Ageism — prejudice, discrimination, and stereotyping based on age — is sometimes called society’s last acceptable “ism.” It happens at work, to celebrities, and in everyday ways. And it can make people feel invisible as they get older. 

A 2020 University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging found that 82 percent of adults 50 to 80 surveyed reported regularly experiencing at least one form of “everyday ageism.”

And, according to the World Health Organization, “Every second person in the world is believed to hold ageist attitudes, leading to poorer physical and mental health and reduced quality of life for older persons.”

Yale University professor of public health and psychology Becca Levy, author of the forthcoming book, “Breaking the Age Code,” calls ageism “the silent epidemic.” 

Plus, the pandemic has only made ageism worse, by increasing the physical isolation and accordant invisibility of older adults.

Syracuse University law professor Nina A. Kohn says that when the pandemic began and many thought it mainly killed older people, the clear implication was that “if an illness ‘merely’ decimated older people, we might be able to live with it.”

So, where exactly do we see ageism and what can we do about it?

Where ageism occurs

Ageism in the workplace

Pat D’Amico of Honesdale, Pennsylvania, 71, who’s now retired, says she’s felt invisible at various times during her career in education since as early as her 40s.

“I remember the first time I felt as if I experienced a bit of ageism,” she says. “I went for a job interview and during the interview, this twenty-something young lady repeatedly kept emphasizing [that] this was a ‘fast-paced’ environment,” D’Amico recalls. 

“I was like, ‘I’m not quite sure I will get the job.’ Nor did I want the job. I walked away feeling like this young lady just assumed that I couldn’t keep up with what was going on in her business.”

Mariann Aalda, a 73-year-old Chicago-area actor and anti-ageism activist, says that casting directors mostly stopped calling when she hit her mid-50s. These days, she notes, the only scripts she’s offered are for characters who are incapacitated or “crazy” or curmudgeons. Aalda says, “I don’t see my energetic, vibrant 73 on screen at all.” 

D’Amico and Aalda are certainly not alone. An AARP survey said that 78 percent of older workers believe that they witnessed age bias at work or were targets themselves. 

Ageism is at play when managers dismiss the résumés of older job seekers because of their age. It’s also apparent when companies overlook or fire seasoned employees because managers perceive them to be expensive and not productive. 

But the truth is that older workers tend to miss work less often than younger ones and quit their jobs less frequently, on average. As a result, they typically cost employers less than younger workers, explains Stanford University sociology PhD candidate and Encore Public Voices Fellow Sasha Johfre in her 2021 “Report on Intergenerational Relationships.”

Yet, a recent study shows that many employers prefer not to hire job seekers over 50, even during the current labor shortage and despite their commitment to racial, gender, and sexual identity diversity. 

“Every second person in the world is believed to hold ageist attitudes, leading to poorer physical and mental health and reduced quality of life for older persons.” — World Health Organization

Court documents have shown that, in recent years, IBM executives planned to phase out “dinobabies,” the name they gave to the company’s older employees. 

And a 2016 Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco review of 40,000 job applications in the United States found that job seekers ages 64 to 66 were denied interviews more often than ones 49 to 51. Even some millennials are feeling ageist slights by Gen Z colleagues, The New York Times reports.

Lisa Finkelstein, co-author of “Ageless Talent” and a professor of social and industrial/organizational psychology at Northern Illinois University, agrees that people do tend to lose power as they age. “And, of course,” she adds, “women are less likely to have power than men.”

Johfre found this double standard, too. In her intergenerational relationships report, she cited the finding of sociologists Toni Calasanti and Kathleen Slevin that, “In the workforce, older women often feel ‘invisible,’ whereas some older men are able to achieve status as a wise and sought-after mentor.”

Retiring from work can lead to a feeling of invisibility, too. 

Matthew Fullen, assistant professor of counselor education at Virginia Tech, explains, “When a person is no longer gainfully employed, they might be experiencing aging as the kind of an entry into this period of worthlessness, or not having as much to offer.” 

As the former editor of the Work & Purpose channel for Next Avenue, the PBS site for people over 50, I can attest that a feeling of invisibility in retirement is pretty common, especially among men.

Ageism in healthcare

One in 5 adults 50 years and older say that they’ve experienced discrimination in healthcare based on their age, according to a 2015 Journal of General Internal Medicine study.

Ageism happens when doctors use “elderspeak” — talking down to their older patients — and when doctors talk only to those patients’ younger family members

“If you have a complaint or symptom, there’s a lot of ‘Well, you’re old. What do you expect?’” D’Amico says, speaking from personal experience. “I find some healthcare professionals just want you to take their answer and go away.”

Fullen says that 40 percent of the mental health workforce — licensed professional counselors, as well as marriage and family therapists — are not recognized by Medicare.

Yet mental health conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety affect 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries, according to an American Counseling Association article by Fullen and other researchers. 

