Article - Ageism at Work

  Ageism in the Workplace

by Helen Dennis and Kathryn Thomas
Published in “Generations,” a journal of the American Society on Aging, November 22, 2006 


“Despite the fact the United States’ Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) has been in place for over 35 years, age discrimination in employment remains pervasive.”

~ Laurie McCann, Senior attorney, AARP Litigation Foundation


          Ageism is part of the social fabric of American life.  Created and defined by Dr. Robert Butler in 1968, ageism is the “systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against older people because they are old, just a racism and sexism accomplishes this with skin color and gender” (Butler, 1975).   Ageism is pervasive and evident in the media, health care, education and advertising.  Television programming has few older heroes.  Older fashion models are rare and advertising lacks the mature face.  The medical community has its own stereotyped language for older people:  GOMER – “get out of my emergency room. 

The workplace as a microcosm of society reflects the stereotypes and biases that are part of our national social environment.  When age biases negatively affect workplace decisions of employment, termination, retirement, benefits, training and promotion opportunities, age discrimination is in action.      

        Four types of ageism have been defined in the literature (Anti-Ageism Taskforce, 2006). Personal ageism is an individual’s attitudes, ideas, practices and beliefs that are biased against older persons.  An example is excluding older adults in developing their medical care.  Institutional ageism involves rules, missions and practices that discriminate against older individuals or groups based on age.  Mandatory retirement, which is no longer legal and devaluing older people in a cost-benefit analysis are examples.  Intentional ageism is attitudes, rules or practices that are implemented knowing they are biased against older people such as denying job training to older individuals because of their age.  Unintentional ageism is ideas, attitudes, rules or practices carried out without the perpetrator knowing these are biased against older persons.  Lacking ramps and elevators and ageist language in the media are examples of this “inadvertent ageism.”

Age Discrimination in Employment Act

        The most significant formal acknowledgement of ageism in the workplace was the signing of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) in 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.  The purpose of the ADEA is “to promote the employment of older persons based on ability rather than age, to prohibit arbitrary age discrimination in employment and to help employers and workers find ways to address problems arising from the impact of age on employment” (29 U.S.C. 621(b)). The original legislation protected employees between the ages of 40 and 65.  In 1978 Congress passed an amendment to extend the age of the protected group from 65 to 70 and on January 1, 1987 the age cap was lifted completely (McCann, 2003).   

Those exempt from the law have a Bona Fide Occupation Qualification (BFOQ).  This exemption is used to justify age discrimination in some jobs (McCann, 2003).  BFOQ’s apply to air traffic controllers, fire fighters, law enforcement officers, bus drivers and others responsible for public safety.  Executives entitled to an annual retirement benefit of at least $44,000 also are exempt.  




In 2005, 16,585 age complaints were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal employment discrimination enforcement authority. Claims are evaluated according to their merit and most are dismissed.  Among the age claims filed in 2005, about two thirds (63 percent) were thrown out because of no reasonable cause and almost one fifth (18 percent) were resolved through administrative closure.  Only 1.2 percent was resolved with successful conciliations. Typically 90% of age discrimination suits do not make it to trial.  Judges dismiss about half of them and the rest are settled by negotiations or mediation.  If a case does make it to trial, it is on average 2 years after the suit was filed (McCann, 2003).

Since 1992, the highest amount of total monetary benefits was awarded in 2005 -- $77.7 million.  In 2005 the number of complaints decreased; two thirds were dismissed.  Among A A   all cases received by the EEOC in the same year, more than one out of five (22 percent) were age cases (EEOCa, 2006).


The most prevalent form of age discrimination in the work place is likely in hiring (Anti-Ageism Taskforce, 2006).  Yet only about 10 percent of age claims filed with the EEOC in 2004 were related to hiring, suggesting that most complaints are unreported (Anti-Ageism Taskforce, 2006).  One reason is that age discrimination in the employment process is difficult to prove.

Although evidence has shown that the ADEA has bolstered employment of older workers, many issues, barriers and stereotypes still exist (Neumark, 2001).  Among them is the lack of effective enforcement by the EEOC (McCann, 2003).   In 2002 the EEOC filed only 29 lawsuits out of 19,921 age discrimination charges (EEOCa, 2006; EEOCb, 2006).  Since the EEOC litigates only a small number of cases, enforcement becomes the responsibility of individuals who must hire a private attorney or law firm to pursue their case.  Individuals often are discouraged because of the cost and the burdens of evidence placed upon them by the federal courts. 

