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aging issues

Ageism and Age Discrimination

Facing discrimination because of your age can affect your mental and physical health, self-esteem, and finances. But there are ways to challenge ageism in both the workplace and in daily life.

Old senior businessman

What is ageism?

Ageism involves stereotyping or discriminating against people based on their age and can occur both in the workplace and in your personal life. Ageism can be directed at older adults and young people alike. However, our culture tends to glorify youth, so older adults are more often the victims of age-based discrimination and negativity.

Ageism can take root early in life. Even as children, we begin to pick up on the idea that aging is an unsatisfying process and older adults are incapable of taking care of themselves. These messages can show up in the media we consume. Just picture commercials that promise to reverse “unsightly” age lines or television shows that depict older adults as clueless and frail. Ageist messaging can also be passed along through jokes and casual comments from family members and friends.

Ageism is often considered more acceptable by society than racism and sexism, but like those issues, it can’t be solved overnight. However, that doesn’t mean you should turn a blind eye and accept unfair treatment. There are many steps you can take to address the problem and challenge ageism. By doing so, you not only improve your own well-being, but you also help create a more open-minded culture in which stereotypes hold less sway and discrimination is less prevalent.

Types of ageism

Like sexism and racism, ageism can come in many forms, ranging from disrespect in one-on-one interactions to systemic inequalities.

Interpersonal ageism takes place between individuals. Imagine a supervisor who refuses to give you newer assignments due to your age. Or picture a family member who likes to make subtle jabs like, “We don’t expect you to keep up with us.” If you’re an older adult, this kind of dismissive language can make you feel humiliated, frustrated, and undervalued. It can also give way to self-directed ageism.

Self-directed ageism is when you internalize a negative attitude toward aging or your own age group. This creates a deep sense of self-doubt and an overall negative perception of yourself. You might start to believe that your best years are behind you or that you’re becoming a burden on your family. Maybe when you lose an item or forget a name, you blame it on your age. Or perhaps you blame your sedentary lifestyle habits on your age. This only reinforces your self-directed ageism and gives other people more reason to believe the stereotypes.

Institutional ageism is when social norms, practices, and rules are unfair to older adults. A workplace that insists workers retire at a specific age is an example of institutional ageism. In some cases, ageism is so embedded in institutions that it may be hard to spot. For example, in the medical field, older adults are often underrepresented in health research and clinical trials. In the mental health field, professionals may receive less training on how to work with older patients.

Ageism in the workplace

Ageism can be particularly prevalent in the workplace, where it can affect everything from your financial security to your mental health. According to a 2020 survey, 78 percent of older workers either witnessed or experienced age discrimination while at work.

Ageism can also combine with sexism and racism and create compounding consequences. For example, older women of color face age, race, and sex discrimination in their personal lives as well as institutionalized disadvantages in areas like housing and healthcare.

Whatever situation you’re facing, it’s important to remember that you’re not powerless and you can take steps to counter the negative effects of discrimination.

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Effects of ageism

Ageist attitudes, thoughts, and actions can do much more than just hurt your feelings and make you feel undervalued. Age bias and discrimination can have a significant effect on your mental and physical health, sense of self-worth, social life, and even your finances.

Physical effects

Ageism is linked to earlier death rates. One study found that older adults who engaged in self-directed ageism and perceived themselves as useless had shorter lifespans than those with positive self-perceptions. Self-directed ageism can also result in poorer health outcomes, including chronic conditions and short-term health issues. Ageism also appears to slow down recovery from physical ailments.

There are multiple potential reasons behind these physical consequences.

If you have a negative self-perception, you might be more likely to engage in unhealthy habits, like eating a poor diet, smoking, drinking, or skipping prescribed medications. You might also have lower levels of resilience and social support, which are two factors that affect longevity.

It’s also possible that ageism within the medical field itself leads to worse outcomes for older adults.

  • Research shows that health care providers are more likely to withhold access to life-sustaining treatments from older patients than younger patients.
  • Older adults tend to be underrepresented in health research, such as clinical trials. This can lead to prescriptions and treatments that do more harm than good and a lack of campaigns directed at issues such as older people’s sexual health.
  • Lack of communication between medical experts and older patients can lead to issues such as medication nonadherence, in which the patient fails to take the medication as prescribed.

