Why is the on-going epidemic of age discrimination in employment acceptable to so many Americans? It may boil down to the “Terror Management Theory.”
This theory is discussed in Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice against Older Persons, a book of essays that was re-published in a second edition this month by The MIT Press. The book, originally published in 2004, is edited by Todd D. Nelson, a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Stanislaus.
In the book, authors Barbara Griffin, Piers Bayl-Smith, and Jennifer P. Barbour write about the Terror Management Theory, which was originally developed by cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker in the 1960s and 1970s.
The theory holds that all animals have a desire to survive and an instinct for self-preservation. However, humans are unique in that they have an awareness that they will ultimately die.
According to the authors, individuals experience “an existential crisis” that is marked by “incessant anxiety caused by the knowledge of his or her own mortality. ” To deal with this perpetual apprehensive state, the authors write, individuals “adhere to cultural belief systems that provide a sense of intransience and self-esteem.”
In short, younger people view older people as an “out-group” that poses a potential threat. They seek to minimize the threat by decreasing the significance of the older out- group through stereotyping and discrimination.
Older workers represent to younger workers their feared future self; less beautiful, less vital, and closer to death.
In the work context, the Terror Management Theory may result in discriminatory hiring practices that exclude older workers and younger workers may speak to older workers derogatorily or socially isolate them from workplace events.
The authors write that younger workers also may attempt to build self-esteem by denigrating older workers using negative stereotypes or discriminatory behavior that is designed to emphasize the difference between the younger in-group and the older out-group.
According to Nelson, ageism is found cross-culturally, but is especially prevalent in the United States, where most people regard growing older with depression, fear, and anxiety. Older people in the United States are stigmatized and marginalized, with often devastating consequences, he states.