Aging Challenges: Agism
Ageism is a form of discrimination that can, eventually, affect anyone. It is estimated that by the year 2025, one in five Americans will be 65 years old or older (Butler, 2007, p. 4). The Pew Research Center estimates that the elderly population the United States will double between 2005 and 2025 (Passel & Cohn, 2008). As a result, an older workforce, older care givers, older medical patients, and older community members will be commonplace, and an increase in ageism may occur. Different forms of ageism are discussed here with examples provided for each. In addition, various anti-ageist legislations are also discussed, and research is provided to suggest ways to combat ageism. Discrimination directed toward the aging population is one that everyone can - and possibly will - experience.
Keywords Administration on Aging (AOA); Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA); Ageism; Bias; Discrimination; Elder Abuse; Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC); National Family Caregivers Association (NFCA); Older American's Act (OAA); Perceived Discrimination; Stereotype
Aging Challenges: Ageism
Many people have experienced some form of discrimination. The heavy girl was picked last on a team at recess; the kid with dyslexia was considered lazy by his teachers. More recently, the white man lost the perfect job to a woman of color with the same credentials. While these are common scenarios, they do not occur based on a fixed situation. For example, the heavy girl could have a thyroid problem and, once its controlled, become of average weight. The student with dyslexia could utilize accommodative services and become a strong student. The white man can apply for a different job. The person who is 60, though, can never be 30. In contrast, though, everyone who is 30 (barring an untimely death) will someday be 60. Thus, unlike other situations, discrimination directed toward the aging population is one that everyone can - and possibly will - experience.
The population of people over the age of 60 has multiplied in the past century. In 1920, life expectancy at birth for a white male was 54, and a white female was expected to live until she turned 56. In 1991, the same people could expect to live to 73 and 80, respectively (Barrow, 1996, p. 7). In 2010, the life expectancy for men had risen to 76 and to 81 for women (National Center for Health Statistics, 2013, p. 95). The added years have been attributed to advancements in medicine, in both prolonging life and decreasing the infant mortality rate. With a projected ratio of 1 person in 5 being above the age of 65 in 2025 (Butler, 2006, p. 4)—a prediction borne out by the 2010 US Census—learning to live without ageism is a prospect Americans may want to consider.
Dr. Robert Butler coined the term "ageism" in 1968. He was the director of the Anti-Ageism Taskforce of the International Longevity Center. The taskforce evaluated conditions for the aging and produced a 2006 report entitled, "Ageism in America." In the introduction, Butler (2006) notes how prolific the aging population has become:
In the twentieth century, the industrialized world gained some 30 additional years of life, greater than had been attained during the preceding 5,000 years of human history and transforming what was once the experience of the few to the destiny of many (Butler, 2006, p. 1).
According to the Taskforce (2006), there are four types of ageism:
Personal Ageism Ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and practices on the part of individuals that are biased against persons or groups based on their older age.
• Exclusion or ignoring older persons based on stereotypic assumptions
• Physical abuse
• Stereotypes about older persons and old age
Institutional Ageism - Missions, rules, and practices that discriminate against individuals and or groups because of their older age.
• Mandatory retirement
• Absence of older persons in clinical trials
• Devaluing of older persons in cost-benefit analysis
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.
• Marketing and media that use stereotypes of older workers
• Targeting older workers in financial scams
• Denial of job training based upon age
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. Also known as "inadvertent ageism."
• Absence of procedures to assist old and vulnerable persons living on their own in emergency situations (e.g., flood, heat wave)
• Lack of built-environment considerations (ramps, elevators, handrails)
• Language used in the media (Anti-Ageism Taskforce, 2006, p. 21).
Furthermore, the article entitled, "Advancing the Sociology of Ageism" (2007) offers yet another kind of ageism based on a person's perception. According to the article, the mere perceived ageism can affect a person's health, his well-being, and his behavior while at work (p. 257). Perceived discrimination may seem like a form of paranoia, but just because someone is paranoid, doesn't mean he can't tell when he's treated unfairly. Unfair treatment can be perceived anywhere but may be most noted when an aging adult is reliant on someone else for his care.
