The first panel featured three presentations about the scientific knowledge regarding stereotypes in aging and disability as well as their impact. Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University, spoke about both positive and negative age stereotypes (i.e., stereotypes of older people) and their consequences. Katie Wang, an assistant professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Yale School of Public Health, discussed disability stereotypes (i.e., general beliefs about individuals with disabilities) and biases. Michael S. North, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the New York University Stern School of Business, spoke about ageism in the workplace. Following the presentations, Margaret L. Campbell, an independent consultant with Campbell & Associates Consulting, moderated an open discussion among the speakers and the workshop participants.
Levy began her presentation by showing a recent article from The New York Times related to Fashion Week (Safronova et al., 2017). In the article, 12 models were interviewed about what they thought were the “burning social issues” in the fashion industry, yet not one spoke about the exclusion of older adults. Levy noted that 10 of the 12 models were in their 20s,
and none were over 32, even though about one-third of the population is now over age 50. Similarly, a recent content analysis of Elle magazine found that only 2 percent of the models were over the age of 40. However, fashion can also promote positive age stereotypes. Levy showed images from a fashion show held at the 2017 World Congress of the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics. She said the show promoted positive images of aging, depicting the vibrancy, social engagement, and activeness of older adults. Levy also showed an advertisement from the anti-aging product industry—a “miracle cream” that will “take away some of the outward signs of getting older” and challenges the observer to “dare to be beautiful.” The hidden message, she said, is that if you are older, you are probably not beautiful. She continued:
So, not only are older individuals excluded, invisible in the fashion industry, but when they are included, they are often presented with negative age stereotypes or they are presented in ways that stigmatize aging as something that we want to fight against.
Levy described a study that found that the majority of survey respondents aged 60 and over reported experiencing one or more instances of ageism (Palmore, 2001). Furthermore, studies of implicit prejudice show that views toward older people are more negative than those toward women and African Americans (Levy and Banaji, 2004). An analysis of age stereotypes over 200 years found that the stereotypes are actually becoming more negative (Ng et al., 2015), which Levy attributed, in part, to both the medicalization of aging and the influence of the anti-aging industry, which profits from negative age stereotypes.
Research on the Impact of Stereotypes
“Children as young as age 3 can already tell us what the stereotypes are in their culture,” Levy said. These are reinforced over time and over the lifespan. Levy has developed a framework called the Stereotype Embodiment Theory (Levy, 2009), which proposes that the stereotypes that exist in our culture can, later in life, lead to self-definition that in turn influences functioning and health. According to Levy’s theory, this happens in two ways: from the culture down to the individuals and then within the individuals themselves.
So, Levy asked, do the images of aging that exist in our culture actually have an impact on older individuals? She described intervention research in which age stereotypes are presented subliminally to older adults. The presentation of negative age stereotypes led to worse cognitive function, worse physical function, greater stress levels, and a reduced
will to live. In contrast, the presentation of positive age stereotypes led to improvements in some of the same areas, she said. (Levy, 1996; Levy and Leifheit-Limson, 2009; Levy et al., 1999–2000, 2014).
Next, Levy described longitudinal research showing that individuals who held more negative age stereotypes had a significantly higher risk of having a cardiovascular event over the next 38 years than individuals who held more positive age stereotypes (Levy et al., 2009). In fact, the individuals who held more negative age stereotypes had twice the likelihood of having the cardiovascular event than those who held more positive age stereotypes.
Another recent study looked at biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease (Levy et al., 2016). To assess hippocampal volume, the researchers performed annual magnetic resonance imaging studies over 10 years for individuals who started off without dementia. Those subjects who had exposure to more positive age stereotypes showed significantly less decline than those who had taken in more negative age stereotypes. To assess another biomarker, the amount of plaques and tangles in the brain, the researchers looked at brains at autopsy. Again, those who had experienced more negative age stereotypes had a significantly greater accumulation of plaques and tangles as compared to those who had experienced more positive age stereotypes. Levy emphasized the importance of these findings, because “there is some evidence that we can modify the negative age stereotypes. It suggests that there might be a culture-based intervention or risk factor that might help in reducing cognitive decline” (Levy et al., 2012, 2014).
Levy described a campaign recently launched by the World Health Organization to overcome negative stereotypes of aging. Levy was invited to be part of the scientific group launching the campaign, which 196 countries have now joined. She speculated that there could be a role for fashion and design as a way to communicate ideas, especially culturally specific ideas.
In conclusion, I think that design and fashion can help shape negative and positive age stereotypes and thus how aging itself is experienced. We have evidence that negative age stereotypes can harm and positive age stereotypes can benefit older individuals’ health, functioning, and well-being. Lastly, I think the time has come for a global intervention to bolster positive age stereotypes and reduce negative age stereotypes.
