Age Stereotypes and Age Discrimination

Age Discrimination

Ageism is prejudice and discrimination against older people.

One major challenge facing elders around the world is ageism, discrimination or prejudice based on age. Discrimination is the unequal treatment of individuals because of their membership in a certain group. Ageism is based on prejudices––inflexible attitudes about a particular group of people based on stereotypes––against older people. Common ageist prejudices include views of the elderly as physically feeble, unskilled, simple minded, self-absorbed, dull, and inflexible. In its mildest form, ageism is a series of negative attitudes that lead to older people being marginalized (treated as insignificant), ignored, or condescended to. This can lead to social isolation––a loss of social contact with others and a lack of a sense of connection to society. Even well-intentioned behavior, such as offers of assistance, can cause elders to fear losing their independence or to feel they have been relegated to inferior status. In this way, ageism can contribute to problems such as elders' loss of self-esteem and depression. In the extreme, ageism leads to mistreatment and abuse of elderly people.

Ageism exists around the world. However, culture and social factors such as wealth, race, gender, and geography affect how an elder might experience ageism. In the United States and other industrialized societies the workplace is a major vector through which ageism is experienced. The process of industrialization in the 19th century shifted social power away from older men to younger men who could sustain long hours in factories. In the 20th century the transition to an information economy placed pressures on older workers to adapt to technology that younger colleagues have grown up with. Younger people are more likely to be comfortable learning to use tools, such as new kinds of hardware and software, in the workplace. Changing technology is more often an obstacle for older workers. Even typing skills are important in an information economy, where so much work is done on a computer. Older workers who came of age during a time where there was no expectation that they would need to know how to type can find themselves at a disadvantage in a wide range of professions.

Other consequences of ageism include loss of income and impacts on health. Loss of respect in the workplace can lead to reduced income and poverty. Because of ageism, family members, government officials, and health care professionals may treat elders' concerns as excessively demanding or unreasonable. In some cases, this can lead to negative health outcomes. Cutbacks in social welfare spending for the elderly can have major negative impacts on their health and well-being. This is especially problematic within industrialized societies such as the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom, which have large and growing populations of elders.

Social Responses to Age Discrimination in the United States

Social responses to age discrimination include laws and policies related to employment, health care, and income.

In the United States, ageism has been recognized as a serious social problem since at least the mid-20th century. In the workplace in particular, where negative opinions of age intersect with other considerations, such as pressure on businesses to cut costs and hit performance targets, elders have suffered from discrimination. In an economic downturn, older workers may be the first to be laid off. Experienced senior workers can be resented by younger colleagues for their higher salaries and for holding them back. Older workers can feel sidelined or undervalued when passed over for promotion by younger candidates.

A major step to combat ageism and age discrimination in the workplace was the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The ADEA protects people over 40 from discrimination in hiring, compensation, working conditions, and termination of employment by businesses and the federal government. Building on ADEA, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 made it illegal for programs receiving federal funding to discriminate against people based on age.

These acts of legislation were not expected to stamp out ageism. Instead, in providing legal recourse to people who feel they have been wronged, the laws aim to discourage age discrimination by making it costly. It should be noted, however, that these acts of legislation only concern the workplace. For many forms of ageism, there is no legal recourse available in the United States. However, some laws provide a degree of support for older Americans in areas such as retirement income and health care. For example, the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) prohibits health insurance companies from denying people coverage based on preexisting conditions (medical issues people have when they apply for coverage). This law applies to Americans of all ages, but is an important form of protection for the elderly, who are more likely to have preexisting conditions.

U.S. Laws and Policies in Support of Older Americans
1935 Social Security Act establishes a system of retirement and disability insurance. The old age assistance system gives cash payments to elderly Americans.
1952 Federal funds are used to fund social assistance programs for the elderly.
1965 Medicare provides health insurance for people over 65. The Older Americans Act provides funding for a variety of social services and programs for the elderly, as well as for research and training related to aging.
1967 The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits workplace discrimination against people over 40 based on age.
1975 The Age Discrimination Act prohibits age-based discrimination in programs that receive federal funding.
1990 The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities and requires access to public and private buildings and facilities be provided.
2010 The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act prohibits health insurance companies from denying claimants based on preexisting conditions.