This page is a summary of studies published by The Harvard Business School, Cambridge university publication and of the book “Ageism” by Todd Nelson.

Click on the link to access the studies: 



Ageism describes the prejudices or discriminations on the grounds of a person's age.


Ageism towards older people is pan cultural: 

Harwood and colleagues (1996) surveyed participants in six nations, asking people to identify traits they associate with elderly people aged sixty and over . 

Across samples, elderly people were rated as significantly higher on warmth than on competence. Moreover, the authors were surprised to find that East Asian participants, particularly Hong Kong residents, reported generally negative evaluations of elderly people. In other cross-cultural investigations, participants in China (Tien-Hyatt, 1986-1987), Japan (Koyano, 1989), Taiwan (Tien-Hyatt, 1986-1987), and Thailand (Sharps, Price Sharps, & Hanson, 1998) reported even more negative attitudes toward older people than their Western counterparts. In short, there is mounting evidence that ageism is pan-cultural.


WHY? Because of modernisation: 


First, medical progress increases the size of elderly population, which institutionalizes retirement, which removes a large subset of the older people from prestigious positions. 


Second, technological skill eclipses experience as technological advances create new jobs, which also puts an important subset of the older people out of work. 


Third, young people become more tranthesient, losing ties with older relatives (Hagestad & Uhlenberg). 


Fourth, increasing literacy renders oral traditions obsolete, eliminating the elders’ position as sage. 


These changes in status are linked to the elimination of older people from most of the  competitive social roles. In sum, social changes decreased the status and competitiveness of older people, thus creating the warm, incompetent elderly stereotype.


Ageism towards older people in the workplace


Age discrimination is not necessarily borne out of malicious intent but is rather a product of largely unconscious cognitions and automatic categorizations (Posthuma & Campion, 2009). As a consequence, these normative standards may encourage age discrimination through unwarranted negative performance feedback (Lawrence, 1988), exclusion from entering into new work domains, and the denial of promotion and development opportunities (Kunze, Boehm, & Bruch, 2013).


Age discrimination against workers aged fifty and over includes overlooking them for promotion, not offering them training opportunities, hiring younger workers in preference, forced redundancy, expressing ageist attitudes, and generally treating them more poorly than their younger colleagues.


Managing and retaining this older workforce is acknowledged as a key issue now facing organizations and governments (Szinovacz, 2011). 

Indeed, the economic advantage alone was highlighted in an analysis (Deloitte Access Economics, 2012) showing that in Australia, an extra 5 percent increase in labor force participation of those aged fifty-five and over would result in a $48 billion (or 2.4 percent) boost to the nation’s gross domestic product. However, the success of policies and initiatives aimed at achieving engaged, productive older workers is threatened by what appears to be the relatively common and increasing problem of age discrimination in the context of employment issues. 


Several studies have uncovered the elderly incompetence stereotype in the workplace, where older employees are believed to be less effective than younger employees in various job-related tasks (Avolio & Barrett, 1987; Rosen & Jerdee, 1976a, 1976b; Singer, 1986). 

Indeed, older workers are presumed to be less able to perform well, have reduced mental and physical capacities, are technologically inept, are resistant to change, and are unwilling to learn or adapt (Posthuma & Campion, 2009; Van Dalen, Henkens, & Schippers, 2010). 


In contrast, research has overwhelmingly shown that older employees are actually just as capable and willing as younger cohorts in performing their job roles (Ng & Feldman, 2008; Posthuma & Campion, 2009). 


This contrast shows how stereotypes weight in the balance.


In a study of 796 managers across ages, Henkens (2005) identified three primary types of managerial stereotypes concerning older workers: productivity, reliability, and adaptability. Manager age and contact with older workers were found to be associated with negative stereotypes: 

  • Managers who were younger held more negative stereotypes of older workers’ productivity and reliability;

  • Managers who had less contact with older workers held more negative stereotypes of older worker productivity. 

  • Older workers are, however, often associated by managers with a lack of adaptability and a resistance to innovation and, in particular, technological innovations. 

  • Managers who held more negative views of older workers’ productivity and reliability and had less contact with older workers were also more likely to endorse older workers’ early retirement.


The finding that younger managers hold more negative stereotypes of older workers may explain similar effects found in experimental studies using student participants. Rupp et al. (2006) presented students with vignettes describing various performance errors made by an employee, in which the age of the employee was manipulated to indicate either an older or younger worker. 


They found that students recommended harsher penalties (e.g., resignation) when the employee was described as an older worker than when the employee was described as a younger worker (e.g., counselling). Additional analyses suggested that among students holding explicitly ageist attitudes, the propensity to recommend more punitive punishments for older workers’ performance errors was even more pronounced (Rupp et al., 2006). 

In another study of college students, Allan, Johnson, and Emerson (2014) found that students with high anxiety about aging and low in dispositional gratitude, openness, and agreeableness held more ageist attitudes.


