What Is Ageism?

Ageism involves discriminating against people based upon their age. Nick Clements / Taxi / Getty Images

Ageism is a type of discrimination that involves prejudice against people based upon their age. Similar to racism and sexism, ageism involves holding negative stereotypes about people of different ages.

The term ageism was first used by gerontologist Robert N. Butler to describe the discrimination of older adults. Today, the tern is often applied to any type of age-based discrimination, whether it involves prejudice against children, teenagers, adults, or senior-citizens.

Manifestations of ageism are frequently cited in workplace situations, where it can lead to pay disparities or difficulty finding employment. Younger adults may have difficulty finding jobs and receive lower pay due to their perceived lack of experience, while older adults may have problems achieving promotions, finding new work, and changing careers.

Stereotypes That Contribute to Ageism

Researchers Susan Fiske has suggested that stereotypes about older people often relate to how younger people expect them to behave.

  1. The first stereotype she described relates to succession. Younger people often assume that older individuals have "had their turn," and should make way for the younger generations.
  2. The second stereotype relates to what Fiske refers to as consumption. Younger people frequently feel that limited resources should be spent on themselves rather than on older adults.
  3. Finally, young people also hold stereotypes about the identity of older adults. Younger people feel that those who are older than them should "act their age" and not try to "steal" the identities of younger people, including things such as speech patterns and manner of dress.

    Just How Common Is Ageism?

    Researchers have also found that ageism is surprisingly commonplace. In one study published in a 2013 issue of The Gerontologist, researchers looked at how older people were represented in Facebook groups. They found 84 groups devoted to the topic of older adults, but most of these groups had been created by people in their 20s.

    Nearly 75 percent of the groups existed to criticize older people and nearly 40 percent advocated banning them from activities such as driving and shopping.

    Older adults also feel the impact of this discrimination in the workplace. According to the US Equal Opportunity Commission, almost a quarter of all claims filed by workers are related to age-based discrimination.

    The AARP reports that 1 in every 5 workers in the United States is over the age of 55. Nearly 65 percent of workers say that they have experienced age-based discrimination at work and 58 percent of those surveyed believe that ageism became apparent starting at age 50.

    How to Combat Ageism

    The American Psychological Association suggests that ageism is a serious issue that should be treated the same as sex, race, and disability-based discrimination. They suggest that raising public awareness about the issues ageism creates can help. As the population of older adults continues to increase, finding ways to minimize ageism will become increasingly important.

    More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary


    Adler, T. (2013). Ageism: Alive and kicking. APS Observer, 26(7). Retrieved from http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2013/september-13/ageism-alive-and-kicking.html

    Ditterman, M. (2003). Fighting ageism. Monitor on Psychology, 34(5), 50. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/may03/fighting.aspx

    Loretto, W., Duncan, C., & White, P.J. (2000). Ageism and employment: Controversies, ambiguities, and younger people’s perceptions. Ageing & Society, 20(3), 279-302.

    North, M. S., & Fiske, S. T. (2013). A prescriptive intergenerational-tension ageism scale: Succession, identity, and consumption. Psychological Assessment. Advance online publication.

    US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission statistics, www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/enforcement/adea.cfm

    Also Known As: age discrimination

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