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Understanding The Roots Of Ageism In Contemporary Society

updated August 29, 2011


WhoIs? Prof. Wojtek J. Chodzko-Zajko Ageism can be defined as the practice of discriminating against an individual or group of individuals on the basis of their chronological age. While to some extent any age group can be the recipient of ageism and ageist thinking, the two groups most frequently singled out for stereotypic treatment are the young and the old. In my contribution to “the Conference website” I will share some thoughts about the root causes of age discrimination in contemporary society. The term ageism was coined in 1969 by the late Robert Butler who served as the first director of National Institute on Aging, the division of the National Institutes of Health dedicated to the scientific study of aging and older adults. Butler suggests that ageism is composed of three constituent elements;


  1. Prejudicial attitudes towards the aged, towards old age, and towards the aging process;
  2. Discriminatory practices against the elderly, particularly in employment, but in other social roles as well; and
  3. Institutional policies and procedures which perpetuate stereotypic beliefs about the elderly, reduce their opportunities for a satisfactory life and undermine their personal dignity.

Butler notes that these prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory behaviors, and unjust institutional policies are almost always highly interrelated and reinforcing to one another. He suggests that "...all three have contributed to the transformation of aging from a natural process into a social problem." A situation in which aging and the aged are viewed as unnatural or deviant. One in which aging is characterized as a clinical condition associated with predictable and inescapable deficits and declines.

Prof. Chodzko-Zajko

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Aging is often portrayed as a challenge or even a threat to society. One in which the old are depicted as an economic burden. In short, aging is viewed as a crisis, a situation which will need to be managed before it gets out of hand. How many of us cannot recall listening on television or on the internet to some expert analyzing the costs associated with the "greying of America". Economists and medical sociologists warning of dire consequences for the planet as the cost of providing care for an ever growing number of older adults continues to spiral at an exponential rate. In contrast, how many of us can remember reading articles or listening to stories which celebrate our successes, not only in increasing life expectancy, but more importantly, in increasing the quality of life enjoyed by an ever increasing proportion of the older adult population. I would suggest that the pessimism and negativity which characterizes media coverage of the so called "aging problem" is not an isolated example of journalistic hyperbole, but rather that this kind of bias it is symptomatic of a more general and pervasive attitude in society as a whole.

There is a real and significant tendency throughout society to overstate the negative consequences of aging, while at the same time paying considerably less attention to the many joys and fulfillments which frequently accompany the process of growing old. As an academic who has dedicated his career to the study of healthy and successful aging, I have spent a good deal of time thinking about why industrialized, western societies appear to have developed such pessimistic and negative stereotypes about the aging process. One often cited explanation is we have gradually lost our sense of reverence for old age as an institution. For some reason we no longer view older adults as persons deserving of respect and veneration.

This particular argument for the origins of ageism usually goes something like this:

In ancient societies... (here we can insert Ancient Greece, Classical Rome, Medieval Europe, Pre-industrial Society, Aboriginal Cultures)...older adults were respected and revered simply because they were old. As elders they were afforded high status, they were regarded as the purveyors of knowledge and wisdom, as repositories of culture, history, and folk lore. The wise old sage was an individual who could be counted on for sound advice and counsel during periods of hardship and distress…. (the argument usually continues something like this)… following the advent of the industrial revolution, or, following the decline of the extended family, the invention of the printing press, the coming of the railroad, or as a consequence of the increase in adult literacy, the decline in family values, any number of other factors.... we gradually lost touch with our sense of respect for the old. Possibly because the wisdom, truth, and folk lore they used to impart are now available in books, on television, and on the internet. The unspoken implication of this hypothesis is, that in order to make things right, we simply have to get back in touch with our roots, to re-adopt the mores and values of ancient and historical times, and in doing so, to rediscover our wonder, respect, and veneration for the institution of old age.

Over the past decade or so, I have spent some time reading historical and cross-cultural accounts of attitudes towards the aged and the aging process. As a result of this search I have found little support for the premise that ancient cultures did in fact respect and revere the elderly all that much more than we do today in contemporary society. Indeed, while there are numerous accounts in early literature and folk-lore which suggest that some older individuals were held in respect and veneration, there are almost as many instances where one can find examples in historical writings of prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory behaviors, and institutionalized ageism very similar to those described by Butler in 1969.

In order to illustrate this point I will to focus briefly on the treatment of age and the aging process in Ancient Greece and Classical Rome.