To stereotype a group of people is to make a generalization about them. As a society, Barrow (2006) notes, Americans like tidy packages, even if they are inaccurate pictures of reality (p. 24). We label people with stereotypes because such labels "fulfill a human need to structure and organize situations in order to minimize ambiguity and to clarify where we stand in relation to others" (Barrow, 2006, p. 24). The tidy package is a poor attempt, however, to compartmentalize the various differences of each individual. Just as College Student A is dissimilar in comparison to College Student B, so too is Older Person #1 different from Older Person #2.
Yet, the stereotypes exist: older people are lousy drivers; the elderly are cheap, weak, and feeble; senior citizens are grouchy and set in their ways. Applying these labels allows us to ignore this population and who they really are - ourselves in a few years. The fear of becoming old (and not knowing what will happen to us as we age) is what most likely perpetuates these negative stereotypes. However, by noting the individual differences of older people - members of their families, work experiences, where they have traveled and why, what makes them happy - can reduce that fear. In addition, reminding ourselves that many older people are lively, productive, and contribute in great ways to society (presidents, musicians, queens, Nobel Prize winners, actors) can ease the confusion about what growing older really means.
Ageism in the Workplace
From the time that we are able to speak, we are asked what we want to be when we grow up. Wouldn't it be funny to hear the response, "I want to be retired so I can enjoy being a senior citizen"? Nobody says that because as Americans, we are programmed that to be productive in society means we must work. In fact, many of us leave high school only to enter another educational system in order to make us better qualified candidates for employment. With so much importance placed on work (i.e.: what we "do") it is no wonder that older people would feel mistreated when an opportunity to work is withheld, reduced, or removed.
To reduce the possibility that such mistreatment would be identified, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was signed into legislation in 1967. Its purpose is "to promote the employment of older persons based on ability rather than age, to prohibit arbitrary age discrimination in employment and to help employers and workers find ways to address problems arising from the impact of age on employment" (29 U.S.C. 62i(b), as cited in Dennis & Thomas, 2007, pp. 84-85). McCann (2003) notes that the original legislation set the age criteria (maximum age) at 65; this was increased to 70 in a 1978 amendment of the Act, and was tossed out completed in a 1987 so that no age maximum is currently listed for discrimination purposes (as cited in Dennis & Thomas, 2007, p. 85).
The Act prohibits an employer from acting in the following ways:
• Failing to hire a worker because of age.
• Discharging a person because of age.
• Discrimination in pay or other benefits because of age.
• Limiting or classifying an employee according to his or her age.
• Instructing an employment agency not to refer a person to a job because of age, or to refer that person only to certain kinds of jobs.
• Placing any ad that shows preference based on age or specifies an age bracket. (This action carries exceptions for: the federal government [positions for air traffic controllers or fire fighters], employers of less than 20 persons, or jobs where youth is a "bona fide occupational qualification," such as modeling teenage clothes) (Barrow, 1996, p. 157).
Limitations of ADEA
The ADEA has brought progress with regard to equal opportunity employment. However, in 2012, nearly 23,000 ageism complaints were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the enforcement authority for discrimination within the federal government. Since 2000, the number of suits filed has risen significantly . However, proving claims of ageism remains difficult.
Furthermore, "[u]nlike sex and race discrimination suits, and other types, brought under the Civil Rights Act, the ADEA does not provide for compensatory damages for physical and emotional harm or for punitive damages" (Anti-Ageism Taskforce, 2006, p. 77). In addition, what might be the most common type of age discrimination in employment - not hiring a candidate because he or she is older - is the most difficult kind of age discrimination to prove (Anti Ageism Taskforce, 2006, p. 78). Indeed, it would be difficult to show reasonable cause (i.e. proof) for discrimination when an employer hires a younger candidate, as there are many reasons the employer could offer for his decision. However, in the 2008 case Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Lab, the Supreme Court ruled that the employers must prove that an elderly person was fired because of reasons other than age.
Referencing an AARP study from 1995(a), Dennis & Thomas (2007) note that there is a disconnection between what older individuals are renowned for and what employers want:
Older workers often are rated high on experience, judgment, commitment to quality, low turnover, good attendance, and punctuality. But surprisingly, among the twelve participating large companies [in the AARP study], these traits were not highly valued in the workplace. Conversely, traits in which older workers were rated low were those that managers value in today's changing work environment and see as critical to a company's success (p. 87).
In an attempt to encourage equal treatment of older people, AARP created a competition in 2001 to "recognize companies and organizations with the best practices and policies that address the issues of an...
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