The Americans with Disabilities Act1 defines disability as a physical or a mental impairment that substantially limits major life activities, Wang noted. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, disability affects one in five individuals in the United States (CDC, 2015). This prevalence is even higher among older adults, Wang said, because many people acquire disabilities such as vision loss or mobility impairment as they get older.
“If you ask me to summarize the nature of disability stereotypes in one word,” Wang said, “I would use the term ‘ambivalent.’” In particular, she continued, in much the same way as older adults, people with disabilities are often viewed as warm, but incompetent (Nario-Redmond, 2010). This perception can significantly disrupt interactions between people with disabilities and those without. For example, these interactions might be dominated by emotions like pity and sympathy on the part of the people without disabilities. People with disabilities might be treated like children, she said, and they are often offered unsolicited help that they do not really want or need. Although it is generally well-intentioned, unsolicited help can come across as patronizing, because the person offering the help may be presuming the target’s incompetence. Recipients of unsolicited help tend to experience more negative emotions and lower self-esteem, Wang said.
These negative consequences can present a dilemma for people with disabilities. Individuals may wish to assert independence by declining unnecessary help, but research shows that individuals from stigmatized groups who confront discriminatory behaviors tend to suffer negative interpersonal repercussions. It is very possible, Wang stated, that this penalty will generalize to people with disabilities who refuse assistance. To better understand this dilemma, Wang conducted a series of two studies on patronizing help for people who are blind.
Study 1: Perceptions of Patronizing Treatment
Wang first hypothesized that sighted people would find patronizing treatment to be more appropriate than hostile treatment, whereas blind
1 Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Public Law 101-336, 101st Cong. (July 26, 1990).
people would find both types of treatment to be inappropriate. Study participants were told that “Mary,” a 22-year-old blind person, was walking by herself using a white cane and stopped at the street corner to ask someone for directions to the nearest bus stop. In a patronizing treatment scenario, the pedestrian grabbed Mary’s arm without her consent and said, “It is too dangerous for you to be walking around by yourself. Let me take you to the bus stop.” In a hostile treatment scenario, the pedestrian said, “It is too dangerous for you to be walking around by yourself. You should just turn around and go home.” Wang then asked participants to rate the extent to which they perceived the pedestrian’s behavior as appropriate using a scale that included terms such as “appropriate,” “helpful,” “condescending,” and “overbearing.” As shown in Figure 3-1, Wang found a significant interaction between treatment type and participant disability status. Sighted study participants perceived the patronizing treatment as significantly more appropriate than hostile treatment. However, blind participants perceived both types of treatment to be highly inappropriate. Wang concluded:
What these results are basically telling us is that there is a significant divergence in perspective between how blind and sighted people perceive patronizing help. This discrepancy may have very important downstream consequences when it comes to how blind people are perceived by the sighted public.
Study 2: Consequences of Confronting Patronizing Treatment
Next, Wang examined how Mary would be perceived by sighted study participants when she confronted the patronizing or hostile treatment. Specifically, Wang hypothesized that when Mary confronted the discriminatory treatment from the sighted pedestrian, she would be perceived as less warm relative to the scenario in which she did not confront the treatment, especially when the treatment in question was patronizing rather than hostile in nature. She also predicted that this interaction would be mediated by the perceived appropriateness of the pedestrian’s behavior. In other words, Wang said, participants would penalize Mary more for confronting patronizing treatment because they felt that she was just overreacting to what should actually be considered appropriate behavior in the first place.
Wang noted that this study used the same scenario from the first study, but after describing the pedestrian’s behavior, the researchers additionally described Mary’s response. In the confrontation scenario, Mary responded by saying “I can handle myself just fine. I was only trying to get some simple directions.” In the non-confrontation scenario, Mary said nothing and either accepted the assistance being offered (in the case of patronizing treatment) or she walked away (in the case of hostile treatment). Participants indicated their perceptions of the pedestrian’s behavior and then rated how warm and likeable Mary was as a person. As seen in Figure 3-2, Mary was perceived as less warm when she confronted patronizing treatment as compared to when she confronted hostile treatment. Therefore, Wang said, the participants penalized Mary more for her confrontation in a patronizing condition when they believed the pedestrian’s actions were more appropriate in that case than in the hostile condition.
Taken together, Wang said, the two studies illustrate that people with and without disabilities tend to view patronizing treatment very differently. This discrepancy in perception can lead to interpersonal penalties for people with disabilities who refuse unsolicited help. “Our results also highlight this tricky balance that people with disabilities have to navigate between self-advocacy and getting along with the non-disabled general public,” Wang said.
