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date: 12 December 2017

Ageism in the Workplace

Summary and Keywords

The population is aging in most industrialized nations around the world, and this trend is anticipated to continue well into the future. This demographic shift impacts the workforce in that the average age of workers is increasing, and the workplace is becoming more age diverse, meaning different generations of employees are working side by side now more than ever before. Increasing age diversity can be problematic if misguided age-related attitudes, biases, and behaviors lead to ageism—the stigmatization of, and discrimination against, people based on age. Evidence of the impact of ageism in the workplace is being observed in increasing age-related discrimination claims as well as increased time for older people to find employment.

Workplace ageism manifests from cognitive, affective, and behavioral components. Age stereotypes are associated with the cognitive component, age-related prejudice is related to the affective component, and age discrimination is aligned with the behavioral component. There is an abundance of research identifying age-related stereotypes and it is thought that these stereotypes influence how workplace decisions are made. Age-related prejudice research indicates that older workers are generally viewed more negatively than younger workers which can result in lower performance appraisals or older workers’ receiving harsher consequences for lower performance. Finally, age-discrimination research has identified that older workers struggle to find employment, to receive training and development opportunities, and to advance their careers. Although the majority of research on workplace ageism has focused on older individuals, younger workers also face challenges related to their age and this is a line of research that needs further exploration. Nevertheless, the accumulating evidence supports claims that workplace ageism has wide-ranging effects on individuals, groups/teams, organizations, and society.

Keywords: ageism, age bias, age stereotypes, age diversity, aging workforce, age discrimination, age prejudice

In most industrialized nations around the world, the population is aging, and this trend is anticipated to continue well into the future. This demographic change has two primary causes—people are living longer and fertility rates are declining (Kulik, Ryan, Harper, & George, 2014). Consequently, this trend impacts the workforce, in that the average age of workers is increasing, workers are working later into life, and the workplace is becoming more age diverse, with more generations of workers working side by side than ever before. Increased age diversity has positive benefits, but it can also lead to misguided age-related attitudes, biases, and behaviors, which could lead to ageism. For example, age-discrimination claims are increasing in the United States (McCann & Giles, 2002) and there is evidence that it is harder for older people to find work (Wanberg, Kanfer, Hamann, & Zhang, 2016), but this runs counter to the organizational and societal need to retain workers into later years because retirement/pension programs will not support retirees for 30 or 40 years. Traditionally, ageism has been defined as the stigmatization of, and discrimination against, people because they are old (Butler, 1969). This definition may be to be too restrictive, because the focus is only on older people, and ageism can affect people throughout their working years. Therefore, ageism is approached here from a broader perspective, in that it is defined as the stigmatization of, and discrimination against, people based on their age. However, the focus here is narrowed to ageism in the workplace. Readers interested in broader discussions of ageism should review Bulter (1995), Nelson (2004), and Palmore (1999).

The tripartite model of age bias and ageism (Finkelstein & Farrell, 2007) is utilized here to discuss theories and research related to workplace ageism and to identify gaps in the research that need to be addressed to advance knowledge of ageism in the workplace.

Tripartite Approach to Workplace Ageism

It is important to start the discussion of workplace ageism by defining key terms. Table 1 provides a definition for each of the important concepts in the review of workplace ageism.

Table 1. Important Terms and Definitions.

Term

Definition

Ageism

The broadest of the terms, it includes bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people based on their age.

Age bias

Evaluative judgments and attitudes made based on a person’s age.

Age stereotype

Generalizations made about a person or people based on age-group membership, such as believing that older workers in general are less flexible or are more dependable.

Age prejudice

Preconceived attribution of a person as good or bad based on their age, such as not liking older workers.

Age discrimination

Treating someone differently due to their age, such as in the hiring process.

