Psychology Ageism
Sheri R. Levy, MaryBeth Apriceno, Jamie L. Macdonald, Ashley Lytle
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0224


Historically, older people were valued members of society for their vast knowledge and contributions to both family and community. As such, older adults were often characterized as knowledgeable, wise, patient, cheerful, helpful, and kind. Unfortunately, in many modern “youth-centered” societies, older adulthood is also characterized as an exaggerated period of deterioration in physical appearance, status, competence, and contributions to society. Older adults have been stereotyped as asexual, boring, burdensome, childlike, cranky, forgetful, greedy, helpless, lonely, sickly, and unattractive. Robert N. Butler, who became the founding Director of the National Institute on Aging in the United States, introduced the term “ageism” in 1969 in an article in The Gerontologist. Butler later wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book titled Why survive? Being old in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1975). Despite the fact that many people deeply care for family and friends who are older adults and hope to live a long life themselves, research has documented negative attitudes and behavior toward older adults from children to older adults themselves. There is evidence that ageism is on the rise, which may be due in part to negative portrayals of older adulthood in the mass media and socially condoned forms of ageism including large and profitable industries of antiaging treatments as well as products (e.g., ageist birthday cards and gifts) that explicitly poke fun at older adulthood as a period of decline. Ageism can undermine positive intergenerational interactions as ageism allows for avoidance, disrespect, and discriminatory behavior toward older adults. This includes devaluing older adults’ contributions in the workplace, providing older adults with worse health care and treatment, and financially exploiting and abusing older adults. Further, research indicates that ageism represents a stereotype threat and that people embody aging stereotypes in self-fulfilling ways that are detrimental to their well-being, health, and longevity. The World Health Organization highlights that the older population is rapidly growing worldwide and that “ageism may now be more pervasive than sexism or racism.” Thus there is no greater time to make progress on understanding and challenging ageism. There are promising interventions such as ones that provide facts on aging and provide positive intergenerational experiences.

General Overviews: Books

There are not as many books on ageism as there are on racism or sexism, but there are excellent overviews of the history and current trends in theorizing, research, public policies, and interventions related to ageism. A common thread across these books is the interdisciplinary nature of the scholarly work on ageism. The Pulitzer Prize winning book Butler 1975 is a classic that is still relevant today in outlining the issues and concerns about the negative portrayal of older adulthood. Other early books on ageism include Barrow and Smith 1979 and Levin and Levin 1982. In 1989, Erdman Palmore, a pioneer in the field, aimed to bring attention to both positive and negative ageism, and his book is aptly titled Ageism: Negative and Positive. Palmore, in his drive to address the issue from all angles, defined ageism as “any prejudice or discrimination against or in favor of an age group” (1999, p. 4). Palmore also edited a comprehensive volume along with Branch and Harris, titled Encyclopedia of Ageism, which covers a comprehensive set of issues related to ageism, including public policies affecting older adults, abuse in nursing homes, discrimination in the workplace, retirement communities, and health care. Todd D. Nelson assembled an interdisciplinary group of scholars from gerontology, psychology, sociology, and communication fields to contribute to an edited volume in 2017 called Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice Against Older Persons. There are no textbooks on ageism for undergraduate courses, although the aforementioned books are generally suitable for an academic as well as a lay audience.

  • Barrow, Georgia M., and Patricia A. Smith. 1979. Aging, ageism, and society. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing.

    Across seventeen chapters, provides a comprehensive review of the history of views of older adults across many domains such as health, work, and family, and addresses cross-cultural views of aging, programs to help older adults, and activism on behalf of older adults.

  • Butler, Robert N. 1975. Why survive? Being old in American. New York: Harper & Row.

    Pulitzer Prize-winning book for general nonfiction that outlines the economic and emotional challenges associated with aging in the United States and proposes changes to public policy and social reforms to reduce the victimization of older adults.

  • Levin, Jack, and William C. Levin. 1982. Ageism: Prejudice and discrimination against the elderly. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

    Discusses the historical “blame the victim” view of older adults and highlights that older adults should instead be thought of as a minority group who are discriminated against. They also discuss the need to change the societal institutions that allow for ageism.

  • Nelson, Todd D., ed. 2017. Ageism: Stereotyping and prejudice against older persons. 2d ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Examines age stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, including the origins of ageism, effects of ageism, and reducing ageism. The first edition was published in 2002.

  • Palmore, Erdman. 1999. Ageism: Negative and positive. 2d ed. New York: Springer.

    Covers the concepts, causes and consequences, institutional patterns, and interventions while focusing on both positive and negative forms of ageism. The first edition was published in 1989.

  • Palmore, Erdman B., Laurence Branch, and Diana K. Harris, eds. 2005. Encyclopedia of ageism. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Pastoral Press.

    Features 127 topics related to ageism from abuse in nursing homes to voice quality with contributions from sixty-three interdisciplinary scholars.

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