Wang reflected on how to improve the interpersonal dynamics between people with and without disabilities in order to disrupt these harmful stereotypes. One possibility, she said, would be training in communication skills. For example, non-disabled individuals can ask people
with disabilities whether they need help and then respect their responses rather than making the assumption that some kind of help is always necessary. In the case of the study scenarios, Wang said, a more positive and constructive interaction would be if the pedestrian offered to take Mary to the bus stop and then let Mary decide whether this help was necessary. Wherever possible, Wang said, this type of communication skills training should also incorporate positive and equal status contact between people with and without disabilities. For example, blind and sighted people can collaborate on a joint project or activity so that they can become more comfortable interacting with each other.
On a larger scale, Wang said, it is important for the media to portray people with disabilities as competent individuals with agency and self-determination. This is particularly relevant in the case of fundraisers for disability-related causes. For example, Wang said, some disability organizations will try to attract public attention and sympathy by highlighting all of the difficulties that people with disabilities face and how helpless they can be because of their impairments. While this approach might be successful in terms of its ability to attract donations and public attention,
Wang said, it can reinforce existing disability stereotypes and potentially exacerbate some of the discrimination that people with disabilities already face. She suggested that an alternative would be that fundraisers focus on what people with disabilities can accomplish with appropriate support and accommodations and that they try to advocate for resources that will facilitate the implementation of this type of support.
Wang ended with three takeaway points. First, disability stereotypes are ambivalent in nature, with people with disabilities often perceived as warm but incompetent. Second, this stereotype often leads to patronizing treatment, which can present a dilemma for people with disabilities in terms of how they respond. Third, laws and regulations are important tools for removing structural barriers for people with disabilities, but they are unlikely to modify existing ambivalent stereotypes and unconscious biases. “As a result,” Wang concluded, “it is very important for us to consider individual-level intervention strategies to disrupt disability stereotypes, even though we might have to do this one person at a time.”
Michael S. North
New York University Stern School of Business
North began his presentation with an anecdote about the case of Reid v. Google, Inc.2 Brian Reid was a computer science professor at Stanford University who conducted foundational research related to the Internet and headed up the team that developed the early Internet search engine AltaVista. Reid became operations manager at Google, but soon encountered problems:
He starts coming to work every day, and he is being greeted with phrases like this from his younger coworkers and younger supervisors, phrases like “old man,” “too old to matter,” “not a good cultural fit.” Eventually, things come to a head. His then 30-year-old CEO, Larry Page, calls him to his office, says, “Brian, we are letting you go. You are not a good cultural fit here.” Reid counters with a fairly aggressive lawsuit alleging age discrimination on Google’s part. Ultimately, the case becomes emblematic of a larger problem in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, such that people as young as in their 20s are getting plastic surgery to avoid a similar fate as Brian Reid, to avoid this perception of looking “too old for the workplace.”
2Reid v. Google, Inc.; 50 Cal. 4th 512, 235 P.3d 988, 113 Cal. Rptr. 3d 327.
North said that this anecdote exemplifies three key points that provide the framework of his presentation:
- Older adults in the workplace face perceptions of what they are unable to do (“ageism as disable-ism”).
- These perceptions lead to discriminatory treatment and the denial of resources.
- There are things we can do to “disrupt” misguided perceptions and unfair treatment of older workers.
Ageism as Disableism
North argued that two major types of stereotypes afflict older workers: descriptive (“older people are . . .”) and prescriptive (“older people should . . .”). Concerning descriptive stereotypes, studies show that older-age stereotypes are rooted in the fact that older adults remind younger people of their mortality; such stereotypes include the ideas that older adults are nice but incompetent, are a useless burden, and are societally invisible. North referred to Susan Fiske’s stereotype content model, which argues that social groups can be divided according to their stereotype content based on whether they are seen as high or low in warmth or high or low in competence (Fiske et al., 2002). As seen in Table 3-1, both adults with disabilities and older adults are perceived as having high warmth but low competence.
TABLE 3-1 Four Types of Out-Groups, Combinations of Status and Competition, and Corresponding Forms of Prejudice as a Function of Perceived Warmth and Competence
|Low Competence||High Competence|
|High Warmth||Paternalistic prejudice||Admiration|
|Low status, not competitive||High status, not competitive|
|Pity, sympathy||Pride, admiration|
|(e.g., elderly people, disabled people, housewives)||(e.g., in-group, close allies)|
|Low Warmth||Contemptuous prejudice||Envious prejudice|
|Low status, competitive||High status, competitive|
|Contempt, disgust, anger, resentment||Envy, jealousy|
|(e.g., welfare recipients, poor people)||(e.g., Asians, Jews, rich people, feminists)|
SOURCES: North presentation, October 10, 2017. Data from Fiske et al., 2002.