The tripartite approach to age bias (Finkelstein & Farrell, 2007) was selected to organize the review and discussion of workplace ageism research literature because it recognizes the complexities of workplace ageism, in that there are multiple components, including cognitive, affective, and behavioral components, that must be considered. The cognitive component includes beliefs and expectancies about people due to their membership in a particular group (i.e., age stereotypes). The affective component includes attributions or judgments of people as good or bad (i.e., age prejudice). The behavioral component includes the tendency to treat or interact with people in a certain manner because of their group membership (i.e., age discrimination). Research on age and the workplace is reviewed here through the lens of each individual component separately, and gaps in the current knowledge are identified within each of the areas.

Cognitive Component of Workplace Ageism: Stereotypes

The cognitive component of workplace ageism comprises age-related stereotypes. Age stereotypes have received the greatest research attention of the three components in the workplace literature. The assumption of the literature is that age stereotypes affect workplace interactions and decisions like interpersonal treatment (e.g., Cortina, Magley, Williams, & Langhout, 2001; Einarsen & Skogstad, 1996), who is selected for a particular job (Perry, Kulik, & Bourhis, 1996), who receives training and development opportunities (Maurer & Rafuse, 2001), and who is given challenging job assignments (Shore et al., 2009).

Theoretical Frameworks Relating to Stereotypes

One useful approach for examining stereotypes is through understanding intergroup categorization. The social identity perspective, an integration of social identity theory (SIT; Tajfel & Turner, 1979) and self-categorization theory (SCT; Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987) informs understanding of this cognitive process. SIT indicates that an individual’s group membership provides emotional significance and value, including the perception of ability to maintain or change social status through group membership. Comparisons of intergroup status differences within society result in an emphasis on positive attributions distinguishing one’s own group from others. SCT builds on SIT and describes the process through which a meaningful shared identity leads to depersonalization. Social identity becomes defined in terms of one’s identified ingroup, and therefore thoughts about “me” are replaced by “we”; perceived similarities within-group are enhanced and outgroup members are seen to be undifferentiated and homogenous (for a review of these theories, see Turner & Reynolds, 2001). In sum, the social identity perspective explains why and how ingroup and outgroup boundaries are established.

Ingroup and outgroup categorizations aid cognitive functioning by facilitating the filtering of the massive amounts of information available for processing. Fiske and Taylor (1984) used the term “cognitive miser” to express the tendency of individuals to rely on the most simple and time-efficient strategies for evaluating information and making decisions. Easily identifiable characteristics, such as race, gender, and age, are utilized during interpersonal interactions as a cognitive shortcut to inform affective and behavioral responses. According to the continuum model (Fiske, Lin, & Neuberg, 1999; Fiske & Neuberg, 1990) people are most likely to rely on stereotypes to categorize others when personal characteristics are easily categorizable, when limited cognitive resources (e.g., time pressures) inhibit more complex mental processing, and when motivation to develop an accurate understanding of the other person is lacking.

It is important to note that outgroups are not always negatively evaluated. A framework for understanding the often mixed (positive and negative) attributions is the stereotype content model (SCM; Fiske, Cuddy, Glick, & Xu, 2002). SCM suggests individuals and groups are assessed according to their level of competence (informed by social status, capability) and warmth (informed by outgroup competition, intentions). Stereotypes along these dimensions are assigned according to systematic principles, and the interaction of warmth and competence classifications functions as a form of system justification and to maintain societal status quo. For example, positive warmth attributions operate to appease and pacify nonthreatening (low status, incompetent) subordinate outgroups. Conversely, negative attributions of low warmth serve to validate resentment and social exclusion of competitors, while high warmth and high competence attributions substantiate privileges for high-status groups. Fiske and colleagues’ (2002) research revealed that older individuals tend to be perceived as warm and incompetent; however, it must be noted that the authors assessed attitudes about the “elderly,” which may reflect perceptions about those outside of the workforce. A key element of this model posits that although stereotyping processes are stable over time, the content of stereotypes is susceptible to change and is influenced by context.

