Robert N. Butler first introduced the term ageism to refer to prejudice and discrimination against older people based on the belief that aging makes people less attractive, intelligent, sexual, and productive. Ageism comprises three distinguishable yet interconnected aspects: (1) prejudicial attitudes toward older adults, old age, and the aging process; (2) discriminatory practices that focus on behaviors against older people; and (3) institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about older adults, reduce their opportunity for life satisfaction, and undermine their personal dignity.
With medical improvement and scientific advances, the population is aging at an unprecedented rate. The proportion of U.S. residents older than 65 years rose from 9.2% in 1960 to 12.6% in 1990 and is predicted to reach 17.7% in 2020. Most developed countries in Western society show similar trends. The population structure change leads to concern about the resources necessary to support elders. This concern has resulted in continual debate among legislators and in the media on aging-related issues, such as federal debt, social security, health care, and housing. The theme of such debate focuses on whether there are ageism practices in the corresponding area and how to protect elders from age-related discrimination. Overall, a trend has been expected that older individuals would wield considerably more political power, be more active in the workplace and education, and have a much greater stake in the world’s economic output.
There are legislative acts providing broad protections against ageism, such as the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and the amended Older Workers’ Benefit Protection Act. The former was designed to protect employees older than 40 years from differential treatment in all phases of the employment process. The latter act was designed to ensure that early retirement packages and other incentives that require workers to waive their right to sue for age discrimination are offered in a way that does not unduly harm the worker. However, a recent Supreme Court ruling implies that elders do not deserve special protections against ageism because they do not constitute a group with a history of discrimination. Consistent with this, mandatory retirement and increasing insurance costs on the basis of age alone, rather than competence or demonstrated health risks, are still legal.
Although the ADEA legislation has allowed many older workers to continue employment, there are still other manifestations of ageism in the workplace. First, hiring and firing practices are age differentiated. Qualified older workers are less likely to be hired for positions than same qualified young workers. When forced to downsize, organizations are likely to target early retirement and layoffs at older workers. These observed patterns of employment that favor young workers over older workers may be due to the stereotypical beliefs about physical and mental declines of older individuals. Second, organizations are often reluctant to train older workers. Accumulated evidence suggests that strongly held societal beliefs are responsible, such as older people are unwilling to change, not worth training because they will not be around long, learn too slowly, do poorly in the classroom, and are computer illiterate. Third, declining earnings by older workers have been related to ageism. Stereotypes about older workers as being unable to perform and produce at levels that are required by the workplace are common. They lead to age differences in wages, after controlling for worker background, education, training, experience, job characteristics, and labor market conditions.
In summary, ageism is a form of discrimination based on age alone. Because of the changing demographics in Western society, it becomes increasingly important to protect the elderly from ageism in all aspects of their lives.
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