Ageism in Museums — Everywhere and Nowhere

JENNIFER L. RIDDELL

Visitors viewing paintings in a gallery at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Visitors at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Photo by Jennifer Riddell

Ageism is everywhere, yet it is the most socially ‘normalized’ of any prejudice and is not widely challenged — like racism or sexism.

World Health Organization, 2016

Museums have stepped up when it comes to engaging older audiences, from lifelong learning opportunities to programs for those experiencing memory loss, institutions are making note of the continued growth of the demographic in their visitorship. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many people, including older art enthusiasts, have benefitted from the increased availability and accessibility of online programs. The American Alliance of Museums also has recognized the importance of older museum visitors and cultural consumers, and the need to extend the reach of programs tailored for them. Yet AAM’s stated aim in this arena, “How museums can foster curiosity, growth, and social connections among people ‘fifty-five and better,’” leaves the subject of ageism in the museum workplace unspoken.

There is a dissonance between the institutional support for such public-facing programs for older adults — and the aspiration toward public service that museums represent — and the lack of support, or even acknowledgement, of age bias and discrimination that exists within the museum and cultural institution workforce. Successful and inclusive creative aging programs may, in fact, obscure the presence and recognition of internal issues.

In the meantime, museum workers are increasingly asking for a culture that is externally and internally consistent with the values of diversity, equity, access, and inclusion (DEAI) — and cares about visitors and staff equally. Greater institutional self-awareness of these issues has come with the ongoing crises of racial injustice and social inequality, intensified by the pandemic.

Recently instituted and often publicly available museum DEAI policies, alongside executive-level positions to support them, admit culpability for largely race-related biases and propose actions and remedies. The Getty’s statement of January 2021, for example, states frankly, “racism has stained all of our institutions, including museums and Getty, and must be confronted and eliminated.”

As a baseline and perhaps starting place, DEAI policies usually itemize the list of the seven legally protected employment statuses– race, gender, disability, religion, ethnicity, genetic/medical information, and age (over 40). Workers who believe that they have experienced discrimination may pursue remedies through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). While legal and civil rights are fundamental, they do not always protect individuals from the structural imbalances and implicit biases and conditions in the work environment. What DEAI policies can do is address that gap by bringing awareness, education, empathy, and action to creating a more just workplace. Yet, right now, most of these policies are fundamentally silent on age bias and discrimination. Why does ageism continue to be overlooked in DEAI?

Age Bias — Are We Still in Denial?

Age discrimination achieved legal recognition 54 years ago. Even then, and certainly since, there has existed a societal resistance to acknowledging its effects and pervasiveness. President Lyndon Johnson fully intended that age be enumerated in Section VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act: It was Section VII that included the establishment of the EEOC and outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, sex (later expanded to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy/childbirth), religion, and national origin. Age was omitted. Instead, a skeptical Congress commissioned the Labor Department to study the matter. The resulting 1965 report was unequivocal: it found that fully half of U.S. employers stipulated in job postings that those over 55, or in some cases, over 45, need not apply. These blatantly discriminatory conditions led directly to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), made law in 1967. The ADEA’s explicit purpose was “promote employment of older persons based on their ability rather than age [and] prohibit arbitrary age discrimination.”

Yet, a look the EEOC website in 2021 currently offers this advice on age and harassment:

Harassment can include, for example, offensive or derogatory remarks about a person’s age. Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that aren’t very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision.

“Simple teasing and offhand comments?” The language essentially ratifies a concise, present-day description of microaggressions that would be unacceptable in practically any other context with respect to gender, race, or religion.

Our daily life, language and behavior incorporate so much that is ageist that further normalizes it and makes it socially acceptable. Visual ageism refers to the ever-decreasing visibility of older people in society. Stock pictures of workplaces that would suggest, as existed pre-1967, that no one over 45 is employed. A collaborative project between the style media channel Refinery29 (changed to Refinery59 for a day) and AARP found that 61% of women surveyed did not see female aging represented in the media. Age denial is rampant in the promotion of an endless array of “anti-aging” products. Other actions like making assumptions about technology skills (the use of the term “digital native” is widespread in employment advertising, even though it constitutes age discrimination since it refers to a specific age cohort of people) or presuming that older workers are “stuck in their ways” and resistant to change and innovation are similarly insidious (despite the uncontested value of “lifelong learning”).

The steady drip that erodes the value, competence, and credibility of older people has concrete effects. These include decreased leadership opportunities and visibility in the workplace, and on a personal level, psychological harm from the tolls of stress, self-doubt, isolation, and even internalization of the very stereotypes others cast upon them. The association between aging and diminishment is so pervasive that people believe it is an intrinsic part of getting older. (Please let President Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Anthony Fauci and the spirits of pioneer activists John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsberg know.)