Ancient Greece:

The Greeks were probably the first of many cultures to formally categorize old age as but one of several stages of life. One of the most interesting aspects pertaining to  the Ancient Greek perspective on the  stages of life is the fact that the  Greeks differentiated between the sexes when defining the various stages of the life cycle. In Ancient Greece the "ages of man" were gender specific.


For Men they were:

  1. Pais       Child
  2. Neos      Young Adult
  3. Akme     Mature Man in Prime of Life
  4. Geron     Old man

In contrast, for women the stages of life were;

  1. Pais       Child
  2. Kore       Sexually mature but virginal woman
  3. Gynos    Married and fertile woman
  4. Graia      Old woman


For women, the transition from gynos to graia was marked by the menopause, whereas for men the transition from akme to geron generally occurred much later in life and marked the transfer of control or authority in the household from father to son. While descriptions of the characteristics of older adults in Greek literature vary, there are numerous references which suggest that attitudes towards the elderly were not always favorable. For example, Homer describes the elderly as "..hateful, accursed, difficult, and sorrowful". The poet Mimnermus speaks of "difficult and ugly old age...both hateful and dishonored", and Euripides writes of "deadly, sorrowful old age" Socrates is perhaps the ultimate example of a less than favorable attitude towards older adults. Reviled by the Athenian Mob, and accused of corruption of the young, Socrates was forced by his accusers to drink hemlock. His parting comments to his judges were recorded by Plato in the Apology. " The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways, I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows." Parenthetically, these literary characterizations of the elderly are consistent with biases found in Ancient Greek art in which sculptures or paintings of older people were almost always portrayed as physically idealized, younger representations of themselves.

Having noted the presence of pejorative and negative descriptions of the elderly in Greek literature, it is only appropriate to point out that there are also many positive references to aging and the aged. For example, in the Iliad, Homer introduces the character Nestor, one of the first literary representations of the stereotypic wise old man. Despite his old age, Nestor was greatly respected among the city-councilman in Troy. He was renowned for his sound tactical and moral advice and was in many ways a prototype for Shakespeare's Polonius. It is interesting to note that the Greek word for elder is geront which is derived from two roots, geras (privilege) and geras (old age). Despite the fact that it is possible to find references to old men who were thought to possess wisdom, this wisdom was not thought to have emerged solely as a result of the process of growing old. On the contrary , in Plato's Republic, the "philosopher-kings" were revered not because they were old, but because of the status afforded them as a function of their grueling education. In The Republic, Plato ridicules an old man called Cephalus who repeatedly attempts to enter into dialogue with the philosopher kings but lacks the necessary intellectual tools to do so.


Classical Rome:

Similarly, both negative and positive portrayals of aging and the elderly can also be found in Classical Roman Literature. Ovid writes of aging as follows, "with what great and unending evils is old age filled". He warns his stepdaughter Perilla that "there will come a day when that lovely face of yours will be scarred by years, and hateful old age will lay her hand on your beauty." Horace describes an old man as "avaricious, timid, and full of complaints". However, there are also many positive portrayals of aging in Roman Literature. The Roman Senate, the most influential political institution in Classical Rome derived its name from the latin word "senex" meaning "old man". Plutarch wrote an essay entitled "An seni sit geranda res publica" which translates to "whether an old man should participate in affairs of state". He writes... "Old men are invaluable by virtue of their experience and wisdom and because they are free of the jealousy and passion that marks younger men and interferes with their performing their civic duty." He adds "States should look to elders in a crisis, when speech, caution, and foresight are needed, not mere physical strength. Youth ought to obey and age to rule"

In summary, considerable ambiguity exists with respect to the portrayals of older adults in ancient literature. While there is evidence that elders were sometimes respected for their foresight, wisdom, and restraint, they were also frequently ridiculed and reviled. It is important to note that virtually all descriptions of Ancient Greek and Roman attitudes towards aging and the aged are both class and gender specific. Before we set forth ancient cultures as paragons of virtue, we would do well to remember that we are describing societies in which women, by and large, had few rights and privileges, and societies in which whole segments of the population, both male and female, old and young were routinely enslaved, enduring lives which were nasty, brutish, and short, with no civil rights, and no prospect of ever attaining a position of respect or veneration.