Work Outcomes Associated with Age Stereotypes

Empirical research has identified a variety of stereotypes associated with older workers. In their comprehensive review of the age-stereotype literature, Posthuma and Campion (2009) summarized six major stereotype categories commonly associated with older workers, including having poorer performance, being resistant to change, having lower ability to learn, having shorter tenure, being more costly, and being more dependable. Meta-analytic evidence examining the validity of the older worker stereotypes has generally found these perceptions are untrue, except for older workers’ being less willing or likely to participate in training and career development activities (Ng & Feldman, 2012). However, because cognitive categorization is relied on in interpersonal and intergroup interactions, stereotypes remain pervasive and influence relational and decision-making processes affecting older workers. For example, interviewers have been shown to rely on age stereotypes when cognitively distracted (Perry, Kulik, & Bourhis, 1996). In fact, a recent meta-analysis examining perceptions of older workers found medium-sized negative effects of age on selection, advancement, and general evaluations (Bal, Reiss, Rudolph, & Baltes, 2011).

In line with the SCM (Fiske et al., 2002), not all stereotypes of older workers are negative. Indeed, older workers are seen as being more dependable and reliable (Bal et al., 2011; Posthuma & Campion, 2009), more experienced (Finkelstein et al., 2000), more conscientious, having more crystallized intelligence, and being more emotionally stable (Truxillo, McCune, Bertolino, & Fraccaroli, 2012). The research on positive stereotypes of older workers adds a level of complexity as to how age stereotypes may function in the workplace and may be one explanation for why studies find inconsistencies in regard to the lack of endorsement of negative stereotypes (Weiss & Maurer, 2004). In other words, people may have conflicting positive and negative stereotypes associated with older workers, which may affect the way they are viewed in the workplace. Fiske and colleagues (2002) found that older people are viewed as being warm, but are also viewed as being less competent. Warmth may be a positive characteristic in certain circumstances, but competence (or incompetence) may be considered more important in the workplace, which could lead to denial of workplace opportunities (Shore & Goldberg, 2005). Furthermore, despite some negative stereotypes of older working-age adults, they are also seen as high in conscientiousness and organizational citizenship behaviors (e.g., Bertolino, Truxillo, & Fraccaroli, 2013). Research suggests a possible shift in the negative stereotype content for older workers, perhaps reflecting the trend of an aging workforce (Rosen & Jerdee, 1976a, 1976b; Weiss & Maurer, 2004). However, more research is certainly needed before drawing any conclusions.

The decrease in the proportion of younger workers is resulting in a “graying” of the workforce, leading to younger workers’ becoming a minority in the workforce, which may result in an increase of younger worker ageism due to negative outgroup biases. Indeed, although most of the age-stereotype research has focused on older workers, younger workers also face negative stereotypes in the workplace (Perry, Hanvongse, & Casoinic, 2013). In general, there has been a lack of research focusing on age stereotypes for younger workers. Nevertheless, the limited research investigating negative stereotypes of younger worker indicates that younger workers are perceived as being less trustworthy (Loretto, Duncan, & White, 2000), as being more apt to “job hop” or as having less loyalty to organizations (Coy, Conlin, & Thornton, 2002), and as being more neurotic and performing less individually focused organizational citizenship behaviors (Truxillo et al., 2012; see also Finkelstein, Ryan, & King, 2013). Continuing research is needed to understand the stereotypes of younger workers and their outcomes.

Affective Component of Workplace Ageism: Prejudice

Age prejudice is the concept primarily considered in the affective component of the tripartite framework, and it has received the least attention in the bias literature (Finkelstein & Farrell, 2007). Prejudice encompasses people’s evaluation of a social object as being good or bad (Kite, Stockdale, Whitley, & Johnson, 2005). Specifically, age prejudice could manifest itself as having a dislike of, feeling uncomfortable with, or even hating someone based on age group membership (Finkelstein & Farrell, 2007). In other words, age prejudice may be linked with people’s emotions toward others due to their age.

