of 50 are completely different than the generations that existed before them were at this age. They are open to trying new products and have more disposable income and a lot more buying power. However, products are not being advertised and are not targeting this market. According to Havas Group, they are not well targeted by many brands—only about 5 percent of U.S. advertising targets people over 50.
Research shows us that the older adult population has a positive impact on the economy and will drive economic growth for the next 30 years. Reports done by AARP and the Economist Intelligence Unit show that in 2018, while the 50-plus population accounted for 36 percent of the New York State population, they contributed 43 percent or $719 billion of the state’s total gross domestic product. This is expected to rise to an estimated $2.2 trillion in 2050, or over 45 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. As you can clearly see, older adults are indispensable to New York State’s economic growth.
Impact of Ageism on Health:
According to the Census Bureau, by 2060, nearly 1 in 4 Americans will be 65 or older, the number of 85 or older will triple, and the country will add a half million centenarians. People are living longer lives, but individuals are becoming less likely to seek healthcare, less likely to engage in preventive behaviors and more likely to be undertreated because they feel that their medical concern is just a part of getting older and are inflicting aging self-stereotypes onto themselves. The Department of Economic and Social Affairs suggests that health needs and considerations evolve throughout the life cycle and that age is the most important determinant of health with older people, on average, having greater health care needs than younger age groups.
Unfortunately, ageism is also extremely prevalent within the healthcare system: in both the decisions practitioners make and in procedures that are offered to older adults. According to Aegis Care Advisors, some medical professionals make decisions based on a patient’s age, rather than on the patient’s actual medical conditions and their physical and mental needs. Some of this prejudice may distort or misdiagnose disorders such as dementia, which may be mistakenly thought to reflect normal aging.
Ageism has also been found to adversely impact a broad range of health outcomes among older adults. It has been shown to cause cardiovascular stress, lowered levels of self-efficacy and decreased productivity. In addition, socially-ingrained ageism can become self-fulfilling by promoting stereotypes of social isolation, physical and cognitive decline, lack of physical activity and economic burden.
In the same vein that negative attitudes and self-perception can adversely impact health, positive self-perception can increase longevity. Studies on attitudes and social cognition found that older individuals with more positive self-perceptions on aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging.
Ageism during COVID:
Most recently, ageism has surfaced in discussions concerning who within society should be able to take advantage of the limited COVID treatment resources. According to the Gerontological Society of America, which looks at ageism and the COVID-19 pandemic, it shows that ageism can lead to undervaluing the lives of older people and neglecting the range of long-term services and supports that shape their lives.
Many older adults are facing technical challenges throughout the pandemic and have limited resources and trouble accessing the internet, participating in video visits, or booking their vaccine appointments. While services are adapting to meet these needs, change came only after there was greater awareness that older adults were being overlooked, that there were insufficient resources, and that they lacked access to technology.
In addition, scammers have been using the pandemic to target older adults with different cons swindling them out of their hard-earned money. This trend is exploiting the fears and uncertainty that has been triggered by the pandemic and taking advantage of the high-risk seniors who are quarantining and socially distancing from friends and family. These scammers target isolated adults with fake messages about family members in trouble, robocalls pitching coronavirus treatments, vaccine and testing kits, and fake charities. The AARP reported that more than 3 in 5 Americans (61 percent) are concerned that they or a relative can fall victim to a scam and noted more than 250,000 complaints related to COVID-19, stimulus payments, fraud, and identity theft. By being aware of the challenges older adults face, we can help them survive and thrive during this crisis.
Ageism: Reset your Views
The U.S. Census Bureau has pegged 2034 as the year adults 65 and older will outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history. This demographic transformation caused by a rapidly aging population is changing the United States. Ageism can occur as a joke, in advertising and other forms of messaging, and in the workplace. Nonetheless, it does occur daily in our everyday lives. By changing our own biases about age, we can change the narrative and help others to recognize that every age is valuable to our society.