In an investigation of decision making on training, researchers gave business students in their 20s an exercise in which they were to make decisions about the imaginary employees of a fictitious company Employees were described as either "older" or "younger," or their personnel records included the photograph of either an older or younger person. One of these employees, a production staff worker, asked to attend a conference exploring new theories and research on production. When this employee was depicted as older, most of the students denied the request for training, but allowed the younger version of the same employee to attend. Another employee was a computer programmer whose skills had become obsolete and therefore had to be retrained or replaced. When this employee was characterized as older, the students opted for termination; when this employee was portrayed as younger, they chose retraining. In response to other scenarios, the students fired older workers who were having performance problems, but retrained younger workers exhibiting the same behaviors. They elected not to hire or advance job candidates who were older, but either employed or promoted younger workers with identical qualifications when the jobs called for creativity, innovation, quick judgments or physical exertion.
The researchers speculated that older, more mature personnel workers might not be as harsh as these young students. There is ample evidence, however, that the investigators were wrong: Studies show that judging people not by their behavior or personality but by their age (i.e., ageism) is in fact extensive. The purpose of this article is to alert readers to the problem of ageism, especially in the workplace. The article illustrates how ageism is inadvertently sustained by managers and even adult educators, and explores how we might begin to confront the problem.
Ageism Is Widespread
In a study conducted by the National Council of Aging, more than 50 percent of the employers surveyed believed that older workers cannot perform as well as younger workers. Likewise, in a University of Akron study, ageism was found to exist not only among executives and managers, but even among …