History of Ageism
The problem of ageism was documented as early as 1953 by Tuckman and Lorge who noted that “In our culture with its emphasis on youth and speed, old people are expected to play a decreasingly active role in our social and industrial life. These cultural expectations encourage the formation of misconceptions and stereotypes about old age” (p. 249). The term “ageism” was later introduced in 1969 by Robert Butler as “a form of bigotry we now tend to overlook: age discrimination or age-ism, prejudice by one age group toward other age groups” and as “a deep seated uneasiness on the part of the young and the middle-aged – a personal revulsion to and distaste for growing old, disease, disability; and fear of powerlessness, ‘uselessness,’ and death” (Butler 1969, p. 243). In 1980, Butler expanded his definition to “three distinguishable yet interrelated aspects to the problem of ageism: 1) Prejudicial attitudes toward the aged, toward old age, and toward the aging process, including attitudes held by the elderly themselves; 2) discriminatory practices against the elderly, particularly in employment, but in other social roles as well; and 3) institutional practices and policies which, often without malice, perpetuate stereotypic beliefs about the elderly, reduce their opportunities for a satisfactory life and undermine their personal dignity” (p. 8). In 1989, Erdman Palmore expanded the definition of ageism to incorporate positive ageism, defining ageism as “any prejudice or discrimination against or in favor of an age group” (p. 4). Along with subsequent articles, books, and special issues of journals documented ageism, the Encyclopedia of Ageism edited by Palmore et al. (2005) with 127 entries by 63 interdisciplinary scholars made it clear that ageism is a multifaceted problem.
Ageism, sadly, has only grown as a social issue while at the same time older adults as a group have grown to be a larger proportion of the population worldwide. The World Health Organization (2017) noted that ageism may now be “more pervasive than sexism or racism.” As we skim through the history of ageism for this brief entry, it is important to keep in mind the many layers of the complexity of ageism such as the expansive reach of the positive and negative forms of ageism and that generally, people of all ages have loving, personal relationships with older adults and hope to live long lives themselves.
Studies around the world point to the coexistence of positive and negative stereotypes of older adults (Cuddy et al. 2009; Löckenhoff et al. 2009; North and Fiske 2015). Historically, older adults were mostly viewed as wise elders and were respected and revered in families and communities. Older adults are still characterized as caring, cheerful, helpful, knowledgeable, and wise, and do receive unique positive treatment in some countries including special discounts in healthcare, housing, pensions, and tax exemptions. Yet, over time, cultures worldwide have become more youth-oriented with increasing communication of negative stereotypes and attitudes toward older adults and aging. Individuals across the lifespan from children to older adults are exposed to and endorse stereotypes of older adults (Nelson 2009). In news reports, books, and movies, older adults are characterized as asexual, boring, burdensome, child-like, forgetful, greedy, helpless, incompetent, moody, sad, sickly, and unattractive (Nelson 2005). Capturing both the negative and positive characterizations of older adults, Levy et al. (2004) created a measure that assesses images of older people across nine different domains illustrating the vast reach of ageism: activity (walks slowly, active), appearance (wrinkled, well-groomed), cognition (senile, wise), death (dying, full of life), dependence (helpless, capable), personality (grumpy, positive outlook), physical health (sick, healthy), relationships (lonely, family-orientated), and will to live (will to live, given up). Further, highlighting the complexity of assessing ageist views, Cary et al. (2017) developed an ambivalent ageism scale, which examines benevolent ageism (behaviors toward older adults that appear overtly positive but are actually patronizing, e.g., insisting on helping an older adult to carry their groceries, even if the older adult declined the help) and hostile ageism (overt negative attitudes and behaviors, e.g., refusal to hire an older adults for a job because of their age). Despite mixed views of older adults, negative stereotypes are more commonly communicated and outweigh positive stereotypes. For example, analyzing printed sources between 1810 and 2009 through the Corpus of Historical American English, Ng et al. (2015) documented that stereotypes of older adults became more negative in the United States during this period.