Theoretical Frameworks Relating to Prejudice

The similarity-attraction paradigm (Byrne, 1971) suggests that individuals who share similar visible traits (for example, demographics like age) will infer other similarities exist, including attitudes, beliefs, and personality, and this inference will result in greater attraction to, increased liking of, and more positive beliefs about, each other. Increased attraction and liking is thought to increase shared work and/or nonwork activities (e.g., eating lunch together), possibly leading outgroup members to perceive unfair exclusion. This theory has been supported across a wide range of personal characteristics used in investigating a variety of outcomes at multiple levels of the workplace, including age prejudice at work.

Terror management theory (TMT; Greenberg, Solomon, & Pyszczynski, 1997) has also been applied to age-bias research. TMT states that when thoughts about aging and death are made salient, an individual will seek to mitigate the resulting anxiety by enhancing their self-perception of success according to societal standards associated with literal and/or symbolic immortality. Research has demonstrated that interactions with elderly people may evoke anxiety related to mortality, and in response individuals seek to buffer negative feelings by distancing themselves, and by differentiating older individuals as a dissimilar outgroup (Martens, Greenberg, Schimel, & Landau, 2004). However, empirical studies of TMT in the context of workplace age prejudice have not been forthcoming.

Discussed above, the stereotype content model (Fiske et al., 2002) describes cognitive processes of assigning stereotypes for system and behavioral justification. This model also explains the unique intergroup emotional responses (prejudices), resulting from stereotypes, that are related to various behaviors directed at different groups. The contents of outgroup stereotypes along warmth and competence dimensions are associated with distinct affective responses, namely, pity (high in warmth, low in competence), envy (low in warmth, high in competence), admiration (high in warmth and competence), and contempt (low in warmth and competence). The stereotype of older people as warm but incompetent indicates they may receive pity from outgroups and be less respected at work. It is important to point out, however, that many of the stereotypes from this model are based on much older people who are no longer of working age.

Work Outcomes Associated with Prejudice

Rupp, Vodanovich, and Credé (2005, 2006) provide some of the only research examining the affective component of age bias in a workplace context. Rupp and colleagues (2005) argue that there is a lack of research examining prejudice because the measures are more focused on cognitive evaluations and fail to include affective assessments. Rupp and colleagues (2006) found that managers who had higher levels of ageism were more likely to select more punitive recommendations for older workers compared to younger workers who made performance errors. Another study, by Kunze, Böhm, and Bruch (2011), revealed that a perceived age-discrimination climate negatively affected affective commitment, and ultimately resulted in reduced company performance. Empirical research is still needed to investigate whether negative feelings or prejudices about working with certain aged individuals actually have an effect on those individuals through behaviors like interpersonal interactions as well as workplace decisions made about the individual.

Behavioral Component of Workplace Ageism: Discrimination

Workplace age discrimination (that is, actual behavior toward persons of a certain age) is a robust line of research (Gordon & Arvey, 2004). Age discrimination can be categorized under the behavioral aspect of age bias and is related to people’s tendency to treat others in a particular way due to their membership in a particular age category (Finkelstein & Farrell, 2007). In other words, age discrimination captures behavior toward individuals due to their age-group membership and may lead to adverse workplace conditions based on age. This can play out across many different workplace scenarios, including in the selection processes (hiring), career advancement (promotion), performance appraisals, training and development, and interpersonal treatment (Truxillo, Cadiz, & Rineer, 2014; Truxillo et al., 2015b). Indeed, the amount of age-discrimination claims being filed has been increasing, which suggests that age discrimination remains an important concern in organizations (McCann & Giles, 2002).

