Not only is ageism a real problem, but it’s on the rise — and there’s statistical evidence that women experience it the worst. Studies and reports from Princeton University, the Federal Bank of San Francisco, and the World Economic Forum identify precisely what ageism is, how it is affecting senior populations, and what we can do about it.

Sarah Stevenson’s article, “Is Ageism Getting Worse?” describes how a recent Princeton University study clarifies how American society perceives the elderly. The article “Age Discrimination Is Still a Real Problem, and It’s Worst for Women,” (by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Business Insider) refers to a report by the Federal Bank of San Francisco which finds clear evidence that ageism occurs, and that women in particular are affected. Lastly, Abby Young-Powell’s article for the Guardian, “How to Protect Yourself From Ageist Attitudes” interviews several experts and offers advice on what employees can do to protect themselves in the workplace.

A definition of ageism

In general terms, age discrimination occurs when someone is treated unfavorably in a particular context due to age. Such age discrimination could be direct or indirect, and could affect any age group. Ageism against seniors specifically reveals negative attitudes towards individuals in their fifties and older, whether it be a generalizing statement about how they should act or what they should do differently. Nonetheless, as Stevenson describes, age discrimination against seniors is more than just treating older individuals badly; rather, it’s “a complex phenomenon consisting of a range of negative attitudes towards seniors.”

Descriptive versus prescriptive ageism

Stevenson’s article “Ageism Is Getting Worse” refers to a Princeton University study where researchers distinguish between two types of age discrimination against seniors: descriptive and prescriptive. Examples of descriptive ageism are at play when we hear negative generalizations about how older individuals are — that they move slower, that they are afraid of computers, or that they have poor memories, for example). On the other hand, examples of prescriptive ageism against seniors are generalizations on how older people are supposed to be.

In light of the Princeton study, the article describes how Princeton’s Office of Communications breaks down three types of prescriptive age discrimination:

  • Succession: This type of age discrimination advocates that older people step aside from high-paying jobs and prominent social roles so that younger people have a chance to step in.
  • Identity: Statements of descriptive age discrimination communicate ideas about how seniors should see themselves. A common example is the notion that they should not try to act younger than they are.
  • Consumption: Lastly, statements of prescriptive ageist discrimination generalize that seniors should stop consuming so much health care and other resources as they age.

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Age discrimination is worst for women:

The World Economic Forum article “Ageism Is Still a Real Problem and It’s Worst for Women” discusses a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. According to the study, seniors in general, and women in particular, are subject to what the article calls “discernible and systematic patterns of age discrimination.”

David Newmar, visiting scholar with the Federal Reserve Bank and a professor at the University of California’s Irvine campus, explains how he and his fellow scientists report on field experiment testing for discrimination in the hiring process. They specifically study discrimination against older workers that are nearing the retirement age. The evidence they find conclusively points to patterns of discrimination, especially against women.

Steps you can take to protect yourself from ageist attitudes:

Abby Young-Powell’s article in The Guardian, “How to Protect Yourself Against Ageist Attitudes,” addresses age discrimination in the work place. Young-Powell interviews several experts on the subject who provide this advice:

  • Phillip Landau, an employment lawyer at Landau Law, reminds all people that they are protected against ageism under the Equality Act. If you do experience ageism, the first step is to lodge a formal grievance against your employer. If that fails, bring a claim to an employment tribunal.
  • Brandon Smith recommends that when you see incidents of ageism, keep a log. You’ll be able to record emerging patterns of behaviors and attitudes and present them as evidence later.
  • David Shindler states that everybody may have unconscious negative attitudes towards age. The best action is to make those attitudes conscious. At the very least, others will be talking about the problem.
  • Lastly, remain calm when you confront the subject, advises occupational psychologist Julie Freeborn. Present the information neutrally, and show your written record as evidence. 

How your loved ones can protect themselves against ageist attitudes in the work place

Young-Powell’s article provides tips from experts on how those in the workforce can protect themselves against ageism.

  • Smith encourages employees to change negative perceptions by establishing a good relationship with peers. For example, find time to go out to lunch with everyone and demystify the myths.
  • Shindler reminds employees to work on the skills needed to succeed at their jobs. In this way, they can place themselves in a stronger position at work.
  • Finally, Smith tells us, the ultimate responsibility is with employers to value age diversity and to take steps in preventing discrimination. It’s important to have a range of ages in a given environment in order to bring varying perspectives to the table.

On a final note, the above-mentioned studies reveal propensities in current American society for discrimination against seniors – and it’s not too far of a stretch to say similar attitudes are seen in other countries around the world. Among the types of ageist concepts that are identified are prescriptive notions that suggest that older people need to use less resources. Statistics also show that women in particular are subject to ageism. By identifying and breaking down how people perceive their aging populations, these studies and reports call attention to the critical need for negative attitudes against the aging to change.

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