Negative, exaggerated views of older adulthood as a period of cognitive and physical decline can heighten people’s concern with aging. One perspective considers the irony of having negative attitudes about a group we could (and hope to) one day join (older adults). Terror management theory posits that negative attitudes and stereotypes of older adults are a result of individuals’ death anxiety, fears about their own mortality, and aversion to older adults, as older adults may remind individuals of their own aging and eventual death (Martens et al. 2005). Research has also focused on uncovering aging anxiety or concerns about the aging process in general. Aging anxiety can include fear of losses, fear of old people, psychological concerns, and concerns over changes to physical appearance (Lasher and Faulkender 1993). General aging anxiety is related to ageism, as studies have found that the more anxious an individual is about their own aging, the more they buy into negative age stereotypes (Brunton and Scott 2015). A study of both undergraduate and graduate students in Australia, England, and the United States found that the more participants feared getting older and impending decline as they age, the more they dreaded looking old, with women (vs. men) expressing more concern about looking older (Chonody and Teater 2016).
Stereotypes can also manifest as discriminatory behavior toward older adults. Negative stereotypes of older adults, such as facing serious cognitive, memory, and hearing decline, unfortunately influence everyday life in how people communicate with and respond to older adults. Studies reveal that people are more likely to communicate with older adults (compared to younger adults) using loud, slow speech, including simple words and short sentences that are patronizing (Hummert et al. 1998). Stereotypes of older adults can also reduce opportunities in the workplace where older adults are sometimes viewed as less incompetent, less flexible, and less comfortable with new technology which together contributes to lower hiring rates, lower pay, and fewer salary increases for older adults (Abrams et al. 2016; McCann and Keaton 2013). Likewise, stereotypes are reflected in negative judgments of older leaders including perceptions of older leaders in politics (Lytle et al. 2018). In healthcare settings as well, stereotypes of older adults as complaining more than other age groups and exaggerated views of the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease contribute to older adults receiving lower quality healthcare, insufficient recommendations for treatment, and misdiagnosis (Rogers et al. 2015; Stewart et al. 2012). Consistent with the stereotypes of older adults as helpless, weak, and vulnerable, there is also evidence that older adults are financially exploited and face physical, psychological, and sexual abuse from family members and caregivers (Pillemer et al. 2016). Likely because ageism has become socially condoned in many societies around the world (Nelson 2005), it is possible to assess people’s self-reports of how they treat older adults in daily life. Indeed, Cherry and Palmore (2008) created a measure that assesses 6 positive (e.g., Hold doors open for old people because of their age) and 14 negative (e.g., Send birthday cards to old people that joke about their age) ageist behaviors, which has been used extensively to capture the pervasiveness of ageist behaviors. Overall, the pervasive negative characterizations of older adults in youth-centered societies can lead to the avoidance of older adults and contribute to reduced positive intergenerational contact across settings.
The prevalent stereotypes and differential treatment of older adults can take a toll on older adults’ well-being and health. Faced with negatives stereotypes, older adults may internalize them such that they operate in self-fulfilling ways to undermine cognitive performance as well as impact well-being, physical health, and longevity (Lamont et al. 2015; Levy 2009). Highlighting this significant negative consequence, Levy et al. (2002) found that adults ages 50 and older who held more negative self-perceptions of aging on average lived 7.5 years less than their peers with more positive aging self-perceptions. In this study, one’s self-perceptions of aging were found to be the second strongest predictor of longevity after chronological age.
In addition, ageism also influences communities in other ways such as deterring individuals from the pursuit of careers in healthcare, psychology, or social work specializing in gerontology, aging, and working with older adults (Rees et al. 2009). In this way, ageism closes doors and opportunities for stable and fulfilling careers of young, middle, and older workers and leaves unmet the physical and mental health needs of the growing older population (Hoge et al. 2015).
Examples of Applications
As described above, ageism is multifaceted and grows out of interrelated factors related to misinformation about aging, which promotes stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination (Butler 1969; Palmore 1989). Integrating theorizing and research pointing to the lack of accurate education about aging and lack of positive contact with older adults as interrelated factors, the PEACE (Positive Education about Aging and Contact Experiences) model points to addressing education about aging and positive intergenerational contact experiences with older adults (Levy 2016). First, education about aging is needed to challenge the misinformation about aging and older adulthood, which includes exaggerations of the onset and severity of cognitive, physical, and social declines with age and declining roles and contributions of older adults to their families, communities, and society (Palmore 1989; Wurtele and Maruyama 2013). If individuals had more accurate knowledge and a better understanding of older adulthood, their views of older adults and aging would be presumably less negative. In many countries such as the United States, the educational curriculum in schools (and in some cases even in the training of healthcare professionals who may work with older adults) does not address older adults and aging (Marshall 2015). Experimental studies, including ageism reduction interventions, provide solid evidence that the misinformation is a main culprit in ageism since providing accurate information about aging reduces negative attitudes toward older adults (Lytle and Levy 2017; Wurtele and Maruyama 2013). Second, negative attitudes toward older adults can manifested as patronizing, bullying, and abusive behavior toward older adults. Thus, combating ageism should also include interventions that foster positive intergenerational interactions between older and younger individuals (Drury et al. 2016; Roodin et al. 2013). Intergenerational learning programs often involve students and older adults in educational settings (Gaggioli et al. 2014; Roodin et al. 2013). Such programs are represented in numerous countries including Australia, Canada, China, Israel, Italy, Japan, Scotland, Singapore, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States (Canedo-Garcia et al. 2017; Portero 2012).
