Ageism - definition

“Ageism refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) directed towards people on the basis of their age.

Ageism starts in childhood and is reinforced over time. From an early age, children pick up cues from those around them about their culture’s stereotypes and prejudices, which are soon internalized. People then use these stereotypes to make inferences and to guide their feelings and behaviour towards people of different ages and towards themselves.

Ageism often intersects and interacts with other forms of stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination, including ableism, sexism and racism. Multiple intersecting forms of bias compound disadvantage and make the effects of ageism on individuals’ health and well-being even worse.”

(From: Executive Summary:  Global Report on Ageism. WHO, March 18, 2021)

Ageism - background and additional information

An invisible and internalized ageism thrives in contemporary society. The term ageism has had different interpretations since it was first coined by Robert Butler in 1969 when he described “age discrimination or age-ism [as] the prejudice by one age toward other age groups” in his article, Age-ism:  Another form of bigotry (p. 243). He further argued that: “Ageism reflects a deep-seated uneasiness by the young and middle-aged—a personal revulsion to and distaste for growing old, disease, disability; and fear of powerlessness, ‘uselessness,’ and death” (p. 243).

In 2021, according to the World Health Organization: “Ageism refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) directed towards people on the basis of their age” (WHO, 2021). Ageism is widespread across the globe and in most societies such as Canada’s it “is the most socially ‘normalized’ of any prejudice and is not widely countered – like racism or sexism” (WHO, 2020). Media has helped to foster ageism through the negative stereotyping of older people, resulting in age discrimination in the workforce, and the marginalization, and even exclusion, of older people in their communities, which in turn “have negative impacts on the health and well-being” of the older population (WHO, 2020).

An earlier Canadian survey produced for the International Federation on Aging, The Revera Report on Ageism (2012), reflected the information provided by the World Health Organization in 2020-2021. But while any age group can be the recipient of ageism, the two groups most singled out today are the young and the old, but with the greater proportion of ageism focused on older adults (Revera Report, 2012). The Revera Report found that ageism is the most tolerated form of social discrimination in the country, more so than either gender or race-based prejudice. It revealed that the most common forms of age discrimination are: 1) treating seniors as if they are invisible; 2) acting as if they have nothing to contribute; 3) assuming they are incompetent; and 4) allowing ageism to take place in the workplace and housing. The Revera Report also found that in general 89% of Canadians hold a negative view of aging, while Generations X and Y are the most likely group to have formed negative opinions on aging, which includes perceptions that people 75 and older are unpleasant, dependent, grumpy, and frail (p.10). These findings were reflected in the images and discussions of participants taking part in this research.

The fact that ageism has become accepted as ‘normal’ in our society also allows younger people to attach negative labels to older adults enabling them to distance themselves from the older generation. In the process, older people have become stigmatized and pushed to the margins of society, where they have gradually slipped into invisibility, affecting both their physical and mental health, while younger adults often no longer feel a responsibility or even a kinship to the older generation. Research has shown that because the insidious process of ageism has become normalized, it remains largely hidden and reinforced in our society. In the process, these underlying ageist perceptions such as incompetence and inadequacy in older adults have often been absorbed and accepted (internalized) by older people, consequently affecting their self-confidence and emotional health (Gutman & Spencer, 2010).

Since Butler’s initial identification and labeling of ageism, various theories have been put forward to explain the reasons that ageism that has become pervasive in our society which include: 1) a North American fear of death in which older adults representing mortality bring that fear to the surface (Martens, et al., 2004; Greenberg et al., 2004); 2) the social separation of young and older adults in modern industrialized society (Hagestad & Uhlenberg, 2005) that was firmly established in the early days of Hollywood’s ‘cult of youth’ (1910-1920s) with its celebration of youthfulness and rejection of older age; 3) negative information about aging (Kojoma, 1996); and 4) stereotypical and negative images and information on aging and older people that are circulated in media and popular culture reinforcing and promoting ageism (Chivers, 2011; Gullette, 2011; Blaikie, 1999). These topics are not unrelated.

At the same time, it is also interesting to note that ageism is an unusual situation in that the same individuals who are the perpetrators of the stereotyping of older adults in their younger years, become the victims of those same attitudes later on in life (Snyder & Miene, 1994). However, while individuals may come to accept their chronological age as they grow older, because of the negative connotations attached to the word ‘old’ they may also try to evade an identification as being an ‘old’ person in order to try and maintain some degree of power and status in their lives (Calasanti, 2007).  In this way ageism can be seen as: “prejudice against our feared future self” (Nelson, 2005).