Ageism – An Equal Opportunity Bias

When someone says the word ageism – what jumps into your mind? Does the image of an old and frail person pop into your head?  Or do you think about an older worker being overlooked for a job?

As often as we may think ageism is an older person’s issue, ageism is actually a stereotype that could affect anyone at any point in their life.  It is the one form of discrimination that doesn’t separate people by race, religion or gender. And like most forms of discrimination, it’s often negative.

For example, ageism can affect people of many ages when it comes to the topic of employment. Today both millennials and baby boomers are experiencing a form of ageism based on some pre-conceived stereotype of their generations.

According to the article by Sharrie Campbell many employers have followed the ageist perception of millennials.

 Millennials have a bad reputation as entitled, lazy, self-obsessed, fame-obsessed whiners who are allergic to hard work but expect to be disproportionately rewarded for very little effort.

And as for baby boomers, the perceptions aren’t much better. A study conducted by the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College discovered that supervisors and younger workers had the following perspective in how they view older workers.

Older workers as “checking out,” disengaging from their work, not interested in training and development, as rigid and inflexible.

But when you look at these unflattering traits, I would argue that you could find entitled, lazy, disengaged and inflexible people at any age. We don’t need to bundle whole generations together and slap a label on them.

What I do find more unsettling however is how these generalizations are being used to pit millennials against baby boomers in the workplace based on these perceived differences. A simple google search on the topic “baby boomers vs millennials” pulls up approximately 7,650,000 results. Many of these posts cite and exploit these generalized ageist views and do nothing to help bring people and generations together.

As much as ageism may be experienced by different age groups, we do need to be realistic in recognizing where the majority of the problem exists. Ageism primarily affects older people in the majority of the world. The World Health Organizations (WHO) reported that ageism may now be even more pervasive then sexism or racism.

And ageism hurts.

Not only through the emotional and psychological damage it can cause to an individual, but recent research has also discovered there is an economic impact as well.

In The Photo: Man in blue pinstripe button-up t-shirt holding picture of man holding picture of boy. Photo Credit: Peakpx

A study conducted by the Yale School of Public Health discovered that ageism contributed to an estimated $63 billion dollars each year in excess health care costs in the United States alone. What they found was if someone had negative views of aging at a young age they carried these views into their own aging experience. As a result, they experienced health complications requiring medical attention when they got older.

I thought that this study was quite interesting on a couple of fronts. First, it seems to have demonstrated the strength of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think that you are going to be unhealthy and frail when you are older – you will be. Secondly, it really highlighted our negative views of aging and in turn older people, not only towards present-day elderly individuals, but also towards our own future aged-self. 

So how does ageism start?

It is believed that discrimination is a learned behaviour primarily developed when we are young. We often form these views based on either what our parents or our culture present and promote to us. Ageism is no different. It sneaks into our view of the world without us even necessarily knowing it. We sometimes don’t even realize that we are being ageist. Just think of the terms “over the hill”, “seniors moment” or “no spring chicken”. They have all made it into our vocabulary (and greeting cards) with minimal push back or objection.


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I’m embarrassed to say that even though I am highly aware of this form of discrimination, I have caught myself being ageist on occasion. For example, when I drive behind a very slow driver or impatiently wait in the supermarket line, I often believe it’s an older person causing the problem. But when I examine these situations closer and rethink my own innate bias, often it is not an older driver. It’s actually a cautious driver that is slowing me down and the delay in the supermarket line is because of a pricing error, not because the customer was old.

There is a great quote by Johnathon Swift – “Everybody wants to live forever, but nobody wants to grow old.” But the opportunity to age is truly part of a great life experience. However, every time we view someone through a preconceived lens based on some age bias, we are only reinforcing negative images of aging that can impact not only the person we are targeting but how others will potentially view us in the future as well.

So the next time you catch yourself thinking or making a negative comment about someone’s age – stop.

Stop and think about why you are doing this. What is the driving force that is pushing you to make these comments or have these views? Ask yourself if this is something that you would appreciate hearing other people say about you at any point in your current or future life?

For if you are truly lucky, one day you might get to be old too.

Editors Note: The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of Featured Photo Credit: Johann Walter Bantz  on Unsplash

About the Author /

Susan Williams is the Founder of Booming Encore - a digital media hub dedicated to providing information and inspiration to baby boomers. Being a baby boomer herself, Susan loves to discover ways to live life to the fullest and shares her experiences, observations and opinions on living life after 50.

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