Ageism: The Four Types

Two of a nine-part series of articles on ageism.

The research and subsequent report, Ageism in America, by Dr. Robert Butler, President and CEO of the International Longevity Center, identified four different types of ageism. Types and definitions are in the words of Dr. Robert Butler. They are: personal ageism, institutional ageism, intentional ageism, unintentional ageism.

Let’s look at each type in a little more depth:

1) Personal Ageism – Ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and practices on the part of individuals that are biased against persons or groups based on their older age.

Many of us have heard or read the poem, Children Learn What They Live. It tells how all of us are affected and influenced by what we learn as children and how we carry those behaviors and belief systems into adulthood. If what we live is good and pure, we will flourish. If it is bad and tainted, we will most likely have “issues” that require inward reflection and hard work to straighten out.

Our attitudes about old age are learned as children as we witness how those around us react to it. There is also the influence of television show characters and media messages. Whether positive or negative, we will be greatly influenced by these external factors, and we will apply these attitudes to others as well as our own aging process.

Now is the best time to assess whether the lenses in our aging attitude glasses need an adjustment. It is well worth our time. Research at Yale University by Becca Levy has proven that having a positive attitude toward aging can add 7.5 years to one’s life.

2) Institutional Ageism – Missions, rules, and practices that discriminate against individuals and or groups because of their older age.

Although the term ageism was first introduced by Dr. Robert Butler in 1968, ageism is still very much embedded in our culture and our institutions to this day. According to Joseph F. Coughlin, author of The Longevity Economy and director of AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it began in healthcare very early when there was a popular belief that a human being was given only so much life-force with which to live on. It alleged that when a person’s life-force was depleted, they would die. Even as the medical field progressed, ageism was firmly planted and thriving within its practice.

Ageism is also found in the workforce or employment. As America turned from an agricultural to an industrial society, people looked at employment as a zero-sum equation: for every older person in the workforce, one younger person was kept from entering it. This simply wasn’t and still isn’t true. However, during the Great Depression when jobs were scarce this zero-sum thinking led to mandatory retirement. There are few exceptions for mandatory retirement today, although some employers still hold ill-conceived perceptions about older workers. Most of us would rather choose to retire than be forced out of employment based on our age.

3) Intentional Ageism – Ideas, attitudes, rules, or practices that are carried out with the knowledge that they are biased against persons or groups based on their older age. Intentional ageism includes carrying out practices that take advantage of the vulnerabilities of older persons.

Scam artists are a good example of people who prey upon the vulnerabilities of older adults. They have devised all sorts of schemes using the telephone, mail, computers and even in person to access us. Once they have our attention, they con their way into getting hundreds – even thousands – of dollars out of us. They are so good at what they do that they can convince even the toughest of skeptics. They use psychological tactics that help them rob us of our money and self-dignity. Oftentimes, we are so ashamed that we fell for the scam that we are embarrassed to report it to officials as a crime. It’s not that we’re stupid or senile. It’s that these scam artists are just so good at what they do.

Not hiring someone based on older age is also intentional ageism and is against the law. Under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, it is illegal to discriminate against job applicants who are age 40 or older. Many state and local laws contain similar prohibitions.

4) Unintentional Ageism – Ideas, attitudes, rules, or practices that are carried out without the perpetrator’s awareness that they are biased against persons or groups based on their older age.

Much of the ageism experienced in everyday life is unintentional – also called implicit bias. Ageism crept its way into the fabric of our society by using things such as humor to become something that has been widely accepted. Black birthday memorabilia, over-the-hill birthday cards, and senior moments are fine examples of this unintentional age discrimination. Much of ageism is passed down from generation to generation. Then, as Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” We become adults who filter life through a looking-glass we’ve held onto since childhood: one of implicit bias. It’s time we saw aging through a new pair of glasses.

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