What are the roots of ageism and how do they create loneliness?

roots of Ageism

Ageism is defined as discrimination against a person or group of people based on their age. It can manifest as subtle sneers, intentional isolation, or even overt hostility.

Ageism can affect older workers and those nearing retirement age who are planning for their later years. Ageism can lead to lost job opportunities, missed promotions, and lower wages. It can also force older workers into early retirement.

As older workers are increasingly pushed out of the workforce, they often become isolated and alone. This is partly because later life can be a time of great transition when longstanding roles and social structures change or disappear altogether.

But it is also because of the pervasive ageism in our society. Age stereotypes fuel prejudices and discrimination that lead to inequalities in employment, housing, health care, and other areas of life. These inequalities can profoundly impact older adults, contributing to feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Combating ageism begins with understanding its roots. On a surface level, ageism can stem from age stereotypes and assumptions about older workers, which are often based on misinformation or personal bias.

But when digging deeper, it emerges that ageism results from an entrenched fear of mortality, internalized stereotypes, and perceptions of inferiority that cause people of all ages to partake in various forms of discrimination against older people.

What are the roots of ageism?

breed loneliness

The roots of ageism can be attributed to three theories that cause people to uphold negative stereotypes and participate in discrimination. These theories tend to be based on the internal struggle of people partaking in discrimination rather than any external factors or attributes of older people.

Age discrimination appears to be driven by people’s fear of mortality, insignificance, and a strong desire to belong to a particular group.

These theories include the terror management theory, the stereotype embodiment theory, and the social identity theory.

The terror management theory

The terror management theory links humans’ ability to be self-conscious to their mortality. Humans’ mortality creates the potential for paralyzing fear, which is managed through cultivating a worldview that paints life as meaningful, important, and enduring.

According to the terror management theory, the negative reaction towards older adults is derived from the threat of death and insignificance.

Older people and the aging process remind younger people that death is inevitable. Therefore, younger people seek to distance themselves from older people, both physically and by painting older people as ‘the other,’ thereby perpetuating stereotypes.

Stereotype embodiment theory

The stereotype embodiment theory refers to older people’s internalization of negative attitudes and age discrimination.

Young people who adopt ageist attitudes are likely to internalize ageist stereotypes and embody them in older age. They are likely to continue to have implicit or explicit ageist beliefs even when they, themselves, are older.

This can have negative impacts on older people. For instance, one study found that older people were more likely than younger people to oppose funding for programs benefitting their age group.

The social identity theory

According to the social identity theory, people wish to have a positive self-identity, and self-identity is derived from being part of a group with specific characteristics.

They achieve this positive self-identity by elevating the group they belong to above other groups. As a result, a group hierarchy can emerge, where some groups are viewed as inferior.

Studies show that groups viewed as inferior can internalize negative stereotypes about themselves and view other groups more positively.

In the age group context, younger and middle-aged adults tend to build a positive identity where they elevate themselves from the old age group. In fact, middle-aged groups tend to be more ageist than younger groups as they are closer to becoming members of a devalued group.

Many age-related stereotypes come from the social identity theory, as differentiating one’s group from other groups necessitates negative stereotypes.

How does ageism breed loneliness?

There are several types of ageism that breed loneliness. For example, older people can feel isolated at work as younger generations get hired while more senior colleagues suffer layoffs. Older people could also become socially isolated, especially when they live far from family members. Worryingly, older people often feel invisible in the healthcare system, which can have significant adverse well-being effects.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act

Effects of ageism: healthcare and isolation

One consequence of ageism is the way it can lead to loneliness. Older patients often feel ignored or invisible in the healthcare system and are less likely to receive the same quality of care as younger patients.

A startling trend emerged during the Covid-19 pandemic. Elderly people reported feeling ‘disposable’ and ‘not worth saving’ due to remarks made by some younger people. Offensive terminology where the Covid-19 virus was referred to as the ‘boomer remover’ showed the extent of ageist attitudes and downright vitriol some younger people exhibited.

As a result, many older people chose to isolate themselves during the pandemic. They feared they would not survive if they got sick and expressed concerns that an overwhelmed healthcare system would not help or prioritize them if they were seriously ill.

This self-imposed isolation resulting from healthcare concerns could lead to loneliness and negatively impact their quality of life.