Another barrier is the perception of age discrimination as an economic issue and not a fundamental civil right (McCann, 2003).  Freedom from race and gender discrimination is considered a civil right guaranteed for all individuals. Violation of these rights typically is denounced and followed up by actions.  This is not the case with age discrimination.  Many still believe the myth that age is a good predictor of performance, and that with age performance predictably declines, giving alleged validity to ageism.  Moreover, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act both allow compensatory or punitive damages – neither of which are allowed under ADEA.

        Prior to March 2005, age discrimination claims could only be for adverse treatment and did not protect against adverse impact.  Other federal anti-discrimination legislation (Title VII and ADA) covers adverse impact.  With disparate impact claims, the plaintiff is not required to prove discriminatory intent but only unjustified discriminatory effect.  In Smith v. City of Jackson (2005), Supreme Court ruled that disparate impact theory could be applied in age discrimination cases.  This lowers the burden of proof necessary for employees to claim age discrimination, increases the scope of the protection of mature workers and forces employers to scrutinize and defend all of their employment policies for age discrimination.


Positive and Negative Age stereotypes of Older Workers  

Managers have both positive and negative perceptions about older workers or “senior employees” as substantiated by a series of studies by AARP.  Older workers, defined as those 50 years and older, were valued for their experience, knowledge, work habits and attitudes as well as their commitment to quality, loyalty, punctuality, keeping cool in a crisis and their respect for authority (AARP, 1989; AARP-DYG, 1992; AARP, 1995a; AARP, 1995b). They were valued for their solid performance, basic skills and getting along with co-workers (AARP, 2000).

Negative perceptions were also evident.  Older workers were perceived as inflexible, unwilling to adapt technology, lacking an aggressive spirit, resistant to new ways, having some physical limitations, costing more for health insurance and complacent (AARP 1989; AARP-DYG 1992; AARP, 1995a; AARP, 1995b).

Positive and negative perceptions of older workers were revealed in a survey of 400 private sector employers conducted by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.  The survey focused on employers’ evaluation of the relative productivity and cost of white-collared and rank-and-file employees 55 years and older (Munnell, Sass and Soto, 2006). The majority of employers found older managers more productive than younger ones.  Approximately 40 percent of the employers indicated the same for the rank-and-file workers.  Two distinct advantages attributed to the older workers was their knowledge of procedures and the ability to interact with customers.  The “not so good news” is that employers viewed their older workers as more expensive compared to younger workers. 

Employers are reluctant to have researchers move into their environment to study ageism for fear of legal repercussions.  However, that has not stopped researchers from studying the relationship of management decisions to ageism under experimental conditions outside the workplace.  Decision makers’ perception of older workers has been identified as an element in making assessments of older-worker qualifications and decisions in hiring, ratings, promotions and compensation. (Finkelstein, Burke & Raja, 1995; Doering, Rhodes Schuster, 1983; Rosen & Jerdee, 1985).  Note that not all studies confirm such results.  However, there are a sufficient number that support the existence of the subtle nature and acceptance of ageism. 

Age Stereotypes Affect Management and Hiring Decisions


A classic study on the effect of age stereotypes on management decisions was published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) in 1977 (Rosen and Jerdee, 1977).  Subscribers to the HBR were asked to assume the role of a manager of a fictitious company and make a management decision to solve a problem.  Half were asked to make judgments about incidents where the worker was older.  The other half was presented with the same incidents, only the worker was younger.  Each was asked how they would handle several situations by evaluating a number of approaches.

The management decisions to resolve the problem were very different for older and younger workers for the same incident. The decisions reflected the following perceptions about the older worker:  They were more resistant to change; less motivated to keep up with new technology; less creative; and less capable of handling stressful situations.  The older worker was less favored for continued career development and training and unlikely to be promoted.

