Advocates Of Equality For All Are More Likely To Show Prejudice Against Older Adults At Work

By Emma Young

Social justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, have done huge amounts to address racism and sexism in our society. It’s now common for organisations to have diversity programmes, for example. As Ashley Martin at Stanford University and Michael S North at New York University note in their new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Facebook has famously invested millions of dollars in increasing diversity. However — and this is a big however — the pair’s work reveals that people who are keenest to advocate for women and racial minorities harbour more prejudice against a group that reports almost as much US workplace discrimination as these two: older people. 

As the researchers note, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has said that “younger people are just smarter” while Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, which has won awards for diversity and inclusion, has opined that “people over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas”. They are not alone in this attitude — broader society (or at least US and UK society, as a generalisation) finds ageism acceptable, too. “Ageism is so condoned in American culture that many do not see it as an ‘-ism’, in the same manner of other forms of prejudice,” the researchers note.  And yet, older people as a group are disadvantaged, and have more limited opportunities.

To explore ageism and how it might interact with views on sexism and racism, the researchers ran a series of seven studies. A critical measure in each was a participant’s level of “egalitarian advocacy” — their belief in and commitment to creating a more egalitarian world. This was assessed using a scale that the researchers had developed, which gauged participants’ agreement with statements like “I feel angry when I think about the injustices and inequality in society”.

In initial online studies, the team found that people who scored higher on this scale were more disapproving of racism and sexism but also more likely to endorse “Succession-based ageism” — the idea that older people should step aside to improve younger people’s job opportunities.

In a later study, 298 participants were given a theoretical scenario in which a company had a million-dollar fund for improving diversity, to split between a number of minority groups. The researchers found that the more that participants endorsed egalitarian advocacy, the more money they wanted to go to women and racial minorities — and the less they wanted to go to older people. Questionnaire results showed that this was driven by a belief that older people block women and racial minorities from getting ahead. “Together, this research suggests that when it comes to egalitarianism, equality for all may only mean equality for some,” write Martin and North.

Is there any way, then, to encourage people to be less ageist? Well, the pair did also find that when participants were informed about the true, difficult economic state of many older people in the US — many of whom simply cannot afford to retire — this made a difference. In fact, after this intervention, participants who were more egalitarian showed the biggest reductions in their bias against older people.

The pair then looked for possible nuances in prejudice against older people. They found that though biases were strongest against older White men, older Black women were also subject to them. (They did explore who participants had in mind when thinking about older people who “should” step aside, and though older White men certainly did feature, the group was much broader.) Egalitarians did, though, report “liking” and wanting to interact with older Black women more. So, as the researchers note, this particular older group was supported in other ways.

Of course, older people represent a fast-growing demographic. This means there’s an urgent need for more research into ageism, and how it might be tackled. Current diversity initiatives focus far more frequently on race, gender and LGBTQ, rather than age, the researchers note. “As organisations contribute more money than ever before to increasing diversity, it is increasingly necessary to take stock of who is being included, versus who is being left behind,” the pair writes.

Equality for (almost) all: Egalitarian advocacy predicts lower endorsement of sexism and racism, but not ageism.

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest