Description of the Problem of Ageism

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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Category: Ageism
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Subtle cues or context changes that make you gravitate towards a certain decision without any direct force is what Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein call “the Nudge.” Thaler and Sunstein suggest that our brains undergo two systems of thinking, the Automatic System (processing that is rapid and feels instinctive) and the Reflective System (processing that is more deliberate and self-conscious).

While the Automatic System can help to process information quickly, it can often lead to systematic biases such as making a relative judgement based on a known standard (or “anchor”), assessing information based on examples that readily come to mind, or the tendency to stick with the default option.

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The choices people make are partially influenced by the environment in which they are situated in and the way that the issues are stated or framed. From getting more people to eat from the salad bar, to encouraging people to implement eco-friendly habits, structuring the possible choices in a way that appeals to a target audience will cause individuals to make different judgements based on the benefit they think that choice will grant them.

The complexity of the world causes people to adopt certain thinking shortcuts that are quick and efficient. However, by framing the information given in a limited context or designed for a specific audience, the analysis of an issue can become restricted, causing people to be led to develop systematic biases. In the labor force, employers often target their job advertisements at younger workers. Yet, after the implementation of age discrimination policies that forbid the exclusion of older workers in employment opportunities, employers have turned to framing to adapt their recruiting approaches in a way that can strategically favor the younger generations over the older.

According to Thaler and Sunstein, humans make irrational decisions when the topic presented to them is framed in a way that appeals to their interests and elicits a positive response with their Automatic System. Unlike the Reflective System, making fast and efficient decisions comes at the expense of not actively checking to see whether changing the structure of the question would result in a different response, and thus limiting the perception of the issue (Sunstein and Thaler, 37).

The Nudge highlights how credit card companies and energy conservation campaigns have manipulated the information they provide to the public, focusing on the positive consequences rather than the negative consequences, to affect how humans perceive the subject. However, due to the multifaceted nature of most policy issues, highlighting one aspect of a problem through framing may jeopardize the other aspects. Smoking, for instance, can be framed in terms of health and safety, as well as a recreational activity. Yet putting focus on the recreational component would diminish the value of smoking being health concern. To gain financial benefits, cigarette companies must market their merchandise using precise framing techniques in their images and language, such that it appeals to the consumers.

For instance, the 1968 advertisements for Virginia Slims, targeting women as their main consumers, all shared two common features: an image of a successful looking, well-dressed lady, and their catchphrase, “You’ve come a long way, baby” (Lowbrow). Virginia Slims’ advertising frames cigarette smoking as progressive, something that an intelligent worldly woman would do. It attempts to cognitively bias a younger, less well-off, or less well-educated woman to think that by smoking Virginia Slims, she can add a worldly-wise glamour into her life. Yet, such advertisements conceal the health dangers that result from smoking, such as lung cancer. The cigarette consumer is drawn away from rational decision making due to a consciousness that has been manipulated to focus on the appeal of the positive, gaining of a strong self-image, rather than the negative health consequences. Thus, while framing can help to nudge people in making fast decisions, the limitations of the technique may be exploited at times to benefit certain industries and overlook other potential issues.

While there is no evidence that job performance declines with age, older people are often overlooked for employment opportunities by means of subtle age discriminatory words in job advertisements. In the past, Americans often retired at about age 65, making way for younger generations to enter the workforce. Now, however, people are retiring later due to the increase in living costs and lifespans. In the workforce, older workers are believed to be more expensive in terms of money (due to their high experience levels, which would require greater wages) and time (because they need to be trained to use new technology).