“Some of the people that [my research team has] talked to have a therapist they’ve worked with for 10 years, and as soon as they become Medicare-eligible, they have to find somebody else or start paying out-of-pocket,” Fullen notes.

Ageism in popular culture

As you’ve probably noticed yourself, ageism is rampant in advertising

In a 2018 AARP survey, 72 percent of people 50 and over said that when adults in this age group are shown in advertising, they’re more likely to be portrayed negatively than those under 50.

And movies and TV shows frequently make fun of older people or — worse — exclude them. Aalda says, “When you don’t see yourself reflected in the media and film and television, you feel invisible.”

“In the workforce, older women often feel ‘invisible,’ whereas some older men are able to achieve status as a wise and sought-after mentor.” — Sasha Johfre

Who is affected most by ageism?

It’s hardly surprising that among the many people who believe they become invisible as they get older, women rank among the top. A study by the A. Vogel herbal supplement company found that most women surveyed began to feel invisible by the time they turned 51.

Sari Botton, the Gen X creator of Oldster magazine, explains the reality that women face this way: “We live in a youth-obsessed, cis-hetero, white supremacist patriarchy that celebrates only certain kinds of beauty, at certain points in life.” 

She adds, “We’re all conditioned to see only the people who fit into that tiny, coveted box. Once you no longer fit in it, you lose the culture’s attention.”

Finkelstein agrees. Women, she notes, “get valued more on visible characteristics, and as those that are valued in our culture tend to be youth-based, women tend to lose value as they age.”

The intersectionality of age, race, and gender makes some Women of Color feel particularly invisible. 

Finkelstein says, “To the extent that visibility is at least in part dependent on power, then in many circumstances, it will be women and People of Color” who will be more likely to feel invisible. 

Jeanette Leardi, a social gerontologist, writer, and community educator on aging issues, agrees. She says that people already marginalized by the majority — such as People of Color — are more likely to experience invisibility as they age.

Anti-ageism activist Elizabeth White, 68, who wrote “55, Underemployed and Faking Normal,” says: “I’ve been Black all my life. I’ve been female all my life… So, when you move into ageism, you have some experience with what it’s like to not be seen.”

But, she adds, “I think one of the things that happens for white men is [that] ageism may be the first time they walk in a room and people have a negative opinion or stereotypes [of them] they may not have encountered before.”

The emotional toll of invisibility and ageism

The feelings invisibility and ageism bring up can be disheartening, as anyone who has experienced them knows.

I confess I’ve had them myself, particularly when job hunting in my 50s and 60s and not hearing back about my applications or, I suspect, losing job opportunities to younger people due to my age.

The strange thing is, if we’re lucky, we all get older. That’s why, Finkelstein says, it’s in everyone’s best interest to change this feeling of invisibility as we age.

“In a 2018 AARP survey, 72 percent of people 50 and over said that when adults in this age group are shown in advertising, they’re more likely to be portrayed negatively than those under 50.”

So, what makes some people ageist?

Hardwiring leads many of us to make snap judgments of people based on their age, which can then make older adults feel invisible.

As Johfre wrote in her intergenerational relationships report, research has shown that when we meet a new person, we develop a general sense of their age within half a second and then change our expectations of, and behavior toward, that person based on our perception.

Leardi says that there are two types of ageists.

The first type are “egoistic ageists” who fear aging and consider old people both repulsive and irrelevant. 

The other type, who Leardi calls “compassionate ageists,” view old people as “pathetic and needy” and believe that they must be served and protected.

Ageism among kids and young adults

Ageism can start when children are as young as 3. In fact, a World Health Organization report says that ageism “starts in childhood and is reinforced over time.”

“There is a trajectory from young age to middle age to old age where everyone is reading from the same script,” Fullen explains, “and that script looks something like aging is something to be feared.”

He told me his son’s first grade class was instructed to dress up like 100-year-olds on the 100th day of school, leading some kids to bring in canes and make their hair gray. 

“Why engage in this ageist trope?” Fullen asks. “I’m not sure the teachers or administrators even make the connection that this is probably not a good idea.”

Young adults in their 20s, Fullen and Levy say, often believe myths about aging that can lead to ageism. 

One of those myths — the “decline narrative of aging” — maintains that all people become decrepit, depressed, and develop dementia as they age. 

Fullen and Levy say that their students initially tend to believe elders live mostly in long-term care facilities. But in reality, only about 5 percent of older Americans reside in nursing homes.

What happened to respecting our elders, anyway?

The idea of respecting your elders has lost traction in the United States over time, for a number of reasons.

“Researchers believe industrialization and modernization have contributed greatly to lowering the power, influence, and prestige the elderly once held,” notes William Little in “Introduction to Sociology.”

Another possible explanation: the decline of the extended family household. When the household is reduced to just the nuclear family, younger people have fewer interactions with— and as a result, less respect for the experiences and wisdom of — older people.  

