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Overcoming Unconscious Age Bias: An Expert's Advice

Why people make snap judgments of others based on age, and what could change that

By Richard Eisenberg

In her thought-provoking new book, "The End of Bias: A Beginning," science and culture journalist Jessica Nordell probes the science and practice of overcoming unconscious bias. That's what happens quickly when we encounter a person or a situation and our reaction conflicts with our professed values. We see it a lot with race and gender. But what about unconscious age bias?

A woman working from home on her laptop, experiencing unconscious ageism at work. Next Avenue, age bias
Credit: Getty

That's what I wanted to find out after reading "The End of Bias," which barely mentioned the bias of ageism. When I Zoomed with Nordell to interview her, she said there's a paucity of research on age bias compared to racial bias and gender bias.

During our talk, I asked Nordell to share her insights about age bias and about what employers, policymakers and the rest of us could do to reduce it, as well as ageism.

Highlights from our conversation:

Next Avenue: Tell me what unconscious bias is.

Jessica Nordell: We might think of ourselves as treating everyone the same. We believe that the old and young should both be treated with respect. We believe men and women should be both given the same benefit of the doubt. We believe people of all races and ethnicities should be evaluated fairly. But then because we have so many stereotypes and associations embedded in our memories, we can react in ways that really violate those deeply held values.

"Ageism is one category where in some ways it's still kind of acceptable to be somewhat biased."

And when it's pointed out to people, they often feel very guilty. They feel embarrassed because their behavior is not in line with the kind of image of themselves that they have.

It reminds me of the 'Avenue Q' Broadway song: 'Everyone's a Little Bit Racist.'

Yeah. It's kind of an act of hubris to think, well, I'm going to be exempt from like all of the cultural inheritances that we're all subjected to.

Do you think that we all have unintentional bias, or that most people do?

I think that most people are at risk of reacting in ways that can be influenced by stereotypes and associations. But I also think that we're all capable of practicing a little bit more introspection and developing more awareness of our own reactions and our own mental processes.

We're all really capable of taking steps to react in a way that's more in line with our values and who we want to be.

How does unintentional bias relate to ageism?

You know, it's so interesting. When we encounter another person, there are three characteristics that we categorize immediately: race, gender and age. Race and gender have an enormous amount of research literature — documenting bias, analyzing it. There's very little research, relatively, about ageism and age bias.

It made me think: Why is there so much less research about age bias?

I don't have a hundred-percent certain answer, but I have a guess. And my guess is that in psychology there's this adage: research is me-search. They sometimes say people often do research on issues that they have a personal connection to or a personal stake in. And one hypothesis I have is that people don't actually experience ageism until they're toward the end of their career. They're not doing new research necessarily by the time they're in their later years.

Some people talk about ageism as the last 'ism.' We all know that racism is bad, that sexism is bad, but a lot of people haven't come to terms with ageism. Do you think there's some merit to that?

I think so. Ageism is one category where in some ways it's still kind of acceptable to be somewhat biased. Culturally, it doesn't evoke the kind of shame and public approbation or renunciation that other kinds of biases do.

Why?

I could make guesses about the fact that we generally don't have the kind of veneration of elders that we really should — that so many other cultures have. And it's a real shame. There's so much wisdom that has accumulated and is untapped. And if we really respected our elders and respected that wisdom, I think we would all be a lot better off as a result.

Maybe the only people who have figured it out seem to be politicians who understand how important it is to speak to older people.

That brings up something I was going to ask you about, which is almost the opposite of that. The view that some politicians are too old and it's time for them to get out of the way. We heard that about Joe Biden, and to a lesser extent Donald Trump, and now Nancy Pelosi. Where do you think that fits into unintentional bias and ageism?

It's hard to tease apart the sort of ageism prejudice from a concern about entrenched political dynasties or someone being in politics for such a very long time — that our framers didn't necessarily intend for people to be Senators for fifty years.

I do think that there's a very legitimate concern people have about making sure that we have some turnover in who has political power in this country.

Book cover of "The End of Bias" by Jessica Nordell. Next Avenue

We're seeing a lot of workplace initiatives for diversity, equity and inclusion. And yet when I've looked at how executives define diversity, equity and inclusion, it's almost always race and gender and hardly ever does age come into it. What about having an inclusive workforce of all ages?

