Ageism is a form of discrimination which is based on someone's chronological age. Many people use this term specifically to refer to discrimination against older people, but ageism can strike people of all ages. Like other forms of discrimination, ageism can be extremely harmful, especially when it is viewed as culturally normal and acceptable. In some regions of the world, campaigns to fight ageism have been initiated in an attempt to educate people and stamp out ageism.
The term was coined in 1969 by Robert Butler, who likened discrimination against the elderly to discrimination on the basis of gender, creed, or ethnic identity. He hoped that by creating a specific term to discuss age discrimination, he could bring such a discussion out into the open, making people more aware of it. By defining ageism, he also made it possible to create legislation which is designed to make it illegal.
Like other “-isms” such as racism and sexism, ageism often involves heavy stereotyping. For example, someone may think that older people make poor employees because of their perceived fragility, or that a young person would not make a good employee because he or she would be irresponsible. Often, such stereotypes are heavily reinforced in the community at large, with people internalizing values, beliefs, and norms which support age discrimination.
Ageism in the workplace is a serious issue for many elderly and youth activists. Seniors often face hiring discrimination because employers think that they are not worth training, or not fit to perform a job, while young people often find themselves marginalized when they seek employment. Some people refer to ageism in employment as “adultism,” referencing the preference for “adults” in the workplace. However, “jeunism,” discrimination in favor of the young, can also strike; some workplaces, for example, want to have younger staffs because they think young people are easier to control, more attractive, or because they think that a young staff will appeal to their target demographic.
Both seniors and children are marginalized in many societies. Seniors, for example, are presumed to be incapable of making decisions because of their advanced age, while children are not allowed to make choices because they are perceived as too young. Some regions of the world have laws which are considered ageist by activists, such as laws limiting the drinking age, or laws mandating retirement at a specific age.
Ageism can be difficult to fight. Recognizing and combating ageism in yourself is an important first step, as is discussing the issue with the people around you. By making people more aware of ageism as an issue, you can help to reduce the amount of ageism in your community and society at large.