An issue currently facing Australia is age discrimination in the workplace with 32% of workers between 55 and 59 years of age and 30% of workers between 60 and 64 having experienced discrimination (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2015). Approximately 50% of employers admitted that they were reluctant to hire older workers. (Wood, 2021). Ageism includes bullying in the workplace, for example, deliberate and frequent maltreatment, deliberately impeding the victims ability to complete tasks, humiliation and intimidation (Powell, 2010).
This paper will discuss age discrimination in the workplace, why people hold negative attitudes toward the older people, how these attitudes are formed, and furthermore, how the attitudes impact on their behaviour.
Analysis of attitude and Formation of attitude
Age discrimination is unlike other forms of discrimination. Other social groups such as derived from occupation or race for example, will stay with an individual for a long time if not their whole life. However, all people will become part of the elderly group and we pass through several age groups throughout our lives, so the boundary of this group is fluid.
Ageism is common and entrenched throughout society (Vickerstaff & Van der Horst, 2021). This includes public policy narratives, narratives about the older generation not making way for younger generations and in workplace gossip (Vickerstaff & Van der Horst, 2021). Hence, the stereotype about the older generation having a diminished mental and physical capacity, being slow to learn, resistant to change and not technologically up to date, is very strong.
Terror management theory can explain the negative attitude toward the elderly. This theory is that humans have an innate fear of their own mortality and to manage this fear they form cultural worldviews and social and cultural groups that make them feel valued (Greenberg et al., 1997). This buffers them against the anxiety caused by the knowledge that they will age and die. Elderly people threaten this method of management and remind them of their mortality and the effects of aging on their mental and physical capacities. They have the knowledge that the elderly were once part of the groups that they themselves are a part of now and that they themselves will become elderly. The way that they handle this threat to their anxiety management is by distancing themselves from the elderly. Terror management theorises that this is the cause of age discrimination. It is worth noting that the middle-aged group are more discriminatory against the elderly than young adults. (Bodner et al, 2012). This may be explained by the fact that the middle-aged are soon to be entering the elderly group and therefore seek to distance themselves even more.
Social identity theory is a possible explanation of discriminatory behaviour toward the elderly. It posits that belonging to a social group makes people feel good and valued and distancing your group from other groups makes your membership of the group stronger (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). As mental and physical decline are seen as characteristics associated with aging, young and middle-aged adults will reinforce membership of their age group by derogating the elderly.
Attitudes can contain one or more of the following three components, affective, behavioural, and cognitive (Millar & Tesser, 1986). The affective component is the emotion that we feel toward the attitude object. In this case, the affect is fear of their own mortality. This fear is not a conscious emotion
according to Terror Management Theory. Behavioural is discrimination against the elderly in the workplace. Cognitive, according to the ABC theory, is knowledge. However, in many cases, it is actually beliefs and factual assumptions. In this instance, various possible beliefs are; the elderly are mentally and physically inferior, they should make way for the younger generation to have their turn, they will soon reach retirement age. These beliefs are a justification for their discrimination.
Analysis and reflection of attitude function and influence on future behaviour
According to Katz (1960), attitudes serve one or more functions. Knowledge function helps us to clarify and comprehend our worldview (Katz, 1960). Instrumental function brings a benefit to our position in life in some way (Katz, 1960). Ego-defensive function is to hide that which we dislike about ourselves and protect our self-identity (Katz, 1960). Value-expressive function is to reinforce our self-identity and strengthen our membership of the group (Katz, 1960).
The beliefs such as, that older worker should make way for the younger generation, provides a justification for their own behaviour and fulfills the knowledge function. Providing justification for themselves allows them to behave in a way that is not morally acceptable. This attitude also satisfies the instrumental function for example, the hiring manager believes that he has benefitted the company by eliminating the unsuitable applicant.
The ego-defensive function closely aligns with terror management theory that being reminded of our mortality causes anxiety which is buffered by worldviews and social groups. Value-expressive function aligns closely with social identity theory, both of these theorise that people reinforce their position in the group by distancing their own group from other groups.
Attitudes have been found to more closely predict behaviour when social influence has been minimised because “we say what we think others want to hear” (Myers & Twenge, 2022, p.172). The reason for this is that social influence prevents one from stating their true attitude (Myers & Twenge, 2022). When people were tricked into believing they were connected to a lie detector, they reported a different attitude than what they had previously reported (Grover & Miller, 2012).
There are a number of studies that have demonstrated that increased anxiety is predictive of ageism (Allan & Johnson, 2009). Harris and Dollinger (2001) hypothesised that increased knowledge of aging can mitigate ageism. However, they conducted a study that showed that increase knowledge of aging in a group of college students had no effect on anxiety about aging and consequently no affect on their ageism.
Ageism is widespread and condoned, it has been experienced by many older workers and hiring managers admit to ageism. Age discrimination is unlike other forms of discrimination as everybody will become one of the elderly. A fear of aging and death is at the root of ageism and distancing your own social group from the elderly is the source of discriminatory behaviour. An ageist attitude is predictive of age discrimination however, in some contexts, due to the constraints of social approval, people may not reveal their true beliefs.
Author: Catalina Nam, B Social Work (Hons), M Couns, AMHSW.
Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, Catalina Nam has extensive experience in counselling including but not limited to: NDIS; veterans; migrants; disability; domestic violence; and seniors; and she has undertaken advanced training in Grief and Loss. Having moved to Australia from Korea in 2003, she has first hand understanding of the challenges of being a migrant.
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