It is my belief that similar conclusions would be reached if one were to examine literary or historical records from many other cultures and civilizations. It is currently popular to turn to native American and other aboriginal traditions in our search for a better understanding of the essence of life. While I would not deny the existence of a great wealth of wisdom and sound teaching in these sources, we must be careful to maintain both our objectivity and a sense of balance. Yes, it is important to remember that elders were revered and respected in many tribes. However, in others tribes, for example, the Sirino, Yakuts, and Chukchee, seniors were routinely and unceremoniously abandoned to die in the wilderness once it was deemed to be economically unfeasible to continue to support them.

While the study of ancient and historical portrayals of aging and the old is tremendously interesting in its own right, I personally do not believe that the roots of our own contemporary attitudes towards aging and the elderly can be discovered through an excursion into these sources.

Instead I propose that the source of many of our negative and stereotypic images of aging and the old lies considerably closer to home than either Mount Olympus or the Seven Hills of Rome. Rather, I would like to suggest that many of our misconceptions about aging and what it means to grow old have emerged as a result of a systematic and pervasive misinterpretation of the findings of contemporary scientific research in the areas of the biology and psychology of aging. Specifically, I propose that we have been led astray by what I will call the three inferential fallacies of experimental gerontology. They are

  1. Mean Spirited Generalization;
  2. Causal Misattribution; and
  3. Too Much Intelligence and Too Little Wisdom.


The First Fallacy: Mean Spirited Generalization

On average, most physiological and psychological variables exhibit highly reliable and predictable performance declines with advancing age. If one measures functional capability across the lifespan, more often than not, functional capacity peaks in relative youth and declines steadily and linearly thereafter. I would like you to imagine a graph which tracks age-related performance decline across the lifespan. Performance gradually improves during childhood, peaks in young adulthood, and steadily declines thereafter. This graph is almost ubiquitous in experimental gerontology and has has come to be known as the "age degeneration curve". However our imaginary graph does not tell the whole story. An important question which we should be asking ourselves is "where does the age degeneration curve originate?" In most instances the performance decline described in a typical aging curve depicts average behavior of a relatively large number of individuals measured at the same point in time in a cross-sectional study. By plotting only average performance of different age groups and ignoring variability about the mean, the age degeneration curve fails to recognize that large numbers of individuals can deviate significantly from the average, normal, or expected patterns of senescence.

wzajko_foto2There are numerous examples in gerontology research of individuals who have managed to deviate substantially from the expected pattern of linear senescence. Older adults who maintain relatively high levels of functioning throughout adult life, experiencing rapid decline in functional capacity only in the final stages of senescence. In my own area of research, exercise science, there is now strong evidence that although mean levels of cardiovascular fitness almost always follow predictable straight-line patterns of decline with advancing age, there are large numbers of older adults who do not exhibit these tendencies. Indeed numerous studies have shown that people who adopt lifelong patterns of exercise and physical activity can often exhibit little or no decline in cardiovascular function for extended periods of time, sometimes for as long as several decades or more.

The rationale behind this institutionalized ageism was that, on average, people aged 55 and older are no longer able to perform the duties of a state trooper, or firefighter, and therefore, it is in society's interest to not allow anyone over this age to continue in employment. I am proud to say that some years ago I was asked to write a small portion of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Report to Congress which recommended that the public safety professions lose their exempt status under the age discrimination in employment act. In an increasing number of jurisdictions across the United States, it is no longer legal to force professionals in these areas to retire at a particular age simply because most of their peers have allowed themselves to decline so much by a particular age.

Unfortunately such instances of foresight, justice, and rationality are rare. In all too many cases, individual attitudes and values, as well as institutional policies and practices, are governed not by respect for individual rights but by sweeping generalizations about the capabilities, capacities, wishes, hopes, and dreams of older adults. Such callous disregard for individuality is truly mean spirited.


The Second Inferential Fallacy: Causal Misattribution

Causal misattribution in aging research occurs when changes which accompany the passage of time are incorrectly assumed to have been caused by the process of aging. For example, if one studies large numbers of people, one almost always finds that muscular strength declines with advancing age. However, it would be incorrect to assume that these changes were necessarily caused by the process of growing older. On the contrary, we now know that a substantial portion of the decline in muscle strength which usually accompanies advancing age is due to disuse atrophy resulting from extended periods of physical inactivity. For many years, exercise scientists, physicians and other health professionals believed that loss of strength was a natural and inescapable consequence of normal human aging. Older adults were actively discouraged from joining strength training programs. Guidelines and position statements from the major professional organizations actively discouraged strenuous resistive exercise for those over sixty years of age.


