The Ins and Outs of Ageism

Younger workers can face age discrimination, too.

Posted Jul 10, 2017

By Courtney Thomas and Lisa Finkelstein, guest contributors

Do you think older workers are bad with technology, but younger workers are naturally tech savvy? Do you expect an older co-worker to be more reliable and less lazy on the job than a younger one?

Source: Thinkstock

It is natural for people to form general impressions of others based on their social groups—such as gender, race, and even age (Nelson, 2009). But these stereotypes can inaccurately influence how we approach and treat people in our work environment.

Stereotyping based on age— known as ageism— is so ingrained within society that it largely goes unnoticed (Cuddy & Fiske, 2002). It can be especially problematic when we act on these perceptions.  

How do younger workers experience ageism?

Age stereotypes have traditionally been thought of as “older-worker stereotypes.” People rarely consider age stereotyping in relation to younger workers. Even research and government policy typically focus on protecting older workers from being unfairly categorized with labels such as slow, resistant to change, and technology-challenged.

However, younger workers also face ageism. For example, in a recent study, younger workers were stereotyped by both older- and middle-aged workers with unsavory labels such as lazy, irresponsible, and arrogant (Finkelstein, Ryan, & King, 2013). Sure, people also think younger workers are tech-savvy and ambitious, but the negatives seem to outweigh the positives.

What’s even more interesting is that younger workers expected to be negatively stereotyped by colleagues (Finkelstein et al., 2013) – even more so than did older workers. These negative expectations impact the way in which people interact with one another in the workplace. Potentially, it can lead younger workers to become avoidant and defensive when interacting with others (Hebl & Dovidio, 2005).

Aren’t there sometimes real differences between age groups?

On average, there are small differences between age groups on some factors. For example, younger workers, compared to older workers, tend to:

  • Be more self-centered
  • Have more desire for moving up in one’s job
  • Have less job satisfaction
  • Have less commitment to one’s job
  • Have more turnover

But, even though on average age groups may differ, there is a big range of differences within age groups. For instance, we often hear that Millennials are entitled. That label clearly doesn’t apply to all Millennials, and there may be plenty of entitled Gen Xers and Baby Boomers!  

Therefore, even when there are documented average group differences, it is not fair or useful to use stereotypes to make judgments about individuals just based on their age. Instead, it is important to focus on all the other characteristics that make us unique. 

So, what should we do?

Now that we know better, we should do better.  Here are some concrete suggestions:

Recognize and avoid using age stereotypes and generational language. Avoiding age stereotypes is the first step to changing the culture of a workplace, which in turn can lead to better social interactions and productivity.

Some employees have learned to avoid expressing older worker stereotypes, due to potential legal ramifications. For instance, you don’t want to be overheard referring to people over 50 as “deadwood.” But people do not always recognize stereotypes of young people for what they are, or realize the danger.

The current trend is to use generational language to discuss age stereotypes, particularly in the popular press. For instance, many articles will discuss Millennials’ entitlement issues. Entitlement is an age-based stereotype of younger individuals. It has been easier for people to accept these generalizations when they are targeted at a generation, rather than at an age group. But, at the end of the day, these sweeping statements about Millennials are really just age stereotypes (Costanza & Finkelstein, 2014).

So, ask yourself if you are judging others on their unique merits and qualities or relying on age stereotypes – and call others out when you think they might be.

Be specific in your interactions. This will help to avoid misinterpretations and is crucial for organizational leaders as well. For example, if a younger employee doesn’t get a promotion, even though he or she feels qualified, provide concrete feedback on the reasons. This will help prevent the person from attributing the decision to stereotyping.

Focus on people as individuals. You’re busy, and relying on quick impressions is fast. It may be easier to assign a pop-culture task to someone because they are young and you assume that means they must know a lot about pop culture. Instead, you should take the time to focus on who, as a person, might do the best job. Thinking about our co-workers as individuals will help us understand them as real people.

Ageism affects everyone in some way. Now that we know better, it is up to each of us to stop using age-based stereotypes and generational language and start treating everyone as the unique people they are.

Courtney Thomas is a graduate student at Northern Illinois University. She focuses her research on diversity-related issues and frequently collaborates on age-related topics.

Lisa Finkelstein, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University and a Fellow of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. She is in the Social-Industrial/Organizational Area at NIU and teaches courses in social psychology, industrial/organizational psychology, training and development, and individual assessment in organizations. Her research interests include aging and work, mentoring relationships, stigma in the workplace, and humor at work.


Costanza, D. P., & Finkelstein, M. (2015). Generationally based differences in the workplace: Is there a there there? Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 8, 308-323. doi:10.1017/iop.2015.15

Cuddy, A. J., & Fiske, S. T. (2002). Doddering but dear: Process, content, and function in stereotyping of older persons. In T.D. Nelson (Ed.), Ageism: Stereotyping and prejudice against older persons (pp. 3-26). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Finkelstein, L. M., Ryan, K. M., & King, E. B. (2013). What do the young (old) people think of me? Content and accuracy of age-based metastereotypes. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 22, 633–657. doi:10.1080/1359432X.2012.673279

Hebl, M., & Dovidio, J. (2005). Promoting the ‘‘social’’ in the examination of social stigmas. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 9, 156–182. doi:10.1207/s15327957pspr0902_4

Nelson, T. D. (Ed.). (2009). Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination. New York, NY: Psychology Press.