These descriptive stereotypes are also seen in the workplace, North said. The literature shows that employers see older workers as too costly and not worth the investment of training (Burtless, 2013; Dychtwald et al., 2004).
North’s own dissertation focused on prescriptive stereotypes. As part of this work, he labeled three overall types of prescriptive stereotypes that target the older population. First, succession is the expectation that older workers should actively step aside and make way for younger generations (e.g., through retirement). Second, consumption is the idea that older adults should minimize their passive depletion of resources (e.g., they should not overuse the shared resource pool of health care). Finally, identity is the idea that older adults “should not try to look cool” (e.g., trespassing on “younger territory” such as Facebook or texting). Overall, North said, these stereotypes focus on disability and the idea that older adults do not belong in mainstream society.
Perceptions Lead to Discriminatory Treatment
Older workers face barriers at each stage of employment: entry, on the job, and exit. Audit studies have found discrimination toward older workers at the level of hiring, North said. For example, when researchers sent out a pool of resumes that were equal in qualification but different in age, the younger applicants were 40 percent more likely to receive callbacks, even for entry-level jobs (Lahey, 2008). North’s own work (North and Fiske, 2016) shows that perceptions such as “older workers are not worth the training investment” lead to denied resources and opportunities for older adults already in the workforce:
I actually asked participants to imagine that they are the manager of training and development at a medium-sized company and that they can allocate training resources, training dollars, to equally qualified, equally tenured, and yet differentially aged employees. I find time and time again . . . they deny resources to the older worker.
Concerning discrimination at the point of exit from the workforce, North simply noted that the number of age discrimination charges brought forth to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has risen 47 percent since 1999.
Part of problem, North said, is that age discrimination and denying resources to older workers is subtle in nature. So much of ageism is socially condoned, he said, such as birthday cards joking about how terrible it is to get older. Similarly, ageism in the workplace can be equally subtle:
Consider coded language, job advertisements that advertise “fitting in with a young team” or they look for “new or recent college graduates,” “new blood,” “a willingness to learn,” “high ambition.” I was at an HR [human resources] conference last week, and I learned that one of the new tricks is to say we are looking for a “ninja.” That is something that the young kids say these days, which in some ways, sort of reinforces this idea that older workers need not apply. Again, so much of it is coded. You see these same kinds of examples on the job. “Over-qualified,” “not a good cultural fit”—these are phrases that do serve to exclude older generations. Yet in many ways they are very subtle and very, very difficult to prove in court.
North added that there is also a subtlety of the older worker self-handicapping through stereotype threat. In this way, older workers may internalize negative aging stereotypes, which in turn undermines their performance. For example, research shows that framing a task as a memory task causes older adults to perform worse, but framing that exact same task as a reading comprehension or impression formation task causes older adults to perform better (Chasteen et al., 2005; Kang and Chasteen, 2009). In his own work, North has simulated workplace interactions where actors of different ages talk about themselves:
They subtly inject this idea that they are either violating these expectations to step aside by remaining around and sticking around and potentially blocking other generations or else they adhere to these expectations and they decide—they say, you know what, I am going to get out of the way and make way for younger generations. Again, it is a subtle effect, but, by and large, people have the strongest reactions toward the older guy depending on whether or not he gets out of the way or doesn’t.
North said that there is both a demographic imperative and a theoretical moral imperative as to why everyone should care about older workers. The demographic imperative is based on the fact that the population—and the workforce—is aging. The older segments of the labor force are the only ones projected to grow in the coming decades, and so North argued that “it is just pragmatic sense to create value from that.” In terms of a moral imperative, North referred to his own work: “Age is the only social category identifying subgroups that everyone may eventually join” (North and Fiske, 2012, p. 1). He continued:
That is different from race. It is different than gender. It is even different from how we typically think about disability. We typically think of the
disabled as the others, as some people we have already alluded to today, if you are not disabled. Age is different. We are all going to get there one day; at least we hope to get there.
Given these imperatives, North said, it makes sense to recognize the truths about the abilities of older workers. He acknowledged that fluid intelligence (e.g., the ability to learn new things) does decline with age. However, he argued, this decline actually begins in the late 20s, and not every individual declines in the same way. A focus on declines in fluid intelligence tends to cause people to ignore the crystallized elements of intelligence (e.g., knowledge and experience). Furthermore, there are many other qualities that improve with age: emotional stability, conscientiousness, agreeableness, loyalty, certain kinds of problem solving, and certain types of wisdom.