The Third Inferential Fallacy: To Much Intelligence and Too Little Wisdom

Much of what we know about age-related changes in psychological measures comes from the study of relatively artificial constructs such as human intelligence, reaction time, and problem solving ability. For the most part, these attributes are chosen because they can be readily quantified and easily measured in an experimental laboratory. With very few exceptions, these tasks depend upon the rapid processing of information by the central nervous system for their successful completion. Because older adults generally do not process information as quickly as younger individuals, they almost always score poorly on these types of psychological tests. However, when older adults are able to take their time answering psychological tests, age differences either shrink dramatically, or disappear altogether. Paul Baltes has developed an exquisite model for objectively measuring that multidimensional aspect of human intellectual functioning which most of us refer to as "wisdom". Baltes and his colleagues present experimental subjects with a variety of hypothetical social and personal problems. Subjects are asked to evaluate the situation and to propose appropriate strategies and remedies to help correct the problem. Answers are evaluated using a multi-factorial scale which assesses, among other factors, factual knowledge, procedural knowledge, life-span contextualism, value relativism, and uncertainty.

The fascinating aspect of this research is that performance on the multidimensional wisdom scale does not show any tendency to decrease with advancing age. Baltes speculates that older adults, possibly as a result of their greater depth of experience, can, on average, generate both more creative and more appropriate solutions, than most chronologically younger individuals. Baltes cautions that it is not appropriate to assume that all older adults will acquire great wisdom as they grow old. However, it is equally inappropriate to assume that attributes such as intelligence will necessarily exhibit declines with advancing age. He notes that "both potential and limitations, gains and losses, are part of the picture of the aging mind, and the consideration of their productive interaction is the challenge of future scholarship." Thus, the third and final inferential fallacy of contemporary gerontology has been our tendency to rely on relatively unsophisticated measures in our study of human capabilities across the lifespan. Our reliance on these over-simplistic and unrepresentative measures has frequently failed to do justice to the multifaceted complexities of both life in general, and human aging in particular.




In summary, while there is ample evidence that ageism and ageist attitudes do indeed frequently prevail in contemporary western society, I have argued that, the remedy for this situation is not a return to the mores and values of ancient cultures and civilizations. Rather, I believe that justice and equity will be better served by simply recognizing that older individuals are just individuals. By learning to avoid some of the generalizations and misattributions discussed in this paper, I believe that society can break away from its predisposition to treat people as if they were simply averages or numbers.

On this excellent and thought provoking website, I have noticed a disappointing trend for many articles dealing with aging and older adults to focus disproportionately on challenges associated with providing "care" for the oldest members of society and far fewer articles that address the many joys and successes which can characterize the process of growing older. It is my hope that this contribution will stimulate a more balanced and positive discussion of aging and the aged throughout this excellent forum. Certainly when warranted we should address issues related to challenges and concerns. But we should not hesitate to also celebrate the many successes which characterize aging in contemporary society, not only in increasing life expectancy, but more importantly in increasing the quality of life enjoyed by an ever increasing proportion of the older adult population.

By learning to recognize and celebrate human diversity, I am confident that we can break away from our current pessimistic attitudes towards aging and turn instead towards a future in which we can truly rejoice in the heterogeneity of all humankind regardless of age.



  • Baltes, P. B. (1993). The Aging Mind: Potentials and Limits, Gerontologist 33, 5, 580-594.
  • Chodzko-Zajko, W. Schwingel, A, Park, CH (2009). Successful Aging: The Role of Physical Activity, American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 3:20-28.
  • Cole, T.R., Van Tassel, D.D., Kastenbaum, R., (2000). Handbook of the Humanities and Aging, Springer, New York, NY
  • Gould, Steven, J. (1981), The Mismeasure of Man, Norton, Philadelphia, Pa.
  • Jecker, N.S. (1992). Aging and Ethics, Humana Press, Totawa, NJ.
  • Kohn, M., Donley, C., Wear, D., (1992). Literature and Aging: An Anthology, Kent State University Press, Kent, OH.
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Comments (1)
1Sunday, 01 July 2012 17:45
This is a fantastically stimulating article, which has helped me with my studies in ageism. I think as human beings we need to stop celebrating youth. Ageing is not a disease but a fact of life and not something to be feared. I think it is this fear which makes some people put older into an "outsider" group, a group to be shunned and ignored.

I am much happier at 45 than I was at 20! Thank you for this presentation.

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