Evidence shows otherwise. The process and effects of getting older are as varied as the people experiencing it. Ashton Applewhite, an anti-ageism activist, notes that research demonstrates that people over 50 show more diverse physical, developmental and social traits than people under 50 (the younger we are, the more homogeneous we are). Instead, judge people on their abilities, not on stereotypes and prejudices — whether race, gender, age or any other marker of identity, visible or not.

Reality Check: Experienced Workers Add Value

The benefits that experienced workers offer are real, studied, and documented. Experience does matter — as does perspective and knowledge in navigating communication, strategy, and leadership — which makes it actually faster, not slower as many presume, to cut through workplace thickets. Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2018 research summarizes that “older workers represent a largely untapped opportunity . . . . The older labor pool represents a proven, committed, and diverse set of workers” who can be a valuable resource for training, a source of institutional knowledge and come to the table with “more knowledge, wisdom, and life experience.”

Numerous management and organizational studies underscore the benefits of age- and otherwise diverse work teams as being more creative and productive. Teams built around an in-group of generational peers, for instance, may provide its participants a greater comfort level, consensus, or affirmation of viewpoint. Such choices may read as benign sociality, however, in-group favoritism is exclusionary and ultimately, inhibits original thinking and creativity. The tendency to this form of favoritism declines as workers move through their career and generational experiences.

We can no longer continue downplay the real impacts of ageism or maintain dismissive and one-dimensional attitudes about age status. Ageing happens to everyone and ageism can occur at any time of life as a mutable set of generational biases and presumptions. It is in the interests of all to cultivate a greater understanding of why we need to collectively inform ourselves about age bias and make conscious decisions to act against it.

Larger Trends Demand Age Inclusivity

The demographic shifts that have prompted museums to recognize the value and needs of older visitors are the same ones that add to the case for clarity and urgency in addressing age bias internally, in the museum workforce. The 55+ cohort of the workforce and population is projected to increase significantly as birth rates decline and life expectancy increases — 1 in 5 Americans will be over 60 by 2030. This means that all people, and especially young and recent entrants to the working world, now will need to plan on underwriting more years in retirement by working longer, or in many cases, not retiring at all. The changes will skew the generational composition of the workforce older, as well as encompass a range of five generations in the workplace (which is already happening). In such a scenario, cross-generational recognition, support, and understanding will be key to a generationally non-adversarial work environment.

The economics and social impacts of age redistribution are a matter of global scale. The United Nations and World Health Organization has designated 2021–2030 a “Decade of Healthy Ageing” to drive public awareness, policy and structural change. The initiative’s platform includes combatting ageism, as well as community, long term care, and mobility supports for an increasingly older population. The benefits of structural improvements for older people are shown to benefit people of all ages, including families and people with disabilities.

Ageism in the Museum Field

The experience of museum and cultural professionals of age bias aligns with these larger issues and trends. I wonder if the tendency toward age-denial may explain museums’ avoidance of internal age bias issues, while practicing age affirmation within (safely) contained public programs. An informal survey that I posted to several networks for museum professionals showed that 81% of a sample of museum and cultural workers based in the U.S. and Canada have experienced ageism in their workplace. The survey is not age-delimited and includes responses from “under 30” through the “over 60” categories. For purpose of definition here, ageism or age bias can be experienced by people of any age, while age discrimination is experienced by people over 40 who are legally protected from it.

A bar graph showing percentages of people who have experienced different forms of ageism in museum and visual arts workplace.
A bar graph showing percentages of people who have experienced different forms of ageism in museum and visual arts workplace.
Ageism in the Visual Arts/Museum Workplace Survey, 2021

Making Progress against Age Bias

A bar graph showing percentages of people surveyed who believe older staff are making a positive contribution to their organization.
Ageism in the Visual Arts/Museum Workplace Survey, 2021

One way to make progress is to simply and explicitly acknowledge the value that older workers can bring to the museum, alongside the practices of affirmation and acknowledgement of diverse workers that are already developing and becoming, hopefully, commonplace.

