Ageism is a form of prejudice directed toward older members of a society. Like other forms of negative group stereotyping, ageism can vary in both its intensity and its effect on the targeted group. People who possess unflattering dispositions toward the elderly may not cause them direct harm if their feelings are unexpressed. When these sentiments are more severe or very commonly held by dominant groups, however, they may take institutionalized forms as in the case of discriminatory labor practices. Many sociologists believe that these practices are responsible for the subordination of the elderly in an age-stratified society.
Theories on Age Prejudice
Cognitive theorists believe that people develop mental images of what it means to be old that guide their understanding of the late stages of the life course. According to communication accommodation theory, these images tend to induce the young to expect certain behaviors from the old, and to act according to these expectations when they are in their presence. The communication predicament of aging model further predicts that these encounters between the young and the old will tend to result in the reinforcement of age-based stereotypes among both the old and the young. For example, as younger people attempt to assist older people with tasks that they are capable of handling on their own, both may experience frustration at the lack of perceived compatibility with one another. These frustrating experiences may then influence their expectations for future encounters, which can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Elders may also be the targets of prejudice due to what social constructivists describe as a bias toward the young in a society’s stock of knowledge about old age. The social constructivist perspective identifies ways in which people interpret old age through language, culture, and social behavior. The media are also actors in this process because they influence popular beliefs about old age by promoting age-based stereotypes in literature, film, and news reporting. The constructivist paradigm has been used to support the notion that elders in society make up a minority group that suffers from the control that younger people hold over the dissemination of legitimated knowledge.
Ageism in the Workplace
In 1967, the U.S. Congress enacted the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which prohibited discrimination against Americans over the age of 40 in hiring, promoting, compensating, or any other action that affects entry or favor in the workplace. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is responsible for the enforcement of this law as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1964,
Titles I and V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and other laws that protect the equal rights of U.S. workers. As awareness of the ADEA grew in recent decades, the number of complaints increased. Some critics charge, however, that the commission does not prosecute enough cases to make a real difference in U.S. society. The EEOC settled over 14,000 age discrimination cases in 2005, totaling approximately $77 million in settlements.
These statistics cannot measure the full extent of age discrimination in the workplace, nor do they suggest that the system adequately addresses the problem. Most analysts believe that the number of actual cases is far higher than the number of complaints made to the EEOC. The trend of early retirement among the elderly may be an indirect sign that older Americans experience difficulty staying employed as they advance in age. Although full Social Security retirement benefits are only available to those who begin collecting at the age of 65 (plus a few months at present), many workers, especially men, are applying for reduced early retirement benefits in their early 60s. Even though the ADEA prohibits mandatory retirement policies for most jobs, many older workers face subtle disincentives from their employers to continue working beyond certain ages.
Are the Elderly a Minority Group?
Debate among sociologists on the subject of ageism often centers on the classification of the old as a minority group. Proponents for the application of the minority group paradigm contend that older members of society tend to be judged on the basis of overgeneralizations about their personalities, behavior, and health. Social scientific research reveals that many younger people believe that the elderly generally possess characteristics such as being stubborn, obstinate, and weak. Although normally false, these stereotypes may lead to group prejudice and discrimination against older people. Another common belief is that elders see themselves as members of a subculture in society, as evidenced by the leisure groups and political action organizations that recruit many elders. In fact, some people label such groups in political arenas as “greedy geezers” who seek to unfairly maximize their government pensions and benefits. Organizations such as the AARP, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, represent the interests of elders in a formalized way, helping to improve their quality of life.
On the other hand, some insist that age cannot be used as a basis for a minority group, offering several arguments to support their position. Some contend that minority group status cannot depend on age because all people would enter into or out of it over the course of their lives. Also, because age is an arbitrary measure, the exact point at which one would become a member of the aged minority group is naturally subject to debate. In response to the claim that the aged are victims of prejudice, critics of the minority group paradigm have pointed out that many surveys also show that the young hold very positive images of the old in some important ways. For example, psychologists and communications theorists have found that despite the prevalence of negative aging stereotypes held by the young, they actually see many positive characteristics in the old, such as dependability, pride, loyalty, and patriotism. Finally, political science research shows that, despite high levels of voter turnout among the aged, most tend not to vote in a bloc, which some define as evidence that older people do not see themselves as members of a minority group.
- Hummert, Mary Lee, Teri A. Garstka, Ellen Bouchard Ryan, and Jaye L. Bonnesan. 2004. “The Role of Age Stereotypes in Interpersonal Communication.” Pp. 91-114 in Handbook of Communication and Aging Research, edited by J. F. Nussbaum and J. Coupland. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Levin, Jack and William C. Levin. 1980. Ageism: Prejudice and Discrimination against the Elderly. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
- Nelson, Todd D. 2004. Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice against Older Persons. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Palmore, Erdman B. 1999. Ageism: Negative and Positive. New York: Springer.
- Streib, Gordon F. 1965. “Are the Aged a Minority Group?” Pp. 35-46 in Middle Age and Aging, edited by B. L. Neugarten. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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