By Janine Vanderburg, Director of Changing the Narrative

In 2018, when we began Changing the Narrative, we facilitated 42 in-person reframing aging workshops across Colorado. No matter what the location – rural, urban, suburban, frontier— I heard a consistent refrain:

“That ageism thing you’re talking about in the workplace? It happened to me, it happened to my partner, it happened to my dad.”

The stories unfolded: Of women living on small amounts of social security and not being hired, despite help wanted signs in windows throughout the Main Street of a western slope town; of a former colleague who has raised millions of dollars for nonprofits not getting callbacks for fundraising positions he applied for; of older people frustrated by having their symptoms dismissed by healthcare professionals as simply the price of “getting older.” All of these, in some way, are indicators of the ageism that is rampant in our society.

What is ageism?

Ageism is prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination based on age. It can be directed against younger people as well as older people. For example, if a boss refuses to give a younger employee an opportunity for promotion feeling that they “haven’t earned it yet” or “you’re just too young” while ignoring       their qualifications, that’s ageism. If a manager refuses to allow an older person to participate in training for new company software because of a stereotype that older people are digitally incompetent, or too old to learn something new, that’s ageism. Either way, it’s unjust and limits opportunity.

This article focused on ageism that is directed against us as we get older.

Types of ageism

Some people think that ageism is simply a matter of some individuals who are prejudiced and discriminate against others. The reality, however, is that ageism can often be directed against ourselves, as well as others, and is often embedded in our institutions as well as our culture.

Internalized ageism is ageism directed against ourselves. Research shows that the older we get, the more likely we are to be ageist—we’ve had more years to absorb the messages around us that aging is bad. If you’ve found yourself thinking “I’m too old to do or learn that”: that is internalized ageism.

Interpersonal ageism is ageism directed against someone else. In the workplace, it may take the form of denying older adults opportunities or pushing them out. In healthcare, it may involve attributing someone’s symptoms to aging, instead of considering the symptoms the same way as a person of any other age.

Institutional ageism occurs when ageist attitudes and beliefs become embedded in organizational or government practices and policies. Some examples include:

  • High school graduation dates being included on job applications
  • Mandatory retirement policies
  • Medicare excluding vision, dental and hearing from policies (and unintentionally failing to promote prevention of later health care issues)

How prevalent is ageism?

Data from the U. S. and around the world shows that ageism is rampant, and often accepted. The World Health Organization, summarizing research across the globe, found that one in two people is ageist against older people. In the United States, the National Poll of Healthy Aging found that 82% of people aged 50-80 experienced one or more forms of everyday ageism in their lives. An AARP study released in 2021 showed that 78% of people either witnessed or experienced workplace age discrimination, up from 61% two years prior.

Why should we care about Ageism?

Ageism has negative effects on our financial security, health and the overall economy.

  • Over half of long-time employees age 50+ are forced to leave their positions before they want to, with only 1 in 10 ever able to fully recover financially from these setbacks.
  • Research shows that experiencing ageism and/or ourselves having negative attitudes and beliefs about aging is  harmful to our physical and mental health,
  •  and decreases our lifespan.
  • Studies also have shown that ageism in health care costs our economy $63 billion annually, and workplace age discrimination costs $850 billion. Cost of Ageism in Healthcare

What can we do about it?

The good news is that there is a lot that we can do to address ageism, individually and collectively. Changing the Narrative works daily to address ageism through evidence-based strategies, strategic communications, and campaigns that educate the general public about ageism.

The Global Report on Ageism found that three strategies are particularly effective in addressing ageism:

Policy and law. For example, we can champion strengthening age discrimination laws, including eliminating graduation dates from job applications, and ensuring that the penalties for age discrimination are comparable to penalties for other forms of discrimination. We can advocate that workforce development dollars be used to reskill older adults who have been pushed out of the workforce. In the health arena, we can encourage our policymakers to reject crisis standards of care that move older people to the back of triage lines, to devote more funding toward training healthcare professionals about keeping older adults healthy, and to ensure that older adults are included in clinical trials.

Educational activities. Each of us can educate ourselves about ageism. A good start is our Changing the Narrative website (see Changing the Narrative – AgeWise Colorado), where you can read blogs and other resources about ageism and sign up for free workshops and presentations on ageism overall, reframing aging, the business case for older workers, and ageism in health care.

If you like to read, two books that were released this year are a big help in learning more about ageism and its impacts:

  • Breaking the Age Code, by Dr. Becca Levy of the Yale School of Public Health. In it, Dr. Levy shares the results of her research that show the impact of ageism on our health, memory and lifespan, and shares concrete strategies of how to address it.
  • Ageism Unmasked by Dr. Tracey Gendron. Dr. Gendron talks about the origin of ageism, how it’s embedded in our culture (e.g. the “anti-aging” industry), and how ageism interferes with our experiencing the gifts of getting older.

Intergenerational education and connection. When we get together with those who are older and younger than we are, we can change minds and break down stereotypes. When generations come together to share their knowledge and perspectives, people’s attitudes about aging change. Changing the Narrative has put together a free downloadable toolkit to help you host intergenerational conversations about ageism in your community.

Take Action

Ageism may be rampant, but it is something that we can do something about. We invite you to visit the Ageism Activism Center on our website to see the many ways that you can become involved. A simple thing that we can do to start is to change the way we talk about getting older, and older people. Our Guide to Age- Inclusive Communications can help.

Choose your own adventure, and join with others to create communities, workplaces and a world where people of all ages can thrive.

Janine Vanderburg directs Changing the Narrative, the leading effort in the U.S. to change the way people think, talk and act about aging and ageism through evidence-based strategies, strategic communications and innovative public campaigns. Our end game? To end ageism.