The four types of ageism and how to challenge them in your organization

When I returned to the school benches at age 38, I looked forward to meeting like-minded people and hoped I wasn’t the oldest. Imagine my surprise meeting André, a grey-haired 56-year-old guy pursuing his third bachelor’s degree. The only thought in my mind was, “Why would he, at his age, go through all this trouble to learn something new?” In my oblivious eyes, he was nearly retired.

I now know that this was a perfect example of personal ageism. Even worse, I’m about that same age now, and I’m studying health psychology at the university this semester. Let that sink in for a minute…

Relevance in today’s world

This example might make you believe that ageism is limited to the older part of our population, but that’s where you’re wrong. Younger people are victims of ageism bias just as much as older adults; usually, it’s not even intentional.

With today’s ageing population and tight labour market, it might be a good time to raise awareness for ageism bias and ban it from your organization.

Preview of the four types

So, let’s start with understanding the broad categories of ageism.

According to Dr. Robert Butler, President and CEO of the International Longevity Center, we can identify four types of ageism. These are:

✅ Personal Ageism
✅ Institutional Ageism
✅ Intentional (Explicit) Ageism
✅ Unintentional (Implicit) Ageism

Ready to dive deeper into these categories? Let’s go!

HR specialist reject an old man cv

Personal ageism

Personal ageism refers to individual biases and prejudices towards people of specific age groups. These beliefs are influenced by what we learn as children. Social media messages and television show characters also have a role.

Unfortunately, these personal attitudes may unintentionally influence decisions regarding hiring, promotions, or team collaborations.

Impact on company culture

As we’re not always aware of this baggage we carry, it can cause unintentional friction between colleagues.

Without proper action, this can eventually create a toxic work environment where age-related stereotypes prevail, hindering communication, teamwork, and innovation.

Practical solutions for management or HRM

When these issues arise, the first line of defence will be the Human Resources department and their impressive toolkit.

Implementing awareness programs and training can help employees recognize personal biases, fostering a more inclusive workplace.

Focus on self-awareness, reflection, empathy, and respect, and don’t underestimate the power of education! Educate your workforce about the strengths and contributions of different age groups.

Institutional ageism

Institutional ageism has everything to do with the official side of the organization. We’re talking about policies and practices within the organization that discriminate based on age.

It’s broader than personal ageism and often involves structural and systemic barriers that inadvertently favour or disfavour certain age groups.

Impact on job opportunities, careers, and employer reputation

When ageism has worked its way into policies, guiding principles and practices, that’s when you seriously have a problem.

It may result in unequal access to opportunities, training, or benefits for your workforce, leading to dissatisfaction and potential legal issues, which is bad enough.

But even from a business point of view, it’s a rather expensive bias to allow. It’s disastrous for your staff retention and development, and a high staff turnover does unparalleled damage to your reputation as an employer.

Just imagine: Being an in-demand employee, you can choose between an employer with an inclusive, diverse and open culture and a company with institutional ageism, resulting in age barriers in growth and career development. Which organization would you choose?

Strategies to challenge and reduce institutional ageism

Do you suspect the presence of institutional ageism? In that case, the first line of action would be conducting company policies and practices audits. This will uncover any hidden biases and lays a solid base for the following steps:

🎯 Implement clear anti-discrimination policies that address ageism and promote an age-diverse workforce.

🎯 For a culture change, provide training and education to break down stereotypes and foster understanding.

🎯 Finally, consider a reporting and feedback facility if not yet implemented. This enables early detection and resolution of age-related issues.

Intentional (explicit) ageism

We can consider this the black sheep in the pack. While the other three forms of ageism have an element of unconscious bias, this does not.

It involves deliberate actions and expressions that stereotype or demean someone based on age, and there is nothing pretty about that.

If, in this day and age, you find this kind of behaviour anywhere in your organization, it should ring all available alarm bells.

The dangers of stereotypes and the harm it can cause

Intentional ageism refers to deliberate actions to discriminate against someone based on age. This could involve explicit preferences in job postings, unfair evaluations, or targeted harassment.

For the victims, intentional ageism can lead to feelings of isolation, depression, and a loss of dignity.

As a result, this type of ageism can lead to a hostile and toxic work culture, reduced morale, potential legal ramifications, a high staff turnover and unparalleled damage to your reputation as an employer. Who needs that kind of trouble?

Steps to take action

I cannot emphasize this enough: Educate your workforce! Implement e-learning courses, utilize your company intranet, and be an example.

Ensure a robust anti-discrimination policy, implement clear reporting procedures, and take a solid organizational stance against ageism. Did I mention a “Speak Up” line already?

Unintentional (implicit) ageism

Unintentional ageism is subtler, often emerging as hidden biases we might not be aware of. It’s a lot like personal ageism but more work-related.

It can surface in ideas, attitudes, rules, or practices that are carried out without being aware that it’s an age-based bias.

Detecting hidden bias

As these biases are unintentional, it takes a lot of self-awareness and reflection to uncover them. And don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re immune to it; it happens to the best of us!

Need an example? Think of black birthday memorabilia, over-the-hill birthday cards, and ‘senior moments’. Or as a manager when they unintentionally treat older and younger staff differently. Depending on their bias, they can prefer ideas from more youthful or older coworkers based on alleged experience or flexibility.

Promoting awareness

Raising awareness and training will do the trick, as with the other forms of ageism.

Making the invisible, unintentional ageism brings you halfway to a healthy work environment.

Group of smiling positive office workers standing


stop ageism conceptual illustration open hand with text stop ageism global social problem

Ageism represents a widespread pattern of discrimination targeted at specific age groups. It mainly affects older individuals, but it can also influence younger ones.

This discrimination is rooted in preconceived notions, such as the stereotype that older people may be lacking in intelligence or unwilling to cooperate or the belief that the views and contributions of young adults should be dismissed or undervalued.

As an HRM professional, you must understand the nuanced differences between these four types of ageism. Consider yourself the gatekeeper that can create an environment that complies with legal requirements and promotes a culture of respect, inclusivity, diversity, and collaboration.

It’s a path towards a more enriched and harmonious workplace where age diversity is celebrated as a strength rather than a dividing factor.

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Angelique Hersman
Angelique Hersman
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