To reduce ageism, a combination of aging education and positive intergenerational contact seems ideal, whenever both are feasible (Levy 2016). Recently, Lytle and Levy (2017) found across two studies (college sample and adult community sample) that exposure to accurate information about aging, depictions of positive intergenerational contact, as well as a combination of accurate aging information and positive intergenerational contact resulted in greater aging knowledge and less negative attitudes toward older adults.
It is also clear that to combat ageism, institutional and structural factors need to be addressed. This includes creating and enforcing laws prohibiting the abuse and discrimination of older adults. Australia, the European Union, and the United States, as examples, have laws that protect workers of all ages from age discrimination in the workplace. There are within culture and international organizations that are working toward raising awareness of ageism and reducing ageism. National Grandparents Day is celebrated in countries such as Australia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Singapore, Spain, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. International Day of Older Persons was created by the United Nations in 1991 in recognition and celebration of older adults (United Nations 2018).
Future Directions for Research
Future research needs to continue to advance an understanding of the origins and consequences of ageism and how it affects individuals of all ages across contexts and societies. While ageism is increasingly being studied around the world, there are still gaps in our understanding of ageism in numerous countries, highlighting the need to expand the reach of ageism research. As the aging population is rapidly growing worldwide and influencing employment, healthcare, and housing, it is important to work toward a firm understanding of societal factors. Some societal influences may place foster positive intergenerational relations whereas others may place a strain on intergenerational relations, as captured by North and Fiske’s 2013 intergenerational-tension model. This model details how ageism arises from the intergenerational tensions of succession of resources (e.g., beliefs that older adults should not stay in jobs too long to allow for opportunity for younger adults), consumption of assets (e.g., beliefs that older adults are putting a strain on resources like healthcare) and identity (e.g., beliefs that older adults should not participate in youth culture, for example, using social media). In contrast, other outgrowths of a growing older population along with other demographic and economic shifts point to an increasing appreciation of older adults such as grandparents’ increasing involvement in caring for grandchildren; some studies in Europe, for example, show that over 50% of grandparents are caring in some way for their grandchildren (Bordone et al. 2017). Likewise, ageism can be experienced differently based on the other identities people have in societies such as their ethnicity, gender, race, and sexual orientation. Therefore, the intersections of ageism with abelism, heterosexism, racism, and sexism need to be explored in working toward a more complete understanding of this social issue (Lytle et al. 2018). Thus, understanding how shifting demographics shape views and intergenerational relations is needed.
In light of the pervasiveness of ageism, a high priority for future research is continuing to make progress in uncovering the key ingredients for reducing ageism. As mentioned previously, research on ageism-reduction strategies and interventions have shown promise in targeting misconceptions of aging through accurate aging education and information, and through positive intergenerational contact (Gaggioli et al. 2014; Levy 2016; Lytle and Levy 2017; Roodin et al. 2013; Wurtele and Maruyama 2013). More research is needed to test these strategies and programs across the lifespan and to expand their reach including in educational settings, the workplace, and in training programs (e.g., for healthcare providers).
A growing body of research conducted within and across psychology, sociology, and medicine has documented that ageism has far-reaching effects on individuals across the lifespan. Ageism influences how older adults are perceived and treated as well as their well-being, health, and longevity. Ageism influences people of all ages in how they view the aging process and older adults, how they interact with older adults, and even the career paths they select. As the older population will continue to increase and soon comprise a significant portion of the population worldwide, there is no greater time to make progress in understanding the complex and multifaceted nature of ageism and in taking steps to reduce ageism and its negative consequences on people of all ages.
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