Although evidence supports the existence of some relatively common age stereotypes in the workplace, whether the endorsement of the stereotypes leads to ageist behavior is complex and dependent on numerous factors. A modest relationship between stereotypes and discrimination has been observed in social bias research (Fiske, 2004) and age stereotypes and prejudice are recognized antecedents that lead to age discrimination (Finkelstein & Farrell, 2007). However, there is acknowledgment in the workplace ageism literature that contextual factors can enhance or weaken the relationship between age stereotypes, prejudice, and discriminatory behaviors. It is also important to recognize that institutional discrimination may not be based solely on stereotypes, and that a variety of situational, contextual, and societal forces may also be involved with discrimination. However, the general assumption is that age stereotypes affect how individuals interact and may shape age-related organizational policies and procedures, decisions, and treatment of workers (Hedge et al., 2006).

Theoretical Frameworks Relating to Discrimination: Context Matters

A multitude of theories exist for understanding the effect of social role on human behavior, and specifically for investigating the interaction of age and an employee’s role. One overarching framework is role theory (Biddle, 1986). Analogous to actors in a theater, role theory explains how social roles dictate what part is to be played (social position) and provide a script directing behavior and behavioral expectations. This theory has been applied across many disciplines and has contributed to development of social role theory (Eagly, 1987; Eagly, Wood, & Diekman, 2000). Originally applied to explore behavioral gender differences, social role theory has also been applied to age research within organizations (e.g., Kite et al., 2005). The propositions of this theory echo Biddle’s role theory, suggesting that observing people in various social roles informs beliefs and expectations about individuals within groups that tend to hold that role. Put another way, the situational constraints (role-related scripts) influencing behavior are disregarded and the behavioral characteristics associated with particular roles come to be associated with group members acting out that role. These theories suggest stereotypes informed by historical social role dictate interactional behaviors.

A frequently held role for individuals is that of employee. Lawrence (1984) identified perceptions of “career timetables” as a concept that integrates an individual’s role as an employee, the workplace context, and age discrimination. Lawrence (1988) argued that because chronological age is a universal human experience, it provides an important structural link between individuals and social systems that informs shared beliefs about the expected social positions, and consequently expected behaviors, for different age groups. A conventional career trajectory is for younger employees to join organizations, gain experience, and consequently move up through the organizational hierarchy over time, resulting in an association between older age and higher status within the workplace. Lawrence (1984) proposed that these implicit career timelines impact attitudes, and ultimately work outcomes (see also implicit leadership theories and implicit performance theories; Lord & Maher, 1991; Engle & Lord, 1997). For example, older employees low in the organizational ranks may be perceived negatively because their status does not align with career timeline expectations. Evaluations of whether the self, or another, is “ahead,” “behind,” or “on time” are influenced by societal expectations, as well as relational and organizational demography. That is, interpretation may be mitigated or exacerbated depending on comparisons to others of similar age within the team or organization.

Relational demography research investigates the impact of an employee’s similarity (or dissimilarity) in relation to the demographic composition of their work-group or within the supervisor/subordinate dyad. Organizational demography explores the effects of an employee’s similarity (or dissimilarity) in comparison to the demographic composition of the whole organization. Informed by the similarity-attraction paradigm (Byrne, 1971; discussed above), increased attraction and positive attitudes toward similar others is proposed to lead to increased quantity and quality of interactions for ingroup members, and bias against outgroup members, consequently affecting work outcomes, including perceptions of age-discrimination climate (Kunze et al., 2011).

Another approach to examining this phenomenon involves consideration of prototypes within industries or organizations relating to the ideal characteristics a person should possess for a particular job. Prototypes are informed by job characteristics (job stereotype content) and characteristics of job incumbents (person-in-job prototypes). Prototype matching occurs when individuals are evaluated to determine if their attributes match with the expected characteristics (Perry, 1994). Age may interact with job stereotype content or person-in-job prototypes during the matching process and lead to discriminatory behavior. An example is an older worker being overlooked for a technology-related position because technology jobs are generally associated with youth, and/or because the last person in the role was young.