A more recent study further confirmed differences in the perception of older and younger workers (Bendick, Brown, and Wall, 1999). A pairs of testers, one 57 years old and the other 32 years old, applied for 102 entry-level sales or management positions.  Their credentials described them as equally qualified.  The older applicants received less favorable responses from employers 41.2% of the time.  “This percentage represents the net rate at which older job applicants with qualifications equal to their younger counterparts were disadvantaged by their age” (Bendick, Brown, and Wall, 1999. p. 10).  The majority of the disadvantage occurred immediately upon contacting the employers, before the older job seeker could fully present his qualifications.  Other disadvantages for the older person included shorter interviews, fewer commissions, no “call-backs” and fewer job offers. 

Most interview research on age stereotyping indicates that older job interviewees whose qualifications are equal to those of younger candidates are less likely to be hired (Britton and Thomas, 1973; Haefner, 1977; Rosen and Jerdee, 1976).  An investigation of the effects of age stereotyping on the ratings of a potential candidate for a supervisor’s position supported this general perspective (Avolio and Barrett, 1987).  Male and female participants who were young professionals listened to a 12-minute interview of an older and younger candidate with similar work experience and equivalent job performance.  Result:  participants gave higher overall ratings to the younger candidate, even though the older candidate was equally qualified.

Age was also found to play a role in hiring decisions in a study involving 304 graduate business students (Craft et al., 1979).  Results indicated less willingness of managers and aspiring managers to hire a 60- or 70- year old worker than one who is 35 or 50.  This was true even though the persons in each of the age groups were perceived with identical characteristics except for age.  The decisions not to hire an older worker appeared to be due to his or her age and the expectation of a short work life. 

Age Perceptions Affect Promotion and Compensation

According to the Economic Policy Institute, workers over 40 years old are not offered the same promotion opportunities, training or compensation as younger workers (Sterns and McDaniel, 1994).  Assumptions made about older workers’ technological competence or ability to learn result in their intentional or unintentional exclusion from training opportunities.  Such ageism restricts job opportunities for mature workers and ultimately affects the national economy (Anti-Ageism Taskforce, 2006).  If unabated, such decisions will not only be costly, but will limit employers in using significant human resources. 

The Role of Language

Age-related comments have been presented in court as evidence of age discrimination.  The success in winning a case based on age statements varies.   Comments frequently are categorized into “young” remarks such as “We need young blood around here,” “Let’s make room for some M.B.A.’s,” or “Let’s bring in the young guns (McCann and Giles, 2002. p. 180).”

The other category is “old remarks” such as “In a forest you have to cut down the old big trees so that the little ones underneath can grow (McCann and Giles, 2002. p.181).” This statement served as sufficient proof of age discrimination.  A supervisor’s reference to older workers as “alte cockers” (“old fogies” in Yiddish) was considered potentially discriminatory and terms such as “old fogie,” “old and tired,” and a “sleepy kind of guy with no pizzazz” have been considered evidence of age bias (McCann and Giles, 2002. p. 182).

Age Perceptions and Institutional Values

Not all traits are equally valued in the work place.  An AARP study revealed that traits most admired about older workers were least valued by employers.   Older workers often are rated high on experience, judgment, commitment to quality, low turnover, good attendance and punctuality.  But surprisingly, among the 12 participating large companies, these traits were not highly valued in the workplace (AARP, 1995). 

Conversely, traits of older workers perceived as weaknesses by managers are valued in today’s changing work environment and critical to a company’s success.  Perceived weaknesses were reflected in low ratings of older workers on flexibility, acceptance of new technology, ability to learn new skills and physical ability to perform strenuous jobs (AARP, 1995).

What Are Employers Doing?

The largest and most acknowledged recognition program is the “AARP Best Employers for Workers over 50.”  It is a national competition that began in 2001 that recognizes companies and organizations with the best practices and policies that address aging workforce issues.  Companies are judged on their policies and practices for recruitment, education and job training, opportunities for career success, health and financial benefits, alternative work arrangements and opportunities for retirees.

Among the 50 winners in 2006, 41 employers reported their managers were evaluated according to “valuing and promoting diversity, including age” (Communication with Kathi Brown, AARP, October 10, 2006.)  These awards are creating a national shift in attitude in recognizing the value of competent older workers and, more importantly, are supported by innovative and effective policies and practices. 