North said that large-scale studies have found no overall relationship between age and job performance (McEvoy and Cascio, 1989) and no evidence that older workers are less innovative than younger workers (Ng and Feldman, 2013). Furthermore, studies have shown that younger workers are more resistant to change than older workers (Kunze et al., 2013) and that older workers surpass younger workers in terms of their reliability, loyalty, professional networks, skills, and productivity (Pitt-Catsouphes et al., 2007). Finally, North said, there are small things that companies can do that do not cost a lot of money and that could result in cost savings: flexible, half-retirement options; prioritizing older worker skill sets; creating new positions or adapting old ones; and changing workplace ergonomics (North and Hershfield, 2014).
In closing, North mentioned his research group, the Accommodating Generations in Employment (AGE) Initiative.3 Its goal is to conduct research to show how to create value from the unprecedented levels of older workers and multiple generations in the workforce.
Kirsten Jacobs from LeadingAge asked if working to make perceptions of aging more positive can diminish the experiences of those who are not able to age “successfully.” Levy said that the term “successful aging” needs to be redefined to recognize the diversity of aging experiences, including people of all different levels of health and ability. She added that it is necessary to develop an image of successful aging that is not too idealized. North agreed, saying people need to be careful not to assume that looking younger than your age means you are more success-
ful at aging. Kenneth Brummel-Smith of the American Geriatrics Society said he prefers the term “optimal aging” because that refers to the ability to respond to different challenges and also because the term “successful aging” implies that some people are not successful at aging. Campbell added that successful aging can also be defined as avoiding disability while aging, which is not a useful definition for people who already have disabilities. She said that researchers who study healthy aging in individuals with disabilities are looking at resiliency, and Brummel-Smith agreed that resiliency is the key to optimal aging.
Julie Bynum from Dartmouth University asked how receptive people in different fields, particularly business, are to making changes to help older workers. North said that despite the known demographic shifts in age, many companies and business schools are “behind the curve” when it comes to issues around ageism and not many researchers in the business world study aging. Levy agreed that this area of research is “in its infancy.” She added that the issue of how receptive different fields are to change will become more important as campaigns to overcome ageism go forward. It will be important to know where changes will be most likely to happen, she said, and who will need more convincing. Wang added that the issues are the same for disability, especially because the business world focuses on competence and efficiency. The stereotypes of individuals with disabilities as warm and incompetent can be particularly hurtful.
Rebecca Stoeckle of the Education Development Center asked how automation will affect the business community, perhaps in displacing and disrupting jobs and skillsets. North emphasized the value of soft skills that increase with age and expressed hope that these capabilities could not be replaced easily by automation. He suggested a possible future in which automation replaces more of the types of skills normally ascribed to younger workers (e.g., computer coding) and therefore yields a net benefit to older workers.
Gabby Mendieta with IBM Watson Health asked about the positive images of age in the media. In particular, she asked if there are culture-specific views of aging that can be used as positive examples. Levy said that cross-cultural research does show that certain cultural groups have more positive views of aging, and she agreed that more should be done to draw on these examples in order to change the dialogue in a variety of sectors. She said that more positive age stereotypes have been presented in the media recently, but unfortunately, negatives views are very strongly held and reinforced over time.
Judy Gray, a journalist, asked how to avoid the onrush of negative stereotypes when competency begins to decline. Wang responded that when it comes to limitations in physical or cognitive competence, individuals with disabilities will talk about the importance of autonomy—-
meaning that they make their own decisions and enlist others for help when needed (as opposed to independence, which she said implies the individual doing everything for himself or herself). While a person may not be able to make certain decisions, she said it is important to determine what the individual can do and allow that person to make as many decisions as possible.
Donna Fick of the Penn State University College of Nursing asked how less visible disabilities (both physical and intellectual) can best be addressed in workplace discrimination. North emphasized the importance of looking at the domains of workplace characteristics that improve with age. Levy also commented on the importance of recognizing the diversity of strengths and abilities of the older population.
A workshop participant expressed a desire to keep aging as a separate issue from ability and innovation, as well as a need to better define “disability.” She also said that it may be necessary to consider how to make workers and their environments more adaptive to aging in order to be more successful, just as workers and their workplaces have had to adjust to advances in technology. Campbell said that ageism in large part may be rooted in a fear of disability. In closing, she said that this highlights the importance of understanding the connections between aging and disability stereotypes because understanding the reciprocal nature of what underlies these stereotypes can help advance the conversation.