Outcomes Associated with Discrimination

As noted in the cognitive and affective workplace ageism sections, stereotypes and prejudice influence organizational behavior, including functions and processes related to the human resources function of an organization. Discriminatory outcomes may be observed in behaviors and decisions related to selection (hiring), advancement (promotions), performance appraisals, training and development, and interpersonal interactions. Each of these categories of organizational behavior outcomes is briefly reviewed here, but for a more detailed discussion see Truxillo and colleagues (2014).

Selection

Meta-analytic evidence supports the delayed re-employment of older workers (Wanberg et al., 2016), which is posited to be related to the lower performance stereotype associated with older workers (Goldberg, 2007). Indeed, older job applicants have been shown to have shorter interviews, to receive lower favorability ratings from employers, and to receive fewer job offers than younger job applicants (Bendick, Brown, & Wall, 1999). Meta-analytic results examining simulated employment contexts have demonstrated younger workers to be rated slightly higher in terms of job qualification as compared to older workers across job types, but providing job-relevant information about workers reduced age-related rating differences (Finkelstein et al., 1995). The most recent meta-analytic investigation confirmed the existence of a medium-sized negative relationship between age and selection (r = −.30), which included ratings of job qualification, hiring outcomes, and the target’s suitability for the job (Bal et al., 2011). Some have criticized this line of research (i.e., Gordon & Arvey, 2004; Landy, 2008) because the laboratory research method used to simulate the selection process does not provide individuating information to the raters, which elicits the use of stereotypes to make decisions. Therefore, in general, older workers may face discrimination in selection contexts, but as the selection context becomes more realistic, the effects may be reduced (Gordon & Arvey, 2004; Landy, 2008).

Truxillo and colleagues (2014) identified additional potential biasing factors in a selection context, including perceptions of older job seekers as being overqualified (Erdogan et al., 2011), and age-related perceptions of differing levels of certain personality traits (Bertolino et al., 2013; Truxillo et al., 2014).

Advancement

In addition to the stereotype of being poor performers, the resistance-to-change stereotype may contribute to older workers’ having decreased opportunities for advancement or promotion in the workplace (Shore et al., 2003). Research has found that older workers face a difficult challenge when it comes to upward mobility (Goldberg, 2007). In fact, older workers have been found to receive lower managerial assessments of promotability (Shore et al., 2003), and to receive fewer promotions (Goldberg, Finkelstein, Perry, & Konrad, 2004). Bal and colleagues (2011) meta-analytically confirmed the negative relationship between age and advancement (r = −.21). In their analysis, advancement included the target’s potential for development, promotion outcomes, and predicted success. A possible confounding variable in this research is that older workers may already hold higher-level positions in the organization, and therefore may not have additional room for upward advancement.

Another concern that is related to advancement but on the opposite side of the spectrum is older workers’ greater risk of being laid off or being offered early retirement. For instance, Osborne and McCann (2004) found these biases when they examined forced-ranking performance appraisal systems. Therefore, as people age in the workplace, they may find it more difficult to find advancement opportunities in their organizations and they may be a target for layoffs.

Older workers are not the only workers facing potential discrimination related to advancement decisions. Empirical research has found that younger workers were given fewer responsibilities at work because they were not perceived as trustworthy (Loretto et al., 2000). In addition, there is evidence that younger workers were denied access to promotions because they were perceived as less experienced and lacking the skills (O’Higgins, 2001) or because they needed to “pay their dues” (Lieber, 1999).

Performance Appraisals

Age discrimination can also be observed in the performance-appraisal process. Saks and Waldman (1998) found that older employees received lower performance assessments than younger workers. Bal and colleagues (2011) found a negative medium effect between age and general evaluations, which incorporated perceptions of overall work performance and performance outcomes. However, the age-related negative perceptions are counter to recent meta-analytic evidence that found that age was largely unrelated to core task performance and positively related to types of organizational citizenship behavior (Ng & Feldman, 2008). Therefore, there seems to be mixed evidence regarding the age-work performance relationship that could stem from a lack of accounting for and investigating contextual variables, such as type of occupation (Salthouse & Maurer, 1996) and job-age stereotypes (Perry et al., 1996) that could attenuate the relationship.

