Ageism Fact Sheet

What is ageism?

The Ontario Human Rights Commission defines ageism as two related concepts:

 (1)  a socially constructed way of thinking about older persons based on negative attitudes and stereotypes about agin


  (2) a tendency to structure society based on an assumption that everyone is young, thereby failing to respond appropriately to the real needs of older persons.

The World Health Organization has a broader definition, including age-related discrimination across all age groups, where ageism is the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or ourselves based on age.

This broader definition includes what is sometimes called reverse ageism - discussions of ageism often focus on bias towards older persons, but harmful stereotypes also exist towards younger people. Reverse ageism can play a role in imposter syndrome, and can affect younger workers. There is a recognized research gap on the effects, definitions, and determinants of reverse ageism.

What is the impact of ageism?

In ageism, age is often used to categorize and divide people in ways that lead to harm, disadvantage, and injustice. Ageism can erode solidarity across generations.

Ageism can lead to lost opportunities, loss of knowledge from a team when skilled members are undervalued, and physical and mental health impacts for the discriminated person.

The Ontario Human Rights Code prohibits age discrimination in employment, housing accommodation, goods, services and facilities, contracts and membership in trade and vocational associations. The University of Waterloo is committed to providing equal employment opportunity to all individuals regardless of age as part of Policy 65.

Ageism can hit the young and old. Here's how 'othering' leads to age-based mistreatment. | KUT Radio, Austin's NPR Station

What can I do about ageism as:

1. The perpetrator

The onus is on you to consider assumptions you are making about a person’s age, and what that means about their role and expertise in our department.

  1. Avoid assumptions about age, or age-related competency. You are statistically likely to be terrible at guessing someone’s age anyway!          Research in 2018 showed people are, on average, off by 8 years when guessing someone’s age, and that the face they saw most recently impacts their estimates. Read a summary here.
  2. You are what you think and how you act. Could you change your perception from within? Combatting ageism means valuing individuals for their skills, ideas, and attitudes without considering their age.
  3. Reducing your age bias might help you live longer: One study found people with a positive outlook on ageing lived a median of seven and a half years longer compared to those who thought negatively about ageing.

2. An observer

If you observe ageism occurring, you can:

  1. Address it directly with the perpetrator, using the ACTION model
  2. Gently call attention to the ageism, while refuting it.  e.g., “I don’t think being older/younger has anything to do with whether they can…” or “they are the expert on this in our lab – I suggest you take them seriously”
  3. Advocate for change – suggest amendments to a hiring process, course structure (as older students are more likely to have care-giving requirements), or to building design to better accommodate a wider range of ages and life stages.

3. The impacted individual

If you experience ageism:

  1. Try not to allow societal biases to harm your sense of self. You are a unique individual, not a faceless generational label (Zoomer, Millenial, GenXer, Boomer). You have specific skills and knowledge to contribute to our department, and you have a lot you can learn still, regardless of if you’ve been working in science for two months or thirty years.
  2. Refute ageism in the moment, if you feel secure enough to challenge it. Phrases like “I don’t think you are taking my expertise into account” or “I appreciate that my experience is different from yours, but it remains valid” can help reframe the conversation away from age.
  3. Keep a log of interactions if ageism poses a significant issue in your work life. Report ageism if you feel it contravenes the policies of the University or the provincial Human Rights Commission.

Ageism in Academia

Common examples of ageist comments in academic spaces and their alternatives

Ageist comment

Alternative option

Whose lab are you in?

What is your role here?

It’s a core theory in our field, you probably haven’t learned it yet.

Let them ask if they need clarification or

How familiar are you with this theory?

young man, girl, kids, baby grad students

Use names or positions in a professional manner.

Ok Boomer!

Initiate a conversation about the misstep or misinformation you are objecting to, rather than launching a personal attack

It’s this new technology, X, you probably haven’t seen it

Have you had a chance to try out X? It’s got this neat function that…

They are young at heart!

60 is the new 50!

Younger isn’t by default better – though these phrases are trying to evoke a positive connotation, it’s based in an ageist social structure, and belittles the age and experience that person has earned. Consider “They have great energy”.

Curious to know more?

Read about the experience of a higher education student who experienced ageism here.

Check out the EDI committee’s resource page. Week 8 of our Biology EDI challenge also focused on Ageism from a resource and introspection perspective.

Check your own unconscious biases with the Harvard Implicit Association Test on age biases Questions or comments? Reach out to the EDI committee.