Age Discrimination

Robert Butler is credited with originating the term ageism in 1968. Ageism involves negative attitudes and discriminatory practices against individuals based on age. Such attitudes and practices often result in age discrimination, specifically against older individuals. Ageism has been evidenced in our media’s excessive emphasis on youth, in our medical and mental health fields, and in employment settings.

Ageism and age discrimination are based on negative attitudes fueled by stereotypes about older people. These stereotypes contain the following incorrect assumptions: that all aging people are ailing physically and are frail and disabled; that older individuals are impaired cognitively and lack mental acuity; and that older people are perpetually depressed, gloomy, or hostile. These stereotypes involving the physical, cognitive, and emotional functioning of older people converge to produce common assumptions that older individuals lack vitality, productivity, sexuality, and the ability to learn new things—all of which contribute to age discrimination toward older individuals.

Cross-Cultural Views Of Aging

Ageism does not exist across all cultures. Unlike many Western nations, countries such as Japan, China, and Korea associate age with positive rather than negative features. Generally, these countries see the elderly as wise, respected, strong authority figures who advise the family. A long-standing, traditional Japanese  ritual,  the  Kankrei,  releases  the  elderly person from middle age responsibilities, so that he or she can have the freedom to achieve whatever he or she wishes. A national holiday in Japan, known as  Respect  the Aged  Day,  celebrates  older  people. In comparison, within the United States and other Western nations, the elderly are not considered a vital and integral part of the culture. Attitudes toward the older generation are much more negative, including the perspective that older individuals are far less productive and do not have much to offer society. Such attitudes contribute to age discrimination.

Age Discrimination In The Workplace

Two trends are shifting the composition of the U.S. workforce to an older one. First, there are growing numbers of people 55 years and older remaining in the workforce. In 2000, 13% of the workforce was older than 55 years, and by 2020, this number is projected to increase to 39%. In 2005, the actual number of workers  55  years  or  older  is  22  million. Why  do people continue to work longer? The reasons are varied and include increased life expectancy with good health combined with fewer physically demanding jobs, the need to financially support dependents, and increased medical and health care costs with less coverage by health care benefits and pensions. Retirement of the “baby boomers” is the second trend affecting the workforce. As the baby boomer population continues  to  retire  throughout  this  decade,  there  will be increasingly more jobs available than workers to fill them. The result of these trends is a substantial increase and reliance on older workers.

Perhaps the most well-documented environment in which older individuals encounter age discrimination is the workplace. The older worker may face age discrimination in seeking employment and may also face discrimination on the job. Despite evidence that older employees are generally as flexible, easy to train, and cost-effective as younger workers, older job candidates may be less successful in finding employment than younger individuals. Several important factors, including contextual and situational variables, have been shown to influence age discrimination in the selection of employees. The more obvious variable that can result in age discrimination is the strength of the bias against older workers held by the individuals making the hiring decisions. Strength of such bias varies widely across people. For this reason, organizations such as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and industrial gerontologists have recommended training those who do the hiring in recognizing and counteracting potential bias against older people. A second variable, age-typing of the job involved, also is related to age discrimination. Older individuals are more at risk for being passed over in hiring processes if the job is perceived as a “younger person’s job.” Positive age stereotypes in relation to older workers can also exist. In such cases, older workers have the advantage because they are seen as more appropriate or qualified for an “older-person’s job.” Finally, empirical support exists for the idea that negative stereotypes are far more likely to inadvertently creep into hiring decisions if such decisions are conducted hastily or while the evaluator is cognitively distracted by other tasks. For this reason, employers are encouraged to avoid making decisions quickly or while they are mentally preoccupied with other work issues. Instead, such individuals need to be trained to make thoughtful and informed decisions in which they carefully evaluate all available information about the specific job candidate, while keeping aware of the potential for bias.

Older workers may also encounter age discrimination on the job in the form of poorer job performance appraisals. Age  has  not  been  found  to  be  a  good predictor of productivity, and existing research in general does not support the idea that job performance declines with age. To prevent age discrimination in job performance appraisals by supervisors, organizations are encouraged to have well-designed performance appraisal systems that are reasonable, relevant to the job, and applied consistently by different evaluators across employees and over time.

Because  of  concern  about  age  discrimination  in the workplace, an amendment was passed to the Fair Labor Standards in 1967. This act, known as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), was placed under the jurisdiction of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency. Under ADEA, it is illegal to discriminate against older workers by basing any employment-related decision on age, age-related stereotypes, or assumptions about an individual’s abilities and performance. Instead, employers must make decisions based on the specific capabilities of the individual rather than on age. The spirit of ADEA is to promote fair and equitable hiring, compensation, and treatment of older people in the workplace. ADEA and subsequent related rulings (1978, 1986) place individuals who are 40 years of age and older into a protected class and specifically prohibit discrimination against these individuals on the basis of age unless age is a “bona fide occupational qualification.” Western Air Lines v. Criswell, 1985, established that in order for age to be considered a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ), the employer must be able to demonstrate that a particular age is “reasonably necessary to the normal operations of the particular business… all or nearly all employees above an age lack the qualifications for it.” BFOQs are rare and include occupations such as airline pilot. A primary function of ADEA is the prohibiting of financially strained companies from specifically targeting and laying off their older employees. The EEOC has ruled, however, that employees can waive their rights to sue under this law in exchange for improved retirement benefits packages. Under the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act (1990), a worker has 45 days to decide whether to agree to such a waiver and then an additional 7 days after signing a waiver to revoke the decision. Such packages have been referred to colloquially as “the golden handshake,” and their use is on the rise. Since the passage of ADEA, there has also been a solid trend in increasing numbers of age discrimination cases filed with the EEOC annually, with almost 20,000 age-based cases filed in 2003.

Age Discrimination In Health And Medical Professions

Age discrimination is not limited to the workplace; it has been found in the health and medical services provided to older individuals as well. Research suggests that medical and mental health professionals are more likely to rate older patients as less appropriate for services, treat them less aggressively, and provide them with a less positive prognosis. To date, less empirical  research  has  been  conducted  in  relation to ageism in environments other than employment settings, and this is an area in need of further study. However, it is theorized that healthism, or the inclination  by  medical  and  mental  health  professionals to feel more negatively about their patients with chronic  health  problems  compared  with  physically and mentally healthy patients, is a stronger influence than pure age on such practices in the health arena.

Impact Of Age Discrimination

On  a  psychological  level,  age  discrimination can  affect  the  self-esteem,  life  satisfaction,  and psychological well-being of members who experience or perceive it the strongest, and therefore can directly influence the well-being of older adults. In the workplace, age discrimination prevents qualified workers from being hired and, once the older worker is hired, can result in obstacles to advancement and premature ending of employment in the position. On a medical level, ageism can result in less compassionate and less aggressive treatment in both inpatient and outpatient situations. However, it should also be noted that contrary to ageist stereotypes, older individuals as a group are, in general, as emotionally healthy as other age groups; however, being the target of ageism is a risk factor for them. Social support from same-aged peers can serve as a protective factor against ageism because it may promote positive identity despite the social stigma of aging. The United States and other Western nations could learn much from those countries in which the older person is respected and valued and is perceived as an important and contributing member of society.


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