Training and Development

Age and access to training and development is another outcome examined from an age- discrimination perspective. Perceptions that older workers have a decreased ability to learn and shorter tenure may lead to fewer training and development opportunities (Maurer & Rafuse, 2001). In fact, Maurer and Rafuse (2001) discovered that 55 to 60 year olds are less likely to receive training than 35 to 44 year olds. Moreover, empirical research suggests that organizations and managers are less willing to support access to training opportunities for older workers (Shore, Cleveland, & Goldberg, 2003). Additionally, Steiner, Bertolino, Fraccaroli, and Truxillo (2007) found that older workers have the greatest difficulty getting training resources compared to their younger counterparts. Finally, older workers receive less mentoring time and career-related mentoring than younger workers, which can limit their development (Finkelstein, Allen, & Rhoton, 2003).

Interpersonal Interactions

Reduced or negative interactions have been examined as an outcome of workplace ageism. These interactions can involve dyadic relationships (i.e., supervisor-subordinate, coworker-coworker), group/team relationships, and one’s perceived relationship with the organization (i.e., organizational climate). For instance, relational demography research has revealed greater role ambiguity for employees younger or older than their supervisor (Tsui & O’Reilly, 1989), and less frequent communication when employees differ in age from the rest of their work group (Zenger & Lawrence, 1989). Organizational age dissimilarity has also been associated with increased perceptions of a negative age-discrimination climate (Kunze et al., 2011).

Group and team research has examined the development of faultlines (Thatcher & Patel, 2012), where homogeneous subgroups may form within a team, which may impact team dynamics. However, the impact may depend on the task the group/team is facing, in that if the team is not facing an age-related issue or task, an age-related faultline may not develop (Jackson & Joshi, 2011). Moreover, there is evidence that the importance of surface-level characteristics like age is reduce over time when workers are exposed to demographically different team members (Harrison et al., 2002).

Age-related negative interpersonal interactions may manifest as mistreatment behaviors, such as harassment and bullying. For example, younger workers are more likely to face harassment behaviors (Cortina et al., 2001). In addition, Einarsen and Skogstad (1996) found that older workers have a greater likelihood of being the target of bullying than their younger coworkers. Therefore, the literature is mixed regarding age-related exposure to mistreatment behavior.

Future Research

Although there is a growing amount of literature examining the cognitive, affective, and behavioral components of workplace ageism and its effects on individuals and workplace processes, serious gaps remain in understanding this phenomenon and how to combat it. This section identifies several future research directions.

Defining Age-Group Categories

One challenging issue that clouds current understanding of age stereotypes and resulting discrimination is defining what is meant by “older” and “younger” workers. While some researchers have generally defined an older worker as one in their 50s and above (Truxillo et al., 2015a), this issue is far from settled. Factors that likely affect the definition of different age categories are the particular societal norms, national retirement laws, and norms for a particular profession (Truxillo et al., 2015b).

Discrimination Against Younger Workers

Older workers have been the traditional focus of workplace ageism research, and discrimination against younger workers has received scant attention (Perry et al., 2013). For instance, the popular press often characterize the millennial generation as narcissistic and having a poor work ethic, and younger workers are often seen as “fair game” in terms of criticism. As a recently emerging issue, discrimination against younger workers is deserving of increased research to understand its bases and prevalence.

Additional Outcomes of Workplace Age Discrimination

The workplace age-discrimination literature has focused largely on manifestations like treatment by coworkers, hiring, access to training, and performance appraisals. However, outcomes of workplace age discrimination like worker stress, health, and well-being are deserving of increased attention.

Boundary Conditions

As discussed under the cognitive and affective components of workplace ageism, there are a number of possible antecedents to workplace age discrimination, such as age stereotypes and affective reactions to older workers. However, it is unclear when or how these stereotypes and reactions will lead to actual discriminatory behavior against workers in different age groups. For example, although there are many positive stereotypes of older workers (e.g., Bertolino et al., 2013), there is research evidence that they may fare poorly in many workplace decisions (Bal et al., 2011; Finkelstein et al., 1995).

