Is Ageism Justified?

July 11, 2022

Is Ageism Justified?

May 29, 2023

"We had our chance." That was how a childhood friend of mine, who'd just turned 62, rationalized why he accepted the ageism he was now experiencing in searching for a job. Yes, he was frustrated by it all, especially given he was a straight white male, and this was the first time he'd had a target on his back due to an "ism." But it was eerie how he blindly accepted the ageism he was experiencing as an understandable rule of society.

Unfortunately, he's not alone.

Two Harvard psychologists, Tessa Charlesworth and Mahzarin Banaji, suggest that negative aging stereotypes are actually more persistent than those about race and gender. Drawing on data from more than 4 million conscious and unconscious bias tests, they found that attitudes to sexual orientation, race, and skin tone have improved during the past decade, compared to stubborn biases about age and disability (as well as increasing negativity about people who are overweight). Charlesworth and Banaji predict that anti-gay bias could reach "neutrality" in 20 years, but it will take 150 years for the same to happen to ageism on current trends. Ouch!

Stanford's Ashley Martin's and NYU's Michael S. North's research shows similar results. With older workers increasingly remaining in their jobs past the once-traditional retirement age of 65—whether because of a desire to keep working or a need for income— ambitious younger employees trying to move up in an organization sometimes see older workers as obstacles to advancement, or "opportunity blockers."

"Succession uniquely targets older individuals," Martin and North write, "and differs from other forms of prejudice in which these 'natural progression' expectations are not as clear. Because that can lead to resentment among younger workers, older workers can face prejudice even among those who support other disadvantaged groups…Thus, egalitarian advocates—or those who are motivated to create equal opportunity for all groups—might actively (and counterintuitively) discriminate against older adults.”

What do you think? Do you believe that ageism can be tamed, or will it continue to be the last socially-acceptable form of demographic bias?

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