In 2020, legal decisions regarding age discrimination with respect to two very large employers — IBM and the federal government — are positive signs. In one case, the EEOC found that IBM systematically forced the resignation of or laid off older, experienced workers to make way for younger hires, while at the same hiring back the older workers as contractors at lower pay rates. And, a 2020 Supreme Court decision, Babb v. Wilkie, was decided 8–1 in favor of a female federal employee claiming age discrimination. The case actually lowered the bar for evidence of age discrimination after decades of cases that imposed increasingly stringent standards on discrimination claimants. Justice Samuel Alito wrote that, “A personnel action must be “made,” namely, in a way that is not tainted by differential treatment based on age. Thus, the straightforward meaning of … the statute does not require proof that an employment decision would have turned out differently if age had not been taken into account. Instead, if age is a factor in an employment decision, the statute has been violated” (my emphasis).

Age is an inseparable part of our shared humanity alongside race, gender, ethnicity, ability, and the many markers that frame who we are. Perhaps we need to let go of our cultural obsession with naming, defining, and policing generational boundaries. The researcher Gina Pell has proposed an alternative term that can encompass people of any generation:

“Perennials … describe[s] an ever-blooming group of people of all ages, stripes, and types who transcend stereotypes and make connections with each other and the world around them.” They are, “People of all ages who continue to push up against their growing edge, always relevant, and not defined by their generation.”

Remediating Age Bias in Museums

A bar graph showing percentages of people surveyed who believe older staff are making a positive contribution to their organization.
Ageism in the Visual Arts/Museum Workplace Survey, 2021

My survey of museum and cultural workers, which encompassed respondents from under 30 through over 60 years of age, also show most supporting remedies for ageism. The following steps can increase understanding, awareness, and spur action around age-biased practices.

DEAI: Spell it out

Do all workers in your museum know what is meant by diversity, equity, access, and inclusion in your institution and how it applies internally and externally? The American Alliance of Museums advises that it often said that there are as many different definitions of these and related terms as there are people in the conversation. Developing written definitions of your terms can bring clarity and be a means of assessing who may still be excluded by the language you are using.

DEAI training and education

Adding descriptions of the forms that age bias and discrimination take to your institutional DEAI policy lends immediate legitimacy to the issues. Staff training in which age bias is integrated into discussion the multiple forms of discrimination and how they are experienced is key.

Multigenerational work and collaboration

Do you look up in a meeting and see a roomful of people representing a very narrow age range? Make an explicit assessment of the composition of teams, committees, and leadership in terms of diverse age representation and other qualities. Foster a multigenerational culture that recognizes ability regardless of age and rejects age stereotypes, just as it would reject stereotypes involving race, disability, national origin, religion, or gender. Stop policing and reinforcing generational definitions and boundaries.

Assessment

Age 50 is an early “expiration” date to pin on people, but sadly, it is an age by which many begin to experience structural obstacles in the workplace that become increasingly difficult to surmount. Assess aspects of your organization’s culture, the association of specific organizational roles with certain age brackets, and anti-age practices or policies.

Organizational assessment tools, such that offered by The Center on Aging & Work at Boston College in partnership with AARP, can help establish a baseline.

References

Ashton Applewhite, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. (New York, 2016: Celadon Books).

Robert N. Butler, MD. “Age-ism: Another Form of Bigotry,” The Gerontologist, 1969. Winter; 9 (4):243–246.

Peter Gosselin, “If You’re Over 50, Chances Are the Decision to Leave a Job Won’t be Yours,” Pro Publica, December 28, 2018.

Peter Gosselin and Ariana Tobin, “Cutting Old Heads at IBM,” Pro Publica with Mother Jones, March 22, 2018.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Statement by the President After Signing the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Tay K. McNamara, Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, Natasha Sarkisian, Elyssa Besen, and Miwako Kidahashi, “Age Bias in the Workplace: Cultural Stereotypes and In-Group Favoritism,” The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 2016.

Meetings of the EEOC Meeting of June 14, 2017 — The Age Discrimination in Employment Act @ 50 — More Relevant Than Ever Written Testimony of Laurie McCann, Senior Attorney, AARP Foundation Litigation

Hunter Moyler, “What Wednesday’s Supreme Court Case Could Mean For Age Discrimination in the Workplace,” Newsweek, January 14, 2020.

Gina Pell, “What is a perennial?,” presentation, UC Berkeley Arts + Design Lecture Series, March 5, 2018.

L. Trawinski, Disrupting Aging in the Workplace: Profiles in Intergenerational Diversity Leadership 3 (AARP Pub. Policy Inst., Oct. 2016)

United Nations Decade of Healthy Aging (2021–2030)

Joan C. Williams and Sky Mihaylo, “How the Best Bosses Interrupt Bias on Their Teams,” Harvard Business Review, November-December 2019.

World Health Organization, Populations are Getting Older Infographic

is a visual arts and museum specialist who is also interested how organizational culture can improve institutional capacity to enhance visitor experiences.

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