Ageism: What it means and how it can affect you

How ageism can affect your personal and professional life

The aging population is growing quickly. With technological and scientific advancements in the medical field, more people around the world are living well into their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.

In fact, the World Health Organization predicts that people older than 60 will make up at least 22 percent of the world’s population by 2050. A huge jump from 2015, where older adults made up only 12 percent of the world’s population.

As this demographic group grows, there’s a particularly alarming stigma that will undoubtedly affect them all: ageism.

What is ageism

Ageism is the discrimination, prejudice, or stereotyping of a person based on their age. Everyone past the age of 40 has experienced ageism in some way, shape or form.

Coined in 1969 by Robert Neil Butler to describe a pattern of discrimination based on sexism and racism, ageism has long been an obstacle in the way of older adults. But unlike sexism and racism, ageism is rarely discussed by policy makers today.

Instances of ageism can manifest in several different forms; employers not giving a fair shot to older job candidates, people labeling minor lapses in memory as “senior moments”, and the beauty industry’s war on gray hair and wrinkles.

Ageism has even found its way into healthcare, as society frequently associates medical issues as an unfortunate companion to aging.

Ageism in the workplace

Some of the most glaring instances of ageism can be found in the workplace.

Despite the years of experience and knowledge they’ve acquired, workers over the age of 45 make up 66 percent of the total long-term unemployed workforce (defined as 27+ weeks unemployed). To make ends meet, many older workers are forced to settle for significantly lower pay, often in different fields of work than what they’ve been trained in.

But before you blame those numbers on the requirements of an evolving workforce, consider a study conducted by David Neumark, a University of California Irvine economist.

In the study, Neumark sent out 40,223 fake resumes representing similarly qualified applicants at different stages in life. What he found was that candidates age 29 to 31 were 18 percent more likely to get a callback than candidates age 49 to 51, and 35 percent more likely than a candidate age 64 to 66.

Despite an AARP report in 2015 discovering employees over 50 cost less than expected and displayed “greater professionalism, a stronger work ethic, greater reliability and lower turnover”, age discrimination in the workforce is commonplace and rooted in preconceived negative biases of older employees work habits and abilities.

Ageism in healthcare

Ageism is rampant in the healthcare system as well, and can lead to serious health complications. Ageism can present itself in many different forms in the healthcare system, from elderspeak, a pattern of infantilizing language when speaking to older adults, to denying older patients treatment based on their age.

Although something like elderspeak may not seem serious, researchers discovered that older people who were spoken to in a patronizing way performed worse on a cognitive test than their peers who were not.

Treatment approaches taken by medical professionals also differ due to age discrimination and negative age stereotypes.

A 2002 study conducted on heart disease patients showed that older patients are less likely to receive further tests and treatments irregardless of the severity of their illness. The approach of managing disease and ailments with older patients rather than preventing or curing is based on the belief that a decline in health is an expected side effect of aging. Therefore, there is no need to prevent the inevitable decline of old age.

How to fight back against ageism

Ageism may not be going anywhere soon, but it’s far from insurmountable. So how can one push back against this alarming trend? One not so obvious place to start is with ourselves and how we view aging.

“I think all people of all ages can try to monitor everyday life for examples of ageism,” suggests Becca Levy, PHD, professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health. By changing our own negative perceptions on aging, you are helping to change the narrative that getting older is a negative experience.

In the workplace, there are several steps you can take to combat the negative stereotypes associated with older workers. Staying up to date with new technology is one way to show your field has not moved past your scope of knowledge and left you behind. You can also market your experience and reframe the gaps in your resume as things you are excited to learn or try.

Another solution is to get into shape. “The key to fighting the stamina [stereotype] is to get physically fit,” says Kerry Hannon, career expert and author of Getting the Job You Want After 50. “People judge a book by its cover, and it’s critical. Your appearance matters, and when you’re fit, you deliver.”

When on the job, the key is to be upfront and direct when confronted with ageism. If it’s something relatively small, address it when it happens. Hannon believes you shouldn’t ignore it, stating “call it out. Don’t hide it under the table. And if it doesn’t stop, you do need to go to human resources and get a record.” In this instance, documentation is key to build a case against the person or entity guilty of age discrimination.

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