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What is Ageism?

A group of women and men of all ages sitting and standing around a table.

The term “ageism” was first used in 1969 by Robert N. Butler, M.D., a renowned American physician and the first director of the National Institute on Aging. Ageism is a form of discrimination where people are mistreated based on their age. It is rooted in a lack of knowledge, prejudice, and stereotypes. Dr. Butler remarked in one of his publications “In America…childhood is romanticized, youth is idolized, middle age does the work, wields the power and pays the bills, and old age, its days empty of purpose, gets little or nothing of what it has already done. The old are in the way.” Despite being a form of discrimination, ageism is often not taken seriously, and it is even considered one of the last socially acceptable prejudices.

In celebration of Older Americans Month, which is celebrated every May, the NIH is excited to announce the establishment of the Aging Employment Portfolio. Through this new addition to the NIH Special Emphasis Programs, EDI will combat ageism and address the employment lifecycle for NIH employees who are 40 years old and older. In addition, as the Strategist for the Aging Employment Portfolio, my goal is to increase awareness and understanding of negative stereotypes and discriminatory practices against the aging community.

If we dig deeper into ageism, we will see three dimensions that interact with and influence each other. These dimensions are:

  • Using stereotypes to apply generalizations and preconceptions to individuals based on their social group membership. These beliefs and expectations are stored in our cognitive structures and can lead to unfair treatment and discrimination.
  • Applying prejudice by using preconceived opinions or attitudes about a person based on their perceived group membership. It can contribute to the creation or maintenance of hierarchical status in the relations among groups.
  • Relying on discrimination by creating distinctions between individuals based on their perceived or actual membership in a social group. Whether it takes the form of actions, practices, or policies, discrimination can cause severe disadvantages.

Several interconnected factors can influence ageist attitudes and reinforce each other. These include:

  • Institutional ageism explains the discrimination of individuals based on age and is perpetuated by laws, policies, and social norms.
  • Interpersonal ageism describes how individuals interact with each other and treat persons differently based on their age.
  • Self-directed ageism defines a self-imposed negative attitude toward aging or one’s own age group.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 is a landmark legislation that prohibits employment discrimination against individuals who are 40 years of age or older. Examples of discriminatory activities include:

  • refraining to hire or promote employees
  • limiting access to training opportunities
  • encouraging or forcing retirement
  • using negative language when speaking to or about older employees
  • excluding employees from attending meetings and pushing them to the sidelines
  • asking a job applicant to provide their age (e.g., date of birth) during a job interview

I look forward to sharing information with you in the months ahead, including more on partnerships that will help bring additional education and awareness around the older adult population. In the meantime, I encourage you to read The Arduousness in Proving Age Discrimination and Title VII Q&A: Age Discrimination.

If you believe you have been discriminated against based on your age, you can contact the EDI Resolutions and Equity Division within 45 days of the incident.

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