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It’s Time to Recognize Systemic Ageism and Tackle It

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard T. Moore
August 18, 2020

The public appears to be recognizing the fact that systemic racism exists in American society, and the important need to address its evils. There is another insidious attitude among our society that is also crying out for attention and resolution—Ageism!

In a scholarly article entitled, “Researching Ageism in Health-Care and Long Term Care,” in Contemporary Perspectives on Ageism, Sandra Buttigieg and others explained that:

“Even as the literature documenting the numerous negative consequences of ageism for the experiences of older people is constantly growing, ageism remains an elusive concept, interchangeably used to cover a wide range of phenomena. Research on ageism across contexts reveals the equivocal manner in which it is defined. Existing definitions of ageism cover intolerant knowledge, values, attitudes and behaviors towards older people or more generally, people of a certain age.

Commonly, ageism is distinguished from age discrimination, the latter often defined as only one of many possible manifestations of ageism, and used in the context of labor market research to describe the manifest preference for younger employees. It is important to recognize that there is a spectrum of concepts related to ageism depending more often than not on the context in which it is studied.” 

The University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging has released a new report, “Everyday Ageism and Health,” and some of the results are startling: more than 80% of the older adults polled say they commonly experience at least one form of ageism in their day-to-day lives. What’s more, the poll was conducted before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, where we’ve seen troubling narratives emerge about the value of older adults in our society.

The results were taken from a survey of 2,000 people aged 50 to 80 last December. Most concerning was that those who said they routinely experience three or more forms of ageism—40% of respondents—were more likely to have poor mental and physical health. There were some encouraging results, though. The vast majority had positive views of their own aging. They’re feeling comfortable about being themselves, they think their life is better than they thought it would be and they have a strong sense of purpose.

Joe Kita of AARP, in a December 30, 2019 article entitled, “Workplace Age Discrimination Still Flourishes in America,” noted that nearly 1 in 4 workers age 45 and older have been subjected to negative comments about their age from supervisors or coworkers. About 3 in 5 older workers have seen or experienced age discrimination in the workplace. 76% of these older workers see age discrimination as a hurdle to finding a new job; another report found that more than half of these older workers are prematurely pushed out of longtime jobs and 90% of them never earn as much again.

In the same article, Kita quoted Kristin Alden, an attorney specializing in employee rights at the Alden Law Group in Washington, D.C. who asserted, “Age discrimination is so pervasive that people don’t even recognize it’s illegal.”

What immediately became apparent, according to Alden, “Is that, like other biases and discriminatory practices, ageism takes many forms. In the workplace, we found illegal age discrimination in three main areas:

  • Recruitment and hiring, when younger applicants are shown favor simply because of their age.
  • On-the-job bias, when older workers receive fewer training opportunities, promotions and rewards, or are harassed. 
  • Termination, when a company ‘freshens’ its workforce or trims budget by targeting senior employees for layoffs or encouraging them to retire.”

An AARP analysis entitled, Media Image Landscape: Age Representation in On-Line Images, in 2019 found that:

“An analysis of online media images finds that adults ages 50 and older are under-represented. While 46% of the U.S. adult population is age 50-plus, only 15% of images containing adults include people this age. People 50-plus will spend upwards of $84B on tech products by 2030, but just 5% of images of people 50+ show technology. Adults over age 50 are presented as dependent and disconnected.”

Ageism is pervasive and more subtle than racism or other forms of discrimination or negative attitudes toward older people. It can be found in healthcare, employment, education, the media and all forms of human activity.

Even our own public service profession includes elements of ageism, according to an article in PA Times by Joseph G. Jarret and Autriel E. Galloway. They wrote:

“Incidents of age discrimination are undoubtedly on the rise. Although some are blatant and intentional, like age-related harassment, most incidents are not. Recognizing the availability of options and finding ways to compromise can produce a win-win situation for organizations and employees. As referenced in the NFIB report, ‘Changes in attitudes can curb age discrimination if both organizations and workers are willing to adjust.’ Public HR professionals must take the time to ensure that their entity’s managers, supervisors and employees are aware of the ADEA and the penalties for failing to comply.”

Author: Richard T. Moore has served in both elective and appointed public office at local, state, and federal levels of government. He served for nearly two decades each in the Massachusetts House and Senate, as well as being chosen as President of the National Conference of State Legislatures. He also served for a time as President of the Massachusetts Assisted Living Association. Mr. Moore is a long-time member of ASPA serving terms as Massachusetts Chapter President and National Council member. His email address is [email protected]

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