Age discrimination is like other forms of discrimination (e.g., race, gender, and class) that lead to differential treatment of individuals. Age bias is based on negative stereotypes associated with chronological age, especially old age, but it can apply to other stages of the lifespan. For example, the elderly often have prejudices against the young, particularly teenagers, in terms of their dress, language, and behavior.
In relation to the elderly, age bias is also known as ageism, which has been described by Butler as “a process of systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people just because they are old,” (Butler 2001) similar to racism based on skin color or sexism based on gender. This is perpetuated by the belief that with age comes disability, isolation, and loneliness. In American society, with its emphasis on youth and beauty, ageism is often triggered by the fear and dread of aging. Being old is equated with senility, inflexibility, a lack of productivity, a loss of sexuality, ugliness, ill health, and often poverty. Negative images of aging abound in cartoons, jokes, greeting cards, and epithets such as “crock” or “geezer.” The mass media play a major role in promoting stereotypes about the elderly who, for example, appear far less often in prime-time television programs than their prevalence in the U.S. population.
Age as a personal characteristic is different from race and sex because nearly all persons will grow old. Americans are now living longer, with an average life expectancy at birth of nearly 77 years compared to 47 years at the beginning of the twentieth century. Average longevity is now 74 years for men and nearly 80 years for women. Those aged 85 and over, with higher levels of morbidity, are the fastest-growing age group in the United States. Because disability also can occur at younger ages, age discrimination is more akin to discrimination against persons with physical disabilities.
All forms of discrimination have become the province of public policy at both the federal and state levels, especially in housing and employment. Age discrimination has triggered two responses. One is “compassionate ageism” that has sought to ameliorate some of the economic downsides of aging, such as loss of income and inadequate access to health care due to retirement, and the lack of social services (e.g., nutrition programs and transportation) tailored to the needs of senior citizens. This led to the enactment of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, senior housing programs, and the Older Americans Act. The other response has centered on ensuring that age biases are not permitted in any program or activity receiving federal funds, the major objective of the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 (ADA), or as a barrier to the issuance of driver’s licenses.
Unlike policies designed to reduce discrimination against other groups, policies for the elderly have generally not been viewed as reverse discrimination or as associated with affirmative action. During the 1980’s, “greedy geezers” were seen by some as getting more than their fair share of government benefits, but public opinion polls have consistently shown strong support for these programs, especially Social Security and Medicare. More recently, age-segregated housing has raised concerns, leading to calls for “elder-friendly” communities that are inclusive for all age groups. Even when the proportion of persons aged 65+ rises to a projected 20 percent of the U.S. population, age discrimination is likely to persist due to the social attitudes described above.
R. H. Butler, “Ageism,” in The Encyclopedia of Aging, 3rd ed., ed. G. L. Maddox (New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2001).