As people age, the negative attitudes expressed by some segments of the population can contribute to loneliness.

Ageism affects not only individual older people but also has public health implications. For example, when older people feel isolated and lonely, they are more likely to experience a decline in physical and mental health and are at increased risk of mortality.

Studies suggest loneliness could:

  • Increase older people’s risk of dementia by 50%
  • Lead to depression and anxiety
  • Result in developing higher blood pressure

The health conditions associated with loneliness can severely affect people’s longevity.

Ageism at work and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act

prevent ageism

Ageism is a problem that older workers face when they’re looking for jobs as well.

Older workers could be discriminated against during the hiring process and may struggle to find work compared to their younger colleagues. This means they’re less likely to be socializing with co-workers. And older people are often left out of social activities because they’re not considered “cool” or “fun.” This isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression.

Women, in particular, are more likely to be affected by this phenomenon. An intersection of ‘isms where sexism and ageism work together to oppress women of the older demographic create significant adverse impacts where women could be perceived as more incapable than their male counterparts.

There are some legal mechanisms to tackle this type of behavior.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) makes it illegal for most private businesses and public institutions to engage in age discrimination in circumstances including but not limited to hiring, firing, layoffs, promotions, job assignments, and benefits. Age harassment is also illegal under the act.

This gov website goes into further detail about the implications of breaking ADEA.

How ageism affects social isolation

Ageism can cause social isolation outside of work as well.

As family members move away and friends pass away, many older adults struggle with social loneliness. They may find it harder to use new technology or connect with people outside their age group.

This can lead to feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety.

While social media can help lonely older people connect with others, it is often geared towards younger people. This can make it difficult for older adults to find online communities that cater to their interests and needs.

Dating apps tend to capture younger demographics, making it difficult for older people to use them to find company. For example, 88% of over 65s have never used a dating app.

Older people who are not at work are also excluded from the opportunity to make friends in the office, which drastically limits their chance to meet someone new.

From family members moving away to friends dying and work no longer being an option, it is easy to understand how older people can become isolated.

Older people who find themselves in this situation may need to take steps to build a support network. They could do this by:

  • Volunteering; there are plenty of organizations that could use an extra set of hands, and volunteering is a great way to give back to the community. Not only is this an opportunity to meet new friends, but older people can also have a sense of purpose.
  • Part-time work; working a few hours a week can be a great way to meet new people and stay active. For example, someone who works as a cashier at the local grocery store is likely to meet many different people from all walks of life and potentially make new friends.
  • Joining local clubs or groups is another excellent way for older people to make friends. Whether it’s a book club or exercise class, participating in activities with others is a great way to form lasting friendships.

These are just some of the ways to tackle social isolation in older age.

What can we do to prevent ageism?

ageism loneliness

Ageism is a pervasive form of discrimination that disproportionately affects older people. There are many examples of ageism. It can take the form of jokes or comments about “old people,” assumptions that older adults can’t use technology, or policies that exclude older adults from participating in certain activities. Ageism can harm both individual well-being and society as a whole.

But individuals and society can do much to prevent ageism. For example, we can collectively tackle these issues by:

  • Speaking up when someone makes ageist comments and confronting the person rather than going along with it.
  • Advocating for the rights of older adults and supporting policies and programs that promote age-inclusive societies.
  • Educating others about ageism and its consequences, for example, through workshops about the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the work of the equal employment opportunity commission.
  • Examining internalized biases and conceptions about older people and tackling agist beliefs before people externalize them.

These interventions could go a long way towards preventing and tackling ageism.

The roots of ageism and how to tackle age discrimination

There is no one root cause of ageism but rather a combination of factors that contribute to its prevalence in our society. The terror management theory suggests that ageism is a way of coping with our own mortality, while the stereotype embodiment theory posits that we internalize negative stereotypes about older adults over time.

The social identity theory suggests that ageism is a form of discrimination that arises when people feel threatened by members of a different age group.

Regardless of its root causes, ageism breeds loneliness and isolation. Older adults often feel discriminated against in a healthcare setting, a trend highlighted by the fear and isolation they reported during the pandemic. This can lead to poor health outcomes and social isolation, as older adults may have fewer opportunities to interact with others.

To prevent ageism, we need to challenge negative stereotypes about aging, advocate for the rights of older adults, and create inclusive environments that welcome people of all ages.


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