Employers thus tend to equate older workers as being out-of-touch and expensive, causing people as young as 40 to be overlooked for employment. In 1967, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act was implemented to “prohibit employment discrimination against persons 40 years of age or older” (The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967). Despite this policy, age discrimination remains an issue. Although ageism has become increasingly more prevalent ever since the baby boomer generation, the largest demographic group in U.S. history, reached middle age and looked for new jobs, it is still the most normalized of any prejudices, and is not widely countered like racism or sexism. The ADEA was implemented such that employers would become more aware of possible intentional or unintentional prejudicial treatments or denial of rights based on age, yet companies have found ways to manipulate the context and location of their advertisements to encourage the younger workforce population to apply, and consequently disadvantage older workers from obtaining the same opportunities

With age discrimination laws in place, employers have turned to framing to continue being selective in the workers they choose to hire. When companies list positions with minimum GPA or SAT requirements, they are telling applicants that they are looking for employees at a life stage where these assessments remain relevant, limiting the candidates to those who have recently graduated from college (Rockwood). More indirectly, stating that meals are included in the job description implies an expectation that workers do not have families waiting for them to come home for dinner. On top of being labeled “overqualified,” age discrimination gets masked when older workers are described with exclusionary adjectives such as “tired” and “not energetic”. Subtle shifts in a job posting’s vocabulary from “experienced” and “seasoned’ to more youth-oriented code words such as “energetic,” “high-potential,” and “flexible” connotes that older workers are not welcomed. Sell-It-Inc., a self-proclaimed “new wave progressive” advertising firm, published a job advertisement calling for “graphic artists with no more than four years’ experience” (Case Studies of Age Discrimination in Job Ads).

While there are legitimate reasons for a company to seek applicants with less experience, the concern regarding this statement is whether its aim was to adversely affect applicants over 40, who (because of their age) usually have more work experience. Keywords such as “fresh,” “innovative,” and “relate to our youthful audience,” suggests that the ad’s limitations on years of experience allowed are framed specifically to attract younger workers over older workers. Although the ad does not contain specific age constraints, read in its entirety, it does appear that the people the ADEA aims to protect would be discouraged from applying for the position. The ability to frame job advertisements to target certain age groups highlights how the current age discrimination policies are inefficient in ensuring that all workers are provided the same employment opportunities.

The implementation of the ADEA has helped bring to light the importance of recognizing age discrimination in the workplace, however framing strategies have been manipulated to overcome the regulations and continue to rule out older workers attempting to seek employment. In 2017 alone, 84,254 workplace discrimination charges were filed with the federal agency nationwide, and of those charges, 21.8% were related to age issues (EEOC Releases Fiscal Year 2017 Enforcement And Litigation Data). In the past, using youth-oriented terminology has been key in discouraging older workers, but now modern day media platforms and technology algorithms have made it even easier for employers to be selective in the age group they choose to employ.

Microtargeting, a marketing strategy where consumer data and demographics are used to identify the interests of specific individuals and influence their thoughts or actions, has been allegedly tied to age discrimination in the lawsuit, Bradley v. T-Mobile. The plaintiffs argue that companies such as Amazon, T-Mobile, Ikea, Facebook, and hundreds of other companies target their ads so they are only visible to users explicitly between the ages of 21 and 55, thus filtering out older workers (Angwin, Scheiber, and Tobin). Facebook has denied the allegations and argued that their online ads are just the same as job ads posted in magazines for young audiences. However, this argument obscures an important distinction: anyone can buy a magazine and see the ads. Whereas on online platforms, people outside of the targeted age groups can be excluded and never even know of the employment opportunities.

The use of framing and microtargeting make it hard for victims of discrimination to voice their rights because the tactics that employers use do not provide direct evidence of breaking policy rules. In cases where age discrimination is believed to be in place, all employers must do is prove that it had a legitimate reason for its action apart from age, which can take the form of the applicant not being the “right fit” or “too experienced”. For the job seeking older worker, unless they know who was hired and can compare their qualifications, the only basis of their argument is a hunch.

The monetary and emotional cost of bringing a lawsuit are also so significant that many individuals choose to focus their time, energy, and resources on finding another job. The ADEA may help to prevent employers from commenting on an employee’s age, but it does not prevent them from turning their attention and tactics towards the youth instead. While employers may overtly attempt to comply with the law, stereotypes about aging continue to taint their employment practices. To counter this issue, age discrimination policies must be adapted to combat against the more sophisticated and subtle forms of age discrimination.  

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Description of the Problem of Ageism. (2021, Jun 03). Retrieved from