Age Metastereotypes and Their Effects

Metastereotypes are an individual’s belief about what another group thinks about that individual’s group, an issue that has only recently been applied to age in the workplace (Finkelstein et al., 2013). For example, younger workers may believe that their older colleagues believe that they are lazy or narcissistic—whether or not these other groups actually believe this to be the case—and this belief may affect younger workers’ attitudes and behavior. A recent study (Ryan, King, & Finkelstein, 2015) found that younger workers who were self-conscious about younger age stereotypes also had negative attitudes toward older colleagues and experienced a negative mood. This new line of ageism research—about thinking about what others think of your own age group—shows promise in understanding the effects of age discrimination and how to combat it.

Implicit Age Stereotypes in the Workplace

Most research on workplace ageism has focused on the explicit stereotypes that people have about different age groups, that is, conscious stereotypes. However, research also suggests that unconscious or implicit stereotypes exist; and because of their unconscious nature, they may be more difficult to combat than stereotypes that are in the awareness of the individual. Although implicit stereotypes have been studied for years in the social psychology literature (Fazio & Olson, 2003), implicit age stereotypes have remained unexamined in the workplace literature. However, research into implicit stereotypes at work may lead to a better understanding of, and provide a complete picture of, how ageism emerges in the workplace and how to combat it.

Prescriptive Versus Descriptive Age Stereotypes

The distinction between descriptive and prescriptive age stereotypes is a recent advancement in the age-stereotype literature (North & Fiske, 2013). Descriptive stereotypes, descriptive perceptions of older workers’ behaviors, have been the traditional focus of age-stereotype research. However, prescriptive stereotypes are beliefs about behavior older workers should display with regard to the use of social resources (North & Fiske, 2013). It is argued that violation of a prescriptive age stereotype would result in an extremely negative judgment about the violating individual (North & Fiske, 2013). Future research is needed to investigate the effect prescriptive age stereotypes have on individual, group, and organizational outcomes.

Cross-Level Research

Most research within the field of workplace ageism focuses on a phenomenon at a single level, such as between individuals, within teams, or, more rarely, at the organizational level. For instance, studies may measure how individuals perceive each other (e.g., stereotyping research), how age-based subgroups may form within a team (e.g., faultlines research), or how organizational HR policies affect organizational phenomena (e.g., age-diversity climate research). It is relatively rare for research to examine ageism-related phenomena across levels (see research by Böhm and colleagues for exceptions). However, ageism is a phenomenon that affects individuals and is also embedded within teams, professions, organizations, and societies. Therefore, research is needed across levels to better understand the emergence of ageism as a multilevel phenomenon.

Intervention Research

Although little research has examined specific workplace interventions to combat ageism (Truxillo et al., 2015a), existing research suggests fruitful paths forward. For example, HR policies that explicitly support members of all age groups have been shown to have a positive effect on age-diversity climate (Böhm et al., 2014), which may in turn affect productivity and performance. Positive intergenerational contact at work (e.g., Iweins et al., 2013) may improve intergenerational relations. The leveraging of existing workplace age research into actionable interventions that can be undertaken by employers would be beneficial for combating ageism at work.

Conclusions

Workplace ageism is receiving an extensive amount of research attention. This increased consideration is related to the fact that organizations are facing an increasingly age-diverse workforce, potentially increasing the influence of age-related attitudes, biases, and behaviors at all levels of an organization. The literature on workplace ageism is reviewed here using the tripartite workplace age-bias framework (Finkelstein & Farrell, 2007) to organize the discussion. Several important theories are identified and current research findings are highlighted. Finally, a number of gaps and recent theoretical and empirical advancements in the research are identified that need additional consideration to increase understanding of how to prevent ageism in the workplace for workers of all ages.

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