It's a great question. I've heard the same complaint by people in the disability community.

It just seems like in our society, gender and race are the two biggies and everything kind of revolves around them. And definitely to the detriment of so many other groups that also need advocacy and also really need to be included if we're really serious about creating environments where everyone can thrive.

Could it be that employers may think if they say 'we're going to look at ageism as part of our diversity, equity and inclusion and be sure we have a workforce of all ages' that they may think the younger workers or younger applicants may perceive this as a bias against them?

It could be. I think that some of that zero-sum thinking does influence some of these diversity initiatives. I also wonder how much of it is just that it's not top of mind.

Do you think to some extent older people have built-in unconscious biases about age themselves by saying 'I can't do it; I'm too old?'

We're absolutely biased against ourselves. I have found in myself gender-biased reactions to other women. So, it wouldn't surprise me at all.

And that can be really damaging because when you start to see limits on your own capacity, it's sort of this feedback loop — it diminishes your ambition for yourself, which then diminishes your drive to pursue your goals and develop skills.

And if you don't develop those skills, then that creates more negative feedback. So it can be really dangerous.

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One of the things you wanted to do in the book was to talk about solutions. Are there things that employers, policymakers, anybody could be doing to help try to reduce age bias and unintentional age bias?

Yes, absolutely. There are a lot of things that employers can do.

One really important thing is move away from ambiguous, unstructured ways to make decisions in the workplace. I'm talking about hiring, I'm talking about promotion decisions. I'm talking about how assignments are handed out.

I've experienced this. You've probably experienced this, too. In a lot of workplaces, those decisions are made on sort of gut instinct. And those approaches to decision-making are perfect storms for bias.

That's where you get homophily, which means literally love of the same. So, you have people hiring people or promoting people that just remind them of themselves.

"There isn't one idiot who says something like 'that person just can't do their job because they're old.'"

The first thing an employer can do is just identify all the places where decisions are being made in an unstructured way and replace that with structured predetermined criteria.

And that goes for interviews as well. Create the opportunity for evaluating people much more fairly,

It seems to me that one of the reasons ageism is allowed to happen as much as it does in the workplace is because the federal age discrimination law is pretty toothless. The Supreme Court has made it almost impossible to prove age discrimination. Is there something policymakers should be doing, or the courts, to prevent age discrimination?

It's tricky. Many forms of discrimination are actually very hard to prove in court. This is often the case in gender discrimination lawsuits as well. There's no smoking gun.

There isn't one idiot who says something like 'that person just can't do their job because they're old' or 'that person can't do their job because they're a woman.' It's an accumulation of many, many small microaggressions or interactions that ultimately either push someone out or block someone from advancing.

Ultimately what matters is whether the people at the very top who have power — do they really prioritize creating environments where everyone can be treated fairly and everyone can thrive?

And there isn't a technical fix for that. It's sort of a spiritual question. It's a a question of heart as much as the mind.

The pandemic exposed some of the inherent racism in the health care system, but may have enhanced bias against older people. Because there's been a feeling that 'they're the ones who are getting sick and dying from COVID-19 and they could make me get sick and die, so we need to cordon them off.'

Yes. I think the pandemic revealed a huge amount of age bias.

Particularly in the beginning of the pandemic, when people were resisting drastic measures. You heard people saying things like: 'Well, this only affects older people.' As though that doesn't matter.

You would never say that about any other group. But somehow in our ageist society, it's unfortunately still acceptable to say that about older people.

How can people fix their unconscious bias?

I think it really starts with awareness, which sounds very simple, but it's actually really difficult because these reactions happen so quickly and so spontaneously that sometimes we're not even aware.

Developing awareness really involves just slowing down. And it's honestly a lot like mindfulness — noticing what's happening in your mind, noticing what's happening in your body. And once you notice it, it's this incredibly powerful power you have because you can choose what to do. Then, you have agency over your own self.

Awareness is the first step, but it's not the only step. There are many other things people can do once they develop that awareness.

Try to imagine the situation from the other person's perspective. Rather than labeling a person as one thing, put aside a label and try to see them more as an individual.

Practice compassion.

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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