It was the proverbial adolescent eye-roll heard around the world:
While this young woman’s comment created one of the most memorable, publicized and memed examples of raw ageism to date, the event sadly made no positive movement in the fight against ageism. In fact, there were more pointless memes and social media name-calling that sprouted from her utterance than fruitful conversations around solving the complexities of intergenerational politics.
Just like most ageist incidents, “Okay, Boomer” was brushed under the rug, largely ignored despite its blatant prejudicial tone and stereotyping intentions.
Why is ageism ignored?
As our aging population grows, ageism is becoming increasingly rampant. For example, according to the most recent survey by AARP, nearly 80% of older employees now report age discrimination in the workplace—the highest share reported since the organization began asking the question in 2003.
Other research validates the issue: The Hiscox Ageism in the Workplace Study – which only surveyed full-time employees – found that 54% of respondents said they didn’t file an age discrimination complaint because they feared repercussions resulting in a hostile work environment.
Despite the growing awareness, ageism is still the least recognized and tacitly normalized form of stereotyping and prejudice within society, according to The National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA).
Experts know that ageism contributes to significant mental health issues in older adults and is a leading risk for suicide in this age group. So, why is it so underacknowledged? Many suspect it’s because it hasn’t yet been fully quantified in economic terms.
Until recently, that is.
Economic costs of ageism
Ageism comes at a hefty monetary price, according to recent research. Whether it’s the effect of ageism on health care costs or the cost of age discrimination in the workplace, the dollars are adding up for the U.S. economy.
The oldest Boomers turned 74 at the most recent census (2020), which means these adults had not yet turned 65 at the census prior in 2010. So, between 2010 and 2020, about 10,000 Boomers a day crossed that age threshold, and by 2030, all Boomers will be at least age 65.
The point is, the Boomer population is only getting larger, and ageism will become more costly unless it’s finally adequately addressed.
$63 billion: Cost of ageism’s effect on health of older adults
A recent study published in The Gerontologist finds that when older adults internalize the ageist stereotype – or believe it to be true – they have more health problems, and this increase in health problems due to ageism leads to increases in health care spending. The study found that the one-year cost of ageism was $63 billion, and that a reduction of ageism would have a monetary benefit for society and a health benefit for older persons.
They also found that harmful health conditions positively correlated with ageism, and that an estimated 17 million more cases of these conditions could be attributed to the harmful stereotypes about age.
$4 trillion (projected): Cost of age discrimination in the workplace
According to a 2020 study conducted by the AARP in partnership with The Economist Intelligence Unit, age discrimination leads to older workers being laid off, not hired, or not promoted in disproportionate numbers. This, in turn, costs the economy billions each year, and it’s projected that those losses could cause rise to the trillions in the next few decades if companies keep pushing older Americans out of the workforce.
Age discrimination forces older Americans to lose promotions or take time off to search for work or change careers—all of which leads to lost economic activity, which translates into lost gross domestic product. To make matters worse, companies are currently making it difficult for older workers to reach their full potential by limiting training opportunities, continuing education options, etc. This research suggests ageism and age discrimination could add up to trillions of dollars in lost value in decades to come unless meaningful action is taken. On the flip side, forward-thinking companies realize the untapped value of older adults, writes Jean Accius, senior vice president of AARP Global Thought Leadership, in Business Insider:
“When you have an age-inclusive workforce, productivity tends to be much higher,” she said. “You have creativity and innovation at a much higher rate. You have lower turnover, and you also have greater revenue.”
Implicit biases and stopping ageism
Ageism is often an implicit bias—a bias that’s been automatically imprinted on the psyche by the stamp of society and that is acted on unconsciously. This field of study, called “implicit social cognition,” studies socially stigmatized groups like African Americans, women, the LGBTQ community and – more recently and increasingly – older adults in the form of ageism.
It is possible to overcome our implicit biases, but first experts recommend we uncover them and answer questions like: Are we ageist? And, if so, in what situations, and in what ways?
The Harvard Implicit Biases test is a good place to start if you’re ready to examine this question for yourself. Once you uncover any implicit biases you might hold toward older adults, you can begin to actively work to identify, recognize and circumvent the stereotyping behavior and attitudes that affect your interactions with older adults.