The term ageism refers to a deep and profound prejudice against the elderly (Butler). In simple terms, ageism occurs when people stereotype others based on old age. Ageism occurs throughout society in varying degrees, in television, advertising, movies, stores, hospitals, and jobs.
Ageism is a process of stereotyping and discriminating against people because they are old. From a definitional perspective, ageism is like racism or sexism in that it treats people differently based on stereotypes about a group. While most people have a general knowledge or understanding of the history of racism or sexism, their understanding of "ageism" is likely to be limited to jokes about aging, greeting cards, or senior discounts that provide benefits for reaching a certain age.
Ageism as a term and as a process to be studied is relatively new, an ironic twist for the study of how society views getting old. Most studies of ageist attitudes tend to focus on its negative aspects. However, ageism can also have a positive perspective, such as when the attributes of age are deemed advantageous. For example, a positive view perceives an association between aging and greater wisdom, patience, and an enhanced appreciation of life's benefits.
Ageism can be intentional, meaning a deliberate process of thought and action to stereotype based on age. More commonly, it is inadvertent, when people unconsciously attribute certain characteristics to a person because of his or her age. In daily social interactions, ageism typically occurs without much notice or concern.
To understand ageism, one must understand the process of stereotyping. A stereotype is a well-learned set of associations that link a set of characteristics with a group. Stereotypes differ from personal beliefs, which are propositions that are endorsed and accepted as true. While all individuals learn about cultural stereotypes through socialization, only a subset of people endorse the stereotype and believe it to be true.
People respond to each other almost automatically using stereotypes based on race, age, and gender. Perceptions and judgments about others are made instantaneously, without conscious thought or effort, which is why stereotypes remain insidious. Stereotypes typically exaggerate certain characteristics of some members of a group and attribute the negative characteristic to aging. They do not recognize that individual characteristics vary greatly and also change over time.
Stereotypes about age and older persons
Ageism appears in many forms. A few examples illustrate how the behavior of an older person is described in an ageist manner, where the same behavior by a younger person is explained without stereotypes. When older people forget someone's name, they are viewed as senile. When a younger person fails to recall a name, we usually say he or she has a faulty memory. When an older person complains about life or a particular incident, they are called cranky and difficult, while a younger person may just be seen as being critical. If an older person has trouble hearing, she is dismissed as "getting old," rather than having difficulty with her hearing. Children also can hold negative stereotypes about older people. Some young children equate aging with being sick, unfulfilled, unhappy, or dying.
Older people also face stereotypes on the job. The most common stereotypes about older workers are that older workers are less productive, more expensive, less adaptable, and more rigid than younger workers.
As with stereotypes about other groups, the facts refute the stereotypes. While studies show that interest, motivation, and skill do not decline with age, some employers continue to perceive older workers as resistant to change, slow to learn new skills, and uncomfortable with new technologies. Studies consistently demonstrate that there is no correlation between age and job performance, despite the common stereotype that productivity declines with age. Indeed, research reveals that some intellectual functions may even improve with age. While the cost of certain employee benefits such as health and life insurance may increase with age, the data is lacking to support the stereotype that older workers cost more to employ than younger workers. Differences in salary costs are typically due to tenure rather than age.
Why ageism exists in American culture
A number of reasons contribute to ageism in American culture. Youth, beauty, and vitality are highly valued by Americans. The aging process is viewed as counter to these highly valued attributes. Good health is also touted by Americans. One of the most common stereotypes about aging is that it brings the loss of good health, which makes many fear the aging process. Of course, the real fear is that aging leads to death. Putting distance between oneself and aging thus alleviates the fear of dying.
While elders are still esteemed in many countries, American culture seems to have lost this perspective. Ageism has become ingrained in American culture as it is passed on to children from parents who hold ageist stereotypes. The same ageist myths and misconceptions that are held by adults are also held by teens and children. Americans make jokes and comments about growing old that perpetuate negative stereotypes about aging and older persons. The lexicon is replete with ageist terms that portray older people in a negative light, such as "old fogey," "old fart," "geezer," and "old goat."
Institutions and systems, as well as individuals, may unintentionally perpetuate ageism through their pursuit of independent objectives. For example, the greeting card industry plays on American's infatuation with youth by selling merchandise focused on the desire to be young and to fight aging. Greeting cards sell when they arouse certain emotions, such as making people laugh at jokes about getting old and exaggerated portrayals of old, decrepit people.
The mass media plays a powerful institutional role in shaping American attitudes as it similarly fixates on youth, beauty, and sex appeal. The media's portrayal of aging and older people can vary depending on its objective. For example, when the media focuses on older people as a potent block of voters or consumers for specialized products, older people may be portrayed as affluent, self-interested, and politically potent. When the focus shifts to general television programming or movies for the general public, the pictures of older people change dramatically. On television, seniors rarely appear in prime-time shows. On television or in movies, they are typically cast in minor roles, and are depicted as helpless victims or crotchety troublemakers.
The labor market is another system that perpetuates ageism. Employers, both private and public, engage in age discrimination when they fire older workers or refuse to hire or promote them because of ageist stereotypes. While the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits age discrimination against most job applicants and employees age forty and older, the federal law contains exceptions that permit mandatory retirement of police, fire-fighters, highly paid executives, and state judges.
Governmental programs and policies that use age to categorize people to determine their eligibility for retirement or health benefits unintentionally fuel negative stereotypes, even though the purposes of such programs are to provide benefits or services to older persons and the elderly. By providing a retirement benefit at age sixty-two or age sixty-five, Social Security reinforces the perception that people should stop working and retire at those ages. While many Americans retire in their early sixties, many continue working full- or part-time and have no desire to retire. On the contrary, their desire is to be productive workers, despite the common view that older individuals are not "productive" members of society.
The health care system can also perpetuate ageist attitudes in dealing with older patients and the elderly. For example, a doctor treating an older person may dismiss his or her complaints as relating to a degenerative aging process, rather than addressing the potential medical cause of the problem. In other words, age is used as a determinative criterion for settling a question of treatment, in lieu of the more difficult search for the actual cause of the affliction.
The role of the media in supporting ageism
Mass media, particularly television and movies, define social roles in contemporary culture by presenting a steady and repetitive portrayal of images and a system of messages. Studies reveal the common perception in the media that youth sells and youth buy. This view causes television shows, movies, and advertisements to feature young characters to bring in large audiences and revenues. The media emphasize youth and beauty, fast-paced action and lives, and overly simplistic portrayals of individuals. This emphasis exacerbates the negative image of aging and the elderly in American culture, because the stereotypes of aging are the antithesis of the attributes upon which television and movies thrive.
The image of aging depicted in the media has generally been one of negative stereotyping, a portrayal that seems to be more negative than any other social group. In American culture, the aged are not depicted as experienced "elders." Rather, older people are tolerated and respected to the extent they can act like younger people and work, exercise, and have healthy relationships.
Research from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, shows a continuing negative portrayal of older persons and the elderly by the media, manifested mostly through comments referring to decline and deterioration in old age.
The media also tend to exclude or severely underrepresent the elderly in the images presented on television compared to the proportion of elderly in the U.S. population. While the population age sixty-five and older represents almost 13 percent of the U.S. population, only about 8 percent of the roles in television commercials in the 1990s were of older persons (Tupper). Older women are almost invisible in prime-time television shows and movies.
Similarly, television advertising, which has a profound effect on influencing and shaping attitudes, repeatedly conveys negative stereotypes by representing older persons as feeble, forgetful, stubborn, and helpless. Repeated exposure to negative stereotypes about aging and the elderly in commercial advertising can lead to a devaluing of the elderly.
Advertisers clearly focus their marketing on younger women who are primarily responsible for household purchases. The common perception among advertising agencies is that younger age groups spend more than older age groups. Recent studies show that while sixty-five to seventy-four-year-old consumers outspend their counterparts in the thirty-five to forty-four-yearold category, ad agency staff ignored older audiences and underappreciated their potential and power as consumers.
Newspapers and magazines generally present neutral images of aging and do not create or support negative images of the elderly in their coverage of stories or in advertisements.
The evolution of ageism
In the workplace, there has been substantial progress in eliminating ageist policies and practices as a result of the federal ADEA. No longer can employers advertise for jobs limited to those "age thirty-five and younger," or mandatorily retire employees at age sixty-five. Training and promotion opportunities must be provided to employees without regard to age. Multi-million-dollar cases against companies who discriminated against older employees have made employers more vigilant in educating their employees about ageism and in instituting procedures and policies to prevent age discrimination. Publicity about large age discrimination cases against major U.S. corporations has brought a greater awareness among the public about ageism in the workplace.
Yet ageist attitudes, which may be hidden or subtle, persist in the workplace. For example, employers who do not want to hire older workers are likely to tell the older applicant that he is overqualified rather than too old. Similarly, older employees are often denied promotions because they lack potential or drive, which can be concealing ageist views that older workers are set in their ways. Supervisors and coworkers still make ageist comments about the ages or aging of older employees.
Attitudes about aging in the media have also improved over time. The vast population of aging baby boomers has led some commercial advertisers to target this growing consumer market with positive messages about middle age. By the 1990s the portrayal of older people in television shows had improved somewhat over the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s, prime time drama television shows, daytime serials, and commercial advertising featuring older persons presented a more neutral image or even an improved overall image of the aged by featuring older characters who appeared powerful, affluent, healthy, active, admired, and sexy.
Ways to reduce ageism
To reduce ageism, Americans first need to recognize the ageist stereotypes they hold and work to overcome those stereotypes by treating each person as an individual. Just as racism and sexism have been reduced to a certain degree in American society through education and training, the same techniques and strategies could help reduce ageism. Many employers and communities provide diversity training and lessons about ageism, and age discrimination should be included in these diversity programs.
Education about identifying and preventing ageist attitudes and practices should also be incorporated into the diversity programs in the schools, as well as in the workplace. For example, during African American History Month or Women's History Month, students learn to understand and appreciate the efforts and benefits against racism and sexism and to admire the successes of people of different races and genders. Similarly, literature and teaching within the classroom could show the diversity of aging to reduce and eliminate stereotypes. Case studies and lessons about age discrimination can be included in management school courses and textbooks to teach future supervisors and business leaders about the harmful consequences of ageism.
More positive images of older persons and of aging in the media would significantly reduce ageism in American culture. Featuring active, healthy, productive, and successful older persons in television shows, movies, and commercial advertising would counteract the negative perceptions many people have about aging and the elderly.
To reach this end, the advertising industry, which understandably focuses on income revenue, will have to recognize and appreciate the vast consumer potential of older people. Studies showing that older consumers are a significant market may provide the advertising industry with the impetus to target older audiences with more positive portrayals of aging.
The more young, old and middle-aged people see and relate to each other in ways that refute ageist stereotypes, the more likely the negative stereotypes will change toward more positive views about aging.
Cathy Ventrell Monsees
See also Age Discrimination; Images of Aging; Language About Aging; Social Cognition.
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