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Is ageism the dumbest bias of all?

This is part of our series on biases in the workplace. A full list of bias blog posts can be found here


This week, I'm leading our monthly Tea & Toast webinar on Generation Z in the workplace. I've found it's a good opportunity to check my balance between providing generational insights (helpful) vs generational stereotypes (ageist).

In the spirit of finding the right balance, I'm revisiting ageism in this bias blog. Ageism happens anytime we make assumptions about people, or discriminate against them, solely based on their age.

In most cases of prejudice, you separate yourself from 'the others'. Racism, sexism, nationalism - there's another group you're biased against and usually you're not part of 'that group'. It's not right, but it's understandable.

This is one of the reasons ageism strikes me as particularly ludicrous. Ageism isn't against others - it's a bias against our future selves. And then as we age, it's a bias against our current self.

It's not only silly, it's extremely harmful.

Society says: stop ageing

Whole industries tell people - particularly women - that ageing is something to be dreaded. The message that is reverberated across society is that by ageing, or more particularly, by looking like you are ageing, you are ugly, burdensome and less than.

I'm a fully paid-up member of the Ashton Applewhite fanclub. Applewhite is a leading voice on healthy ageing and ending ageism. She rallies against the harm of ageism in her powerful book: This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. Here's her elevator pitch:

“We blame our own ageing, instead of the ageism that renders these natural transitions shameful and the barriers acceptable. Discrimination - not ageing - is the barrier to full participation in the world around us.”

These insidious messages have created a global fear of what is fundamentally human. It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so sad and damaging. Enough is enough.

I refuse to regret waking up a day older. I hope you’ll join me. There has to be a mindset shift when it comes to ageing - from one of fear and despair to one of gratitude and positivity.

Our lives depend on it.**

**See the notes at the bottom for the facts / figures around this!

Normalised ageism

Ageism is so ingrained in our society that it’s likely we’ve all been ageist without intending to be! Any of these comments sound familiar?

  • You look good for [your age]”

  • “I would never have thought you were [your age], you [look/act] way younger!”

  • "You’re young at heart”

  • “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”

  • Anything that reinforces that feeling good = feeling young, and feeling bad = feeling old

  • “You’re too old to do that” or “They’re too old to learn that”

  • “All [name generation] act like [description]”

  • Name calling: geezer, old fart, grumpy old man, little old lady, fuddy duddy

  • ANY anti-ageing product or service

  • Most birthday cards - which mock age and frame ageing as terrible

  • Describing any moment of forgetfulness as a “senior moment”

  • Speaking louder to someone who is older before any indication has been given that that’s needed

  • Using patronising language (darling, sweetie, dear, isn’t she cute?)

  • Acting shocked that older people still swear, have sex, talk about sex, explore recreational activities

  • Assuming younger people are tech geniuses and Olders are tech illiterate

Ageism is alive and unwell

Reuben Ng wanted to provide a comprehensive view of ageism. He conducted a study analysing a 1.1-billionword media database (from the UK and US) with genres including spoken/television, fiction, magazines, newspapers. The key finding is consistent, though no less alarming: Negative descriptions of older adults outnumber positive ones by six times.

Negative descriptions tend to be physical, while positive ones tend to be behavioural. Magazines contain the highest levels of ageism, followed by the spoken genre, newspapers, and fiction.

Ng’s study is consistent with the results of The University of Michigan 2020 Healthy Ageing poll, which found:

  • 82% of people have reported experiencing everyday ageism in their day-to-day lives

  • 65% of people are exposed to ageist messages in their day-to-day lives

  • After ageist experiences, people experience confidence and self-esteem issues.

Te Tari Kaumātua | Office for Seniors has published a variety of reports about ageing in New Zealand as well. Here are some of their key findings:

  • 31% of respondents of all ages have been shown a lack of respect due to their age at least occasionally.

  • One in ten older people did report some form of abuse (most closely linked to vulnerability and coercion)

  • There were significant differences between women and men. Women experienced a greater sense of vulnerability, dependence and dejection. However, men experienced higher levels of coercion.

  • Older Māori experienced a significantly greater level of abuse (2.5x) than non-Māori. This means they were forced to do things they don’t want to do and people take things from them without their permission.

  • Failure to address current levels of elder abuse is likely to have significant effects in the future

Ageism at work

While ageism happens across all ages and lifestages, olders at work are facing big stereotypes. Most ages and stages are very specific (think infant, toddler, childhood, pre-teen, teenage, young adult). But then, after a certain age we group everyone into one ‘seniors’ group. It’s as if a 60 year old is the same as an 80 year old. It’s lazy - and unhelpful.

There's been a global shift in inclusion initiatives, and yet age is often left out. Ageist attitudes about older and younger workers persist unchecked. In This Chair Rocks, Applewhite describes seven myths about old job seekers:

  • They can’t master new skills

  • They aren’t creative

  • They can’t handle stress

  • They slow things down

  • They miss work because of illness

  • They can’t handle physically demanding tasks or the risk of injury is too great

  • They are burnt out.

Regardless of how widespread these beliefs are - they are just myths. There isn't the evidence to back this up. And yet the real life implications of these attitudes are massive.

So, what can you do about it?

We need to first fight our own internalised ageism. Our mindset matters a lot and we control our mindset.

Download the notes from our Tea & Toast: Fighting Ageism webinar to find out more about:

  • The social and practical causes of ageism (pgs. 6-8)

  • The power of our mindset (p. 9)

  • Individual actions (p. 10)

  • Organisational actions (p. 11) - including this handy “Becoming an Age Friendly Business Self-Assessment” from Aspiring To Be Age Friendly Aotearoa New Zealand.


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