Ageism consists of a negative bias or stereotypic attitude toward aging and the aged. It is maintained in the form of primarily negative stereotypes and myths concerning the older adult. Traxler (1980) outlines four factors that have contributed to this negative image of aging. Each will be discussed below.
The first factor that is postulated to contribute to ageism is the fear of death in Western society. Western civilization conceptualizes death as outside of the human life cycle (Butler & Lewis, 1977). As such, death is experienced and viewed as an affront to the self. Death is not seen as natural and inevitable part of the life course. This can be contrasted with Eastern philosophy where life and death are all part of a continuous cycle. Death and life are inextricably woven together and the "self" continues throughout. To be a person, in Western society, however, means that one must be alive and in control of the events of one1s life. Therefore, death is feared.
As death is feared, old age is feared; death and old age are viewed as synonymous in American society (Kastenbaum, 1979). Kastenbaum (1973) hypothesizes that ageism attitudes and stereotypes serve to insulate the young and middle-aged from the ambivalence they feel towards the elderly. This ambivalence results from the fact that the older adult is viewed as representing aging and death. Butler (1969) states: "Ageism reflects a deep seated uneasiness on the part of the young and middle-aged - a personal revulsion to and distaste for growing old, disease, disability; and a fear of powerlessness, 'uselessness', and death" ((p. 243). This represents the most commonly argued basis for ageism.
The second factor postulated by Traxler (1980) to contribute to ageism is the emphasis on the youth culture in American society. For example, the media, ranging from television to novels, place an emphasis on youth, physical beauty, and sexuality. Older adults are primarily ignored or portrayed negatively (Martel, 1968; Northcott, 1975). The emphasis on youth not only affects how older individuals are perceived but also how older individuals perceive themselves. Persons who are dependent on physical appearance and youth for their identity are likely to experience loss of self-esteem with age (Block, Davidson, & Grumbs, 1981).
The emphasis in American culture on productivity represents the third factor contributing to ageism in American culture (Traxler, 1980). It should be noted that productivity is narrowly defined in terms of economic potential. Both ends of the life cycle are viewed as unproductive, children and the aged. The middle-aged are perceived as carrying the burdens imposed by both groups (Butler, 1969). Children, however, are viewed as having future economic potential. In a way, they are seen as an economic investment. Economically, older adults are perceived as a financial liability. This is not to say that older adults are unproductive. However, upon retirement, the older adult is no longer viewed as economically productive in American society and thus devalued.
The fourth factor contributing to ageism in American society and the so-called helping professions is the manner in which aging was originally researched. Poorly controlled gerontological studies have reinforced the negative image of the older adult. When aging was originally studied, researchers went to long-term care institutions where the aged were easy to find. However, only 5 percent of the older population is institutionalized. Thus, the early research on the aged and aging was based upon non-well, institutionalized older individuals. There is still a need for more research to be undertaken using a healthy, community-dwelling older population.
The factors cited above represent four contributing factors to ageism. It has been proposed that individual ageist attitudes can be decreased through continual exposure to and work with older adults (Rosencranz & McNevin, 1969). However, there appears to be a large societal influence on ageist attitudes. Therefore, until these societal influences are addressed, ageism can not be obliterated. For example, if the fear of death and therefore aging is not somehow addressed societally, then younger individuals will continue to attempt to make the older population somehow different from themselves. This differentiation of themselves from older adults, thus serves to protect them from the reality of death.