However, more recently Henry, Zacher, and Desmette (2015) found that younger workers’ age bias (i.e., negative stereotyping of older workers) was directly predicted by quality of intergenerational contact and indirectly predicted by opportunities for development. Specifically, younger workers who reported fewer development opportunities reported lower quality of intergenerational contact, and this was associated with higher levels of negative stereotyping.


Age discrimination is also suggested by Orr’s (2010) data indicating that older workers seeking reemployment in the US were unemployed for significantly more time than younger people in the same situation. Others US data have suggested that age discrimination is widespread on the basis of results from experimental studies that demonstrate how those with hiring responsibility have a preference for younger applicants (e.g., Rupp, Vodanovich, & Crede, 2006).


On another note, people are more likely to attribute memory failures of older adults to intellectual incompetence, and memory failures of younger adults to lack of attention or effort (Erber, Etheart, & Szuchman, 1992; Erber & Prager, 1999; Erber, Prager, Williams, & Caiola, 1996; Erber, Rothberg, Szuchman, & Etheart, 1993; Erber, Szuchman, & Etheart, 1993). 


Additionally, in a study of perceptions of life span development, participants predicted that competence-related traits (independent, industrious, intelligent, productive, self-confident, and smart) were likely to be lost about nine years earlier (age 72.3) than warmth-related traits (affectionate, friendly, good- natured, kind, and trustworthy; age 81.3), a significant difference (Heckhausen et al., 1989). 




Stereotypes can encourage age-based norms describing the characteristics an older worker ought to have. For example, managers may hold normative beliefs regarding appropriate career timetables, suggesting what milestones should be achieved by a set age (Lawrence, 1984, 1988). When these are not attained, managers may form negative views of the “behind-times” employee, not on the basis of his or her capability or performance but rather on the basis of age (Lawrence, 1988). 


Timing of retirement is another example of strong normative beliefs that can work against those who want to work beyond traditional retirement ages (van Soling & Henkens, 2007). Furthermore, certain industries and jobs (e.g., information technology) may be considered to be the sole domain of young workers, unsuitable for older employees (Kunze et al., 2011). As a result, older workers may be denied the opportunities to enter into new work domains even if they have the adequate skills and abilities to perform the role well.


In contrast, an individual who belongs to an organization holds certain expectations that the organization will meet particular personal needs, including economic and socio emotional ones (Finkelstein, 2015; Ng & Feldman, 2009). According to social exchange theory (Cropanzano & Mitchell, 2005) and the notion of psychological contracts (Rousseau, 1989; Zhao, Wayne, Glibkowski, & Bravo, 2007), a supportive and fair relationship between individual and employer is basic to ensuring the employee’s emotional attachment and engagement. Central to this is the notion of reciprocity; when organizations demonstrate a nurturing and supportive environment, employees are likely to respond in kind.


In contrast, an employee who perceives that he or she is being treated unfairly may look to reduce effort, disengage from work, or even engage in counterproductive behavior (Boone James et al., 2013; Bordia, Restubog, & Tang, 2008).


Age discrimination in older workers (assessed by self-reports) has been associated with decreased affective commitment (Kunze et al., 2011; Rabl & Triana, 2013; Red-man & Snape, 2006; Snape & Redman, 2003), decreased job satisfaction (Nishii et al., 2010; Redman & Snape, 2006), increased withdrawal cognitions (Griffin et al., 2015; Redman & Snape, 2006; von Hippel et al., 2013), and decreased work engagement (Bayl-Smith & Griffin, 2014). In contrast, two studies (Redman & Snape, 2006; Snape & Redman, 2003) found that older workers who reported age discrimination actually had increased continuance commitment to the organization.


Stereotype threat creates stress and anxiety (Blascovich, Spencer, Quinn, & Steele, 2001) and can ultimately lead a person to withdraw from the stereotyped group or the context where the stereotype occurs.



Ageing is sadly a prejudice against older people that often goes unchallenged by mainstream society. Nevertheless, certain avenues may decrease ageist beliefs and behaviour.


  • It starts with testing your ageist beliefs and behaviour:

    • Click on the button below and take the 2 minutes test by the World Health Organisation  

    • Click on the button below and take the 5 minutes test by the Harvard University 

  • Train recruiters and interviewers to avoid ageist assumptions, such as that a younger worker will work for a lower salary or that an older worker will not remain on the job for long.


  • Consult your senior workers: Have you asked what they experience at your company? What are they feeling? 


  • Empower older people to challenge ageism.


  • Organise discussion panels across ages to educate the young workforce on how the senior feels like: define ageism and provide evidences of it with examples.  


  • Foster a multigenerational culture that recognizes ability regardless of age and rejects age stereotypes, just as it would reject stereotypes involving race, disability, national origin, religion or sex.


  • Include age as part of your diversity and inclusion programs and efforts. Pricewaterhouse Coopers' 2015 Annual Global CEO Survey found that while 64 percent of 1,322 CEOs in 77 countries had a diversity and inclusion strategy at their company, only 8 percent included age in those strategies.