            Training.  Race, gender and ethnicity typically are the priority subjects covered in diversity training for at least two reasons.  First, discrimination still occurs for these protected groups and training is an effective tool in preventing and combating such discrimination.  Second, the Department of Labor (DOL) requires employers who are federal contractors and subcontractors to report information about the gender, race and ethnicity of each “applicant” and employee.   The DOL does not require such information on the age of employees or applicants (Department of Labor, 2005).  This lack of accountability is a possible reason for the absence or minor emphasis on age in diversity training. 

Yet training on age can affect attitudes and actions of managers regarding older workers.  In the mid 1980’s a national corporate model of management training, “Age Issues in Management,” focused on preventing age discrimination in the work place and encouraging employers to utilize mature workers.  Conducted by the University of Southern California’s Andrus Gerontology Center and funded by the Administration on Aging and the Levi Strauss and ARCO Foundations, this program demonstrated that managers can modify their thinking, intentions and actions on age issues as a result of training (Dennis, 1988). 

Knowledge Retention. 
A relatively new awareness of older workers has emerged as retiring boomers take their knowledge and skills with them as they exit the front door.  Forward thinking employers are recognizing their value and are developing policies to retain them.  One approach is to rehire their retirees.  Companies such as Monsanto, the Aerospace Corporation and Cigna Insurance have such formalized programs.  CVS is hiring retired pharmacists that have worked for other employers as mentors to newer and younger CVS pharmacists. 

Others are modifying policies.  To face the possible retirement of three quarters of the current 15,000 air traffic controllers, federal rules have been published that extend the mandatory retirement age beyond the current 56 years on a yearly exemption basis.  Under the Clinton Administration, U.S. Treasury Department Information Technology workers were offered a $25,000 bonus to postpone their retirements.  The Tennessee Valley Authority, the largest public power company in the U.S., acknowledged that 40 percent of their workforce was retirement eligible in five years.  They surveyed their employees on a volunteer basis to determine if and when they intended to retire, using the information to drive workforce planning (DeLong, 2004).

Change Takes Time

Discussion of ageism in the workplace is not new.  About 30 years ago Harold L. Sheppard, Special Assistant on Aging to President Jimmy Carter, addressed age discrimination, retraining, flexible work options and other similar subjects in his book Towards an Industrial Gerontology.   Today these same subjects are confronted with more focus and intensity because of impending economic implications of the changing demographics, boomer retirements, workforce shortages and the need and desire for older adults to continue working. 




Progress has been made, but there is more to accomplish.  Here are several recommendations:

  • Encourage age as a significant component in all diversity training.

  • Develop a national module for all employers to educate their management and staff on ageism that goes beyond knowledge of the law. 

  • Increase the budget of the EEOC to improve the workflow and to expedite cases (Anti-Ageism Taskforce, 2006).

  • Conduct research on those cases submitted to the EEOC that are dismissed because of “no reasonable cause” (Anti-Ageism Taskforce, 2006). 

  • Conduct intergenerational training, communication and team building.

As professionals in the field of aging and as current or potential older workers, we have a stake and responsibility to eliminate ageism in the workplace.  From legal, economic and ethical perspectives, to do less is imprudent.  The tools and strategies are available to create workplace cultures that value the potential and the contributions of mature workers.


           Gerontologists typically are optimistic and base their positive outlook on visions of “what could be.”  It is timely to act on that vision to eliminate ageism in the workplace for the economic well being of the nation, older adults and our future. 

Gerontologists typically are optimistic and base their positive outlook on visions of “what could be.”It is timely to act on that vision to eliminate ageism in the workplace for the economic well being of the nation, older adults and our future.

Gerontologists typically are optimistic and base their positive outlook on visions of “what could be.”It is timely to act on that vision to eliminate ageism in the workplace for the economic well being of the nation, older adults and our future.

Gerontologists typically are optimistic and base their positive outlook on visions of “what could be.”It is timely to act on that vision to eliminate ageism in the workplace for the economic well being of the nation, older adults and our future.


Helen Dennis, M.A.                                                Kathryn Thomas, M.S.G

Specialist on Aging, Employment & Retirement            Doctoral Student

Lecturer, Leonard Davis School                                Leonard Davis School       

Andrus Gerontology Center                                     Andrus Gerontology Center

University of Southern California                                University of Southern California



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