Mental health effects

Ageist comments from family members might make you feel a sense of worthlessness or lack of social support. Discrimination from coworkers and supervisors can lead you to question your value to society. So, perhaps it’s no surprise that studies show ageism can lead to a decline in mental health.

Ageism is can trigger or worsen depression. The World Health Organization estimates that roughly 6 million cases of depression around the world may be the result of ageism.

Negative self-perceptions of aging can even affect your mental prowess. After internalizing negative stereotypes, you might experience an actual drop in cognitive abilities, such as memory, due to fear of confirming those stereotypes. This phenomenon is known as stereotype threat, and even brief exposure to negative messaging can affect your self-esteem and performance.

Effects on social well-being

Ageism can result in social isolation and loneliness. You may feel rejected by family members and decide to withdraw from social events. Or maybe media messaging has made you fearful of being the victim of crime, so you self-isolate or feel hesitant to travel.

Stereotypes and myths about sex later in life can lead to a reluctance toward physical intimacy. Institutional barriers, such as mandatory retirement, can also make it harder for you to be social.

All of these factors can limit your social support and stir feelings of loneliness.
Loneliness can then lead to all sorts of additional problems, such as:

  • Higher stress levels.
  • Reduced sleep quality.
  • Impaired immune system.
  • Increased risk of physical illness.
  • Exacerbated mental illness.
  • Increased cognitive decline.

[Read: Loneliness and Social Isolation]

Financial consequences

Ageism may exacerbate a sense of financial insecurity. Ageist employers or supervisors in your workplace can block you from advancements and training. You might also be passed up for hiring opportunities because of your age.

Long-standing practices by financial institutions can also add to your financial troubles. For example, you’re likely find that products such as travel insurance and health insurance are costlier as you age. Insurance companies tend to argue that this is due to their policies being based on risk.

Due to stereotypes surrounding the competency of older individuals, fraudsters are also more likely to target you. The effects of elder scams aren’t limited to financial loss. These events can be traumatic and lead to deep anxiety, shame, and grief.

Signs of ageism

Sometimes ageism is blatant and easy to identify. In other cases, it’s more subtle and you may even question whether someone’s words or actions are a sign of prejudice. Here’s what to look for in the workplace and in your daily life:

Harassment. This is often the most obvious sign of ageism. This could involve a coworker or supervisor mocking you with age-related jokes or insults. Others may make offhanded remarks to disparage you.

Exclusion. Rather than directly insult you, some people may intentionally leave you out of group activities. Coworkers might exclude you from meetings, relocate your office, or intentionally schedule events at a time or place that’s inconvenient for you. Friends and family members might also leave you out. Even if it’s not intentional exclusion, internalized ageism might lead them to assume you’re unable to handle certain trips or activities.

Denied opportunities. If a supervisor is ageist, they might refuse to give you challenging assignments that offer opportunities for advancement. Instead, they might shift your work to a younger worker or encourage you to retire. In extreme cases, they might eliminate your job position, only to hire on a younger worker for a similar role.

Hiring bias. You might notice your company has a tendency to only hire and promote younger employees. Maybe you’re passed up for a promotion multiple times while watching less experienced and less qualified people rise through the ranks. Or maybe you’re denied a job because a recruiter labels you “overqualified.”

Infantilization. It’s normal for others to care for you. However, when others infantilize you or treat you as a child, you can feel humiliated and frustrated. Maybe a younger family member double-checks your finances without your permission. Or perhaps they insist on handling your physical tasks and errands, even when you have no trouble doing them yourself.

How to handle ageism

When addressing ageism, start by accepting the truth. You are, in fact, getting older, and that can come with certain changes. Your body may not function in the same that it used to. Perhaps your eyesight isn’t as sharp as it used to be, or maybe you’re having a harder time hearing. You might also notice more and more wrinkles on your face.

All of this may lead you to feel unhappy about the aging process and uncertain in your abilities. That’s OK. Allow yourself to experience negative emotions without suppressing them.

However, try to keep everything in perspective. Despite what ageist messages might suggest, you still have plenty of life in you and many opportunities ahead. You also have much to offer those around you, whether it’s love, support, or wisdom. Use the following tips to challenge both internal and external ageism.