Some cultures around the world, however, do still respect and honor elders. 

Levy found it true in Japan and China. It’s also the case in places like Greece, India, Korea, and among Native Americans.

In those countries and cultures, respecting elders still continues, due to different attitudes around aging and long traditions of passing down knowledge from generation to generation. 

“In 2017, Allure magazine stopped using the term ‘anti-aging’ because its editor-in-chief, Michelle Lee, said the term subtly reinforces the message that aging is a ‘condition we need to battle.’”

Our self-perception of aging affects how we do it 

Levy’s research has shown that our self-perception about aging can dramatically affect our mental health, physical health, and even our longevity.

Her studies found that people with positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7 and a half years longer on average compared with those with less positive self-perceptions of aging. They were also better protected against dementia. 

In Levy’s February 2022 JAMA Network article, “The Role of Structural Ageism in Age Beliefs and Health of Older Persons,” she cites a study of Americans over 50 showing that after a 4-year period, those with the highest degree of “aging satisfaction” had better health regarding diabetes, stroke, cancer, heart disease, lung disease, arthritis, and cognitive impairment, and had a reduced risk of sleep problems.

Levy tells me, “Only 25 percent of aging health longevity is determined by our genes; 75 percent is determined by environmental and psychological factors, and many of those we can control.” 

What’s being done to combat ageism and invisibility

Fortunately, the increased attention given to ageism and invisibility has sparked a shift. 

Celebrities like Christie Brinkley, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Heidi Klum — to name a few — are speaking out against ageism when they see or hear it. 

Brinkley, 68, recently responded to the Buzzfeed article “32 Celebrities Who Are Over 50 and Absolutely Prove That, Yes, Being Older Is Attractive” with a sharply worded Instagram post. In it, she wrote, “The subtle constant categorizing of women by age, making us feel like we are approaching some exponential expiration date, gnaws away at one’s confidence.”

In 2017, Allure magazine stopped using the term “anti-aging” because its editor-in-chief, Michelle Lee, said that the term subtly reinforces the message that aging is a “condition we need to battle.” The Royal Society of Public Health in Great Britain then called for the British beauty and cosmetics industry to follow suit. 

Soon after Allure’s announcement, AARP’s CEO, JoAnn Jenkins, author of “Disrupt Aging,” applauded the beauty and fashion magazine and said her group’s publications would no longer use the term anti-aging either. Growing older, Jenkins said, “should be celebrated and embraced.”

In 2019, the National Institute on Aging began mandating that participants of all ages be included in human subjects research unless there’s a scientific or ethical reason to exclude any age category.

Medicare now includes questions about depression in its annual free wellness visits — though it still has a ways to go to help older adults with mental illness.

What can still be done

But still, much more can be done to keep people from feeling invisible. 

Employers can review the applications of older job seekers rather than ignore them, and they can hire qualified people over 50 based on their expertise and years of experience.  

Doctors and nurses can check their own biases and do a better job treating older patients like younger ones — with respect and attention. 

More medical students can become geriatricians, Levy says. Geriatrics is an underpopulated, lower paid specialty. 

Medicare can recognize all professionals treating the mental health of people over 65.

And people can try to actually rid themselves of negative age beliefs. Levy notes that research has shown that ageist beliefs are malleable. 

In her book, Levy recommends the “ABC Method” as one way to bolster positive age beliefs:

A is increasing awareness by identifying where negative and positive images of aging are found in society. “I just ask people, ‘What are the first five words or phrases that come to mind when you think of an older person?'” she says.

Once you note these words or phrases, ask yourself how many are negative and how many are positive. Then work on turning the negatives into positives.

B is placing blame — understanding that health and memory problems can be the result of the negative age beliefs we acquire from society. Levy recommends monitoring yourself for when age stereotypes influence how you think.

C is challenging ageist beliefs by taking action against ageism so that it’s no longer harmful. For example, Levy says, let your elected representatives know when you disagree with their positions on legislation relevant to older constituents or send a protest message to a company you see advertising a product in an ageist way.

This kind of proactiveness is helpful. It can include ending relationships with people making you feel invisible and speaking up when someone — a doctor, an employer, a family member — causes you to feel you’re invisible. 

Leardi says, “In healthcare, you can always get a second opinion or find another doctor who’s a better fit for you.”

She also suggests older adults look for ways to spend time with younger ones. “Forming intergenerational relationships is the best way of ensuring a future that’s free of ageism,” Leardi says.

Some experts think that Baby Boomers will use their power in numbers and their history of activism to become more vocal against invisibility. “We’re the generation that has the possibility of redefining how [ageism] is seen,” says White.

Leardi says, “We have to be the vanguard that disrupts ageism.”

Part of combatting invisibility, experts say, is also working harder to feel less invisible yourself. Botton remarks, “Self-confidence is the most attractive thing, regardless of age.”