Ageism

Old bag, bat, battle ax, biddy, bird, crow dirty old buzzard, coot, codger, fogy, fossil, fuddy-duddy, geezer, goat; crock, turkey, dirt ball. These are just some of the terms that have been used to refer to elderly women and men.

Occasionally, positive terms such as mature, mellow, distinguished, and even venerable are applied to older adults, but all too seldom (Nuessel, 1982). The generalized application of such terms for elderly people is illustrative of ageism, which Robert Butler (1974, p. 11) defined as a process of systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old—just as racism and sexism can accomplish this with skin color and gender. Old people are categorized as senile, rigid in thought and manner, old fashioned in morality and skills. Ageism allows the younger generation to see older people as different from themselves. Thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings.

Perhaps the most powerful agent that encourages ageism in the United States is television (Bell, 1992). Traditionally, elderly people have been stereotyped on television as comical, eccentric, foolish, and stubborn. More recently, portrayals of elderly people on television have become more positive— as affluent, free from health problems, mentally quick, socially sensitive, active, and independent. But even these positive depictions are inaccurate representations of elderly people in general. Such positive ageism, as it has been labeled by Palmore (1990), overlooks the problems of poverty, illness, and loneliness that occur among many older Americans.

Ageism is more common in youth-oriented cultures such as ours than in China, Japan, or other Asian countries that have a long tradition of respect for age and the aged. Even Shakespeare was not immune to describing old age in stereotyped, quasi-humorous poetry, but during the latter part of the nineteenth century, the labeling of older people with pejorative terms become more fashionable (Covey, 1988). In recent decades, negative stereotyping of older adults—in plays, films, and stories—has increased in frequency. Even the victims of these slurs and jokes sometimes joined in poking fun at their age-mates, exempting themselves, of course, from such stereotypes. Older people have been depicted as senile or as experiencing a second childhood, as rigid or inflexible, sexless, unattractive, chronically ill, and fit only to live in nursing homes.

Ageism is not limited to adults. Even young children, who, incidentally, may also make racist and sexist comments, complain about having to be around old people. In an interview study conducted by Serock, Seefeldt, Jantz, and Galper (1977), children between the ages of 2 and 11 described the elderly as "wrinkled, short, and gray-haired" people who "chew funny," "don't go out much," "sit around all day and watch TV in their rocking chairs," and "have heart attacks and die." When asked how they felt about growing old themselves, all but a few of the children stated that they simply did not want to do it.

Children, of course, learn these stereotypes from each other and from adults. Among the reasons for such stereotyping on the part of young adults are job competition between the young and the old, problems with one's own parents and other older relatives, association of old age with dying, a way of distancing themselves from the physical signs of aging and increased dependency, or any other reason that makes them feel threatened by older people (Hendricks &Leedham, 1980; Kite, Deaux, &Miele, 1991). Whatever the cause may be, ageism is based on inaccurate and overgeneralized information. On the whole, older people view themselves as less lonely, in better health, and more useful than they are perceived by other adults (Harris & Associates, 1981). Most older Americans are fairly optimistic about their lives and want to remain active and even gainfully employed.

If ageism were merely an attitude and not expressed in the treatment of older adults, it would be of less concern than it actually is. As with sexism and racism, however, ageism is manifested in the behavior of society toward older adults, and most particularly in employment contexts. Historically, older workers have been characterized as slower; less able to learn new skills; more prone to accidents; less able to get along with coworkers and customers; more resistant to supervision and change; more likely to miss work; slower in making judgments; lower in speed, strength, and endurance; less motivated; more stubborn and overcautious (Rhodes, 1983; Sparrow & Davies, 1988). When members of management believe these unproved assumptions, they are more likely to discriminate against older workers in making personnel decisions. Research involving managerial ratings of older workers has painted a more favorable picture (American Association of Retired Persons, 1989; Blocklyn, 1987), and other studies have shown that older workers generally do as well as younger workers (Salthouse, 1982). Older adults may have a lower work-output volume than younger adults, but their work is generally of higher quality and performed with less wasted effort and fewer mistakes (Hurlock, 1980). Older workers are also quite capable of learning new jobs, and their experience can compensate for age-related declines in the speed or strength of their performance (Rhodes, 1983; Stagner, 1985).

The civil rights atmosphere of the 1960s led not only to legislation requiring equal treatment of the races and sexes but also mandated equal treatment by age. For example, the federal Age Discrimination in Employment act of 1967 (ADEA) banned the use of age as a criterion in hiring, firing, promotion, training, retirement, working conditions, referral by employment agencies, job announcements, or any action taken against a person with regard to compensation, conditions, or privileges of employments. This act legally prohibits employers from hiring or discharging job applicants on the basis of age alone, or segregating or classifying them in any way that is detrimental to their performance or well-being. Exempt from the provisions of this act are the federal government, employers of less than 20 people, and jobs on which there is a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ ). Examples of the latter are jobs requiring extraordinary degrees of speed, strength, agility, and alertness, such as firefighter or law enforcement officer. In addition, airline pilots over age 60 are prohibited from flying commercial airplanes. Even on these jobs, however, employers must demonstrate that age makes a critical difference in performance.

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