Handling ageism tip 1: Strengthen intergenerational bonds

Intergenerational connections can reduce the risk of ageism because face-to-face interactions help people see beyond stereotypes. Consider spending more time with children and grandchildren, younger coworkers, or younger people in your local community.

Get to know their views, priorities, and values. Share your own. You’ll likely find some similarities, as well as notable differences. Maybe their views of marriage are non-traditional, or you don’t agree with their reliance on technology. But try to be open-minded and make an effort to understand their perceptions of the world. Be willing to learn from them.

Act as a mentor. Look for local mentorship programs and other opportunities to pass on skills and knowledge. Consider what you have to offer younger individuals. Perhaps you want to teach a grandchild how to play an instrument, or maybe you can show a group of young adults how to lay a brick foundation. Finding meaning and purpose by helping others is also an excellent way to build resilience.

Tip 2: Push back on ageist messaging

If you hear someone make a comment based on ageist stereotypes, don’t allow it to go unchallenged. Remind friends and family members that older adults have active, satisfying lives. Here are a few common myths to push back on, whether you encounter them in media messages or in conversations.

Myths and facts about aging
Myth: Older adults are set in their ways and can’t learn new things.

Fact: Seniors are capable of adapting and learning new things, and doing so can have health benefits such as improving memory.

Myth: All older people end up with memory problems or dementia.

Fact: Older people are at increased risk of dementia, but that doesn’t mean it’s a normal part of the aging process and there’s plenty you can do to keep your memory sharp.

Myth: With old age comes depression.

Fact: Depression isn’t a natural or inevitable part of aging, either. In fact, younger adults tend to have higher rates of depression than their seniors.

Myth: Older adults should be more sedentary to avoid accidents.

Fact: People can continue to be physically active as they age. In fact, it’s never too late to start being more active. Exercise can improve physical and mental health as well as help you manage chronic conditions. Just be sure to choose exercises that you enjoy and can stick with.

You don’t need to be confrontational when pushing back on these myths and ageist attitudes during a conversation. Just offer a gentle reminder and maybe a few examples to prove your point.

For example, if your son says, “As people get older, it’s natural for them to be less active,” you can respond: “Many older adults stay active. Some even run marathons.” If your coworker tries to take over a task for you, simply say, “Thank you for the offer, but I can handle this.”

Tip 3: Defy stereotypes

Although you can verbally challenge ageist remarks, you can also embody your message. Resisting age-related stereotypes can have a more positive effect on mental health, reducing the risk of mental health issues like anxiety and suicidal ideation. With that in mind, try to maintain a sense of independence in as many areas of your life as you can.

Go on outings with close friends. Social events can range from regular meetups at a coffee shop to trips abroad with your closest buddies. By reinforcing your social support network, you also have a better chance of avoiding the physical and mental effects of loneliness.

Stay active. Some people believe that older adults are supposed to sit in their rocking chairs or spend their days relaxing on the porch. Push back on that idea by embracing active hobbies like gardening, camping, biking, or swimming.

Keep up to date on things that interest you. One stereotype about older adults is that they’re stuck in the past and don’t understand the present. You shouldn’t feel pressured to be knowledgeable about all the latest technology gadgets and trends, but keep learning about subjects you care about. If you’re interested in cars, for example, read up on innovations in electric vehicles and how they compare to gas-powered models.

Tip 4: Change your focus to the positive

It’s hard to shake negative self-perceptions about aging if you’re focused on losses rather than opportunities. Make it a goal to overcome negative messages by choosing to focus on the upsides.

Make a list of what you’ve gained with age. Have you become more assertive? Decisive? Perhaps you’ve become more patient or better at keeping your cool in stressful situations. What skills have you developed and mastered? Focusing on these gains can help you to keep things in perspective. Aging isn’t just about loss.

[Read: Aging Well]

Look for opportunities for growth. Let go of the adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Think of new skills that you want to develop or sharpen. Perhaps you want to take a drawing class, learn a new dance, or even practice a foreign language.

Tip 5: Manage stress

Knowing how to manage your stress level can help you stay confident and build self-esteem. It can also help you counter the negative physical and mental effects of self-direct ageism, such as increased risk of depression and chronic health conditions.

[Read: Stress Management]

Exercise. Physical activity triggers the release of chemicals in your brain that improve your mood. Exercise is also a good way to boost your overall self-image and confidence. Aim to build a balanced exercise plan that includes a mix of cardio, strength training, and balance and flexibility routines.

