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18.6B: Prejudice

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    Ageism is the discrimination of groups because of their age, and applies especially to the elderly.

    Learning Objectives

    • Examine the concept of ageism and the impact of stereotypes for elderly adults

    Key Points

    • Elders frequently encounter prejudice as others assume stereotypes about them to be true.
    • The idea of ageism was developed by gerontologist Robert Neil Butler.
    • Prejudices most frequently surface in the course of medical treatment and in the workplace.

    Key Terms

    • term limit: A legal restriction that limits the number of terms a person may serve in a particular elected office.
    • ageism: The treating of a person or people differently from others based on assumptions or stereotypes relating to their age.


    Ageism is the stereotyping and discrimination against individuals or groups because of their age. Ageism can be applied to discrimination against any age group, such as discrimination against teenagers, but this section will focus on ageist discrimination against seniors. The term was coined in reference to discriminatory practices against the elderly by gerontologist Robert Neil Butler. He coined the term by intentionally mirroring it after other forms of discrimination, such as sexism or racism.

    Stereotypes of the Elderly

    Many people are prejudiced against seniors, beginning with the common stereotypes of older adults. Old people are frequently assumed to be in poor physical or mental health and lack psychological agility. It is a common presumption that, as people age, they become more inflexible and conservative in their opinions. Older adults are frequently presumed to be poor drivers. In fact, studies have demonstrated that older drivers, up until the age of about 75, are actually safer drivers than young drivers. Unfortunately, elder patients are frequently discriminated against in the course of medical treatment due to stereotypes based on their age. Studies have demonstrated that elder patients are less likely to have their medical care explained to them, partially because physicians assume that they are unable to understand medical complexities.

    Age is just a Number: This man clearly defies ageist perceptions of older people as being physically infirm and weak.

    Elderly Prejudice in the Workplace

    Older adults commonly encounter prejudice in the workplace. It is frequently assumed that an elderly person is mentally inept and incompetent. Employment discrimination, or the presence of discrimination against a targeted group in the workplace, manifests in two different ways vis-à-vis elderly workers. Individuals who began working for a company in their younger years can be pushed out as they age. This process refers to company management redirecting clients away from the older employees and toward the younger employees.

    Alternatively, companies may not hire older employees to begin with. Joanna Lahey, a professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, has found that firms are 40% more likely to give a hiring interview to a younger candidate than to an older candidate. This suggests that firms are more interested in hiring younger employees than older employees. The government has tried to combat age discrimination through laws such as the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 which forbids employers from discriminating against employees over the age of forty. This goes against the age stratification theory of society, which states the unequal distribution of wealth, power and privileges among people at different stages in the life course. According to age stratification theory, younger and older people should be a disadvantages due to their position in life, whereas middle-age people would be at at advantage.

    Aging and its impact on the workforce is also an issue for certain sectors of government. The issue has been highlighted as it pertains to the United States Supreme Court. Justices at the Supreme Court are given lifetime appointments, meaning that they do not have to retire or step down from the bench until they choose to or until their deaths. However, as in any other workplace, the potential senility of aging Supreme Court justices has been hotly debated.

    Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist, for example, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1986 and served until his death in 2005. He was only weeks shy of his eighty-first birthday when he died and had been in declining health for the last few years of his life. Treatment for anaplastic throat cancer forced him to miss many arguments in the year before his death. Rehnquist’s death reignited a political debate about instating term limits for Supreme Court justices in place of lifetime appointments, such that a justice would be forced to retire after a certain number of years. There are many political and legal reasons supporting both sides of the debate, but assumptions about the declining health of older justices, many of whom serve on the court into their seventies, play a prominent role in the discussion.

    18.6B: Prejudice is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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