Use relaxation techniques. Incorporate practices like mindfulness meditation, deep breathing, and self-massage into your daily life. These relaxation techniques are natural ways to calm your mind and body. Slow, gentle exercise routines, such as yoga and tai chi, can have a similar effect.

Practice good sleep hygiene. One common misconception is that older adults don’t need much sleep. Your sleep patterns may change as you age, but sleep is still vital to your physical and mental health. Older adults should aim for at least seven to eight hours of sleep per night. If you miss out on that sleep, you might experience elevated stress, as well as an increased risk of depression, cognitive decline, and cardiovascular disease.

Stick to healthy eating habits. Certain foods are more likely to energize you, improve your mood, and support brain function. All of this helps you feel less stressed and gives your self-esteem a boost. Add more whole, minimally processed foods to your plate, including a diverse selection of fruits, veggies, fiber, and protein.

Tip 6: Know how to deal with discrimination at work

Age discrimination at work occurs when a supervisor or coworker treats you less favorably due to your age. Whether intentional or not, depending on local laws, their behavior could be illegal. Some examples of age discrimination include:

  • You’re denied a job or fired simply because of your age.
  • You’re overlooked for promotion due to your age.
  • You’re harassed or taunted by coworkers about your age.

These types of situations can make you feel helpless and disrespected. You might even be tempted to quit. Before you take that step, consider the following:

Was the incident intentional? If the coworker or supervisor unwittingly made a hurtful comment, you can bring up the issue directly with them. They might apologize and offer ways to right the wrong.

[Read: Bullying at Work]

Is the problem systemic? Does the company have a long-term habit of recruiting and promoting younger employees? If so, that’s an indication of an unfair work environment, rather than a one-off issue with a single ageist coworker or supervisor.

Can you report the problem to someone? If a coworker has consistently harassed you, you might be able to file a complaint with the HR department. If the problem stems from a supervisor or if it’s systemic, you can consider researching legal actions you can take. For example, in the United States, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) may handle your complaint.

Dealing with reverse ageism

Although ageism is often directed at older adults, young people aren’t immune to age-related stereotyping and discrimination. In one 2019 survey, young employees were more likely to say they’ve seen or experienced ageism than older employees.

The signs of ageism against younger people—or “reverse ageism”—are similar to the signs of ageism against older adults. An older friend or family member might talk down to you or crack jokes about your age. Or maybe a supervisor or coworker makes age-related insults or refuses to promote you despite your abilities.

These frustrating experiences can make you question your self-worth or even stunt your ambitions at work. Here are tips on handling reverse ageism:

Identify and push back on common stereotypes. Young adults are often characterized as entitled, lazy, or selfish. You might hear these stereotypes so frequently that you even begin to believe them. But just take a moment to challenge those assumptions. Your priorities and opinions may differ from those of your elders, but you can probably think of many ways in which your generation is hard-working and dedicated to the common good.

Start a dialogue. If someone has made an ageist comment, you might be tempted to avoid them. However, consider spending more time with them instead. Ask them out to coffee or a walk. Give them a chance to get to know you better. They may soon realize that their assumptions about you were inaccurate.

Look for a mentor. This can be a formal mentor at work or just an older adult who is willing to offer life advice or pass down some useful skills. Any opportunity to interact with someone outside of your age group can expand your perspective and theirs as well.

Find support. Connect with other people who are also dealing with reverse ageism. Meet in-person or chat in private groups online. You can be open about your experiences, vent your frustrations, and get advice and coping strategies from your peers.

Be patient. Remember that ageism isn’t just an issue in interpersonal relationships. It’s a larger problem that involves institutions and society at large. Recognize your limitations, but don’t feel discouraged. As you form intergenerational relationships, advocate for yourself, and make an effort to understand others, you’re helping to push society in a more just and equal direction.

Last updated: May 2022

Get more help

Friends & Family Dialogue Guide (PDF) – Advice for talking about ageism with friends and family. (Leading Age)

Reverse Ageism In The Workplace – Why it matters and how to combat it. (Ageism)

How to Avoid Ageism – Advice for creating an age-diverse work environment. (SHRM)

10 Myths About Aging – And how to look at the positives of getting older. (National Institute on Aging)