Ageism in the Productive Aging Framework


Substantial growth has occurred in the development of scholarship and advocacy to promote productive engagement in later life. Yet this progress matches neither the growth nor potential of the older population. We must focus on ways to optimize older adult engagement in paid and unpaid work roles that are valuable to individuals and society. Ongoing issues remain regarding the lack of inclusion of low-resourced and minoritized populations; as well as ageism. To address ageism, we must center intersectionality, advance anti-ageism interventions at the micro and macro levels, and infuse our conceptual frameworks with concepts that capture age bias to advance knowledge development.

Key Words:

age stereotype, age bias, age discrimination, intersectionality


For more than 4 decades, the concept of productive aging has been developing in the gerontology literature. Progress has been made in developing knowledge and greater acknowledgement that engagement is an important part of later life. It has been shown that supporting older adults as workers, volunteers, and caregivers produces positive outcomes for society and individuals. Also, program and policies initiatives have facilitated the productive involvement of older people. Yet such progress is neither commensurate with the growth nor the potential of the older population; and health and socioeconomic disparities in engagement persist into later life. People are beginning to realize that ageism is an underlying problem. This article highlights ongoing challenges related to equity and inclusion and proposes directions to address the problem of ageism more directly.

Ongoing Issues: Exclusion of Minoritized Older People and Ageism

From the earliest discussions about productive aging, scholars and advocates expressed concern over the potential to exploit and marginalize older adults. Moody (1993) discussed the threat of productivity as a goal in later life. He pointed out the danger of extending the societal values of growth, energy, activity, accumulation, and efficacy into the longer life course, advocating instead for a wider vision of later life goals that include altruism, citizenship, stewardship, creativity, and faith. There has been constant concern about the productive-aging framework disadvantaging populations that have been marginalized across the life course. The worry being that efforts to advance productive engagement could extend this exclusion and discrimination further into the life course.

Productive-aging advocates recognized these threats and countered with a set of values: inclusion versus elitism; opportunity versus obligation; intergenerational reciprocity versus conflict; and choice versus constraint (Morrow-Howell et al., 2001). With a focus on programs, policies, and social and built environments, the intention of productive aging work was to create and broaden opportunities and facilitate engagement to minimize negative outcomes, not to obligate or burden more. A goal was to enable engagement that increased inclusion and improved the “fit” of the environment and the demands of the role with individual capacity and preferences (Gonzales et al., 2015). These aims were particularly important to older people in caregiving roles who are unrecognized and under-supported and older workers who need to work longer for financial reasons.

Progress toward goals of increasing inclusion and preventing further marginalization has not been obvious. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted this lack of progress. We witnessed firsthand how older people, especially older people of color, experienced higher levels of morbidity and mortality; less access to healthcare; and more discrimination in the workplace (Garcia et al., 2021). Across all productive activities, older people experienced heightened levels of challenge. Older workers became unemployed at higher levels than mid-career workers during the pandemic. Reemployment is harder for these older workers, especially for non-White, women, and people without college degrees (Davis et al., 2020). Volunteering and caregiving by older adults were viewed more skeptically, and a paternalistic view led to calls to exclude older people for their own protection (see Acemoglu et al., 2020, for example). The pandemic serves as a stark warning about the vulnerability of marginalized older people in the productive-aging perspective.

Gerontologists have long talked about cumulative disadvantage and double/triple jeopardy as people move through the life course. A lifetime of experiencing discrimination based on race, gender, and class produces the disparities we see in health and socioeconomic status. Yet any person who survives into later life, no matter their social positions earlier in the life course, encounters ageism; and age becomes another social identity that adds to the cumulating disadvantages (or perhaps becomes the first disadvantage that those in privileged positions face).

Future Directions to Increase Inclusion and Confront Ageism

Centering Disparities and Taking an Intersectionality Approach

To increase inclusion of minoritized and low-resourced people in ongoing productive engagement, scholars should increase knowledge about how disparities relate to engagement and how engagement exacerbates disparities in health and well-being. We may be well-served by infusing concepts from critical race theory (CRT) into productive aging frameworks. CRT promotes several ideas that parallel ageism: the importance of historical analysis and the foundational beliefs that racism is pervasive, systematic; and ingrained within ordinary practices (Blesset & Gaynor, 2021; Delgado & Stefanic, 2017).

Further, the concept of interest convergence from CRT is highly applicable to ageism. Interest convergence suggests that powerholders work to advance justice for minoritized people only when it benefits them. Thus, organizations that engage older people in paid and unpaid work will strive to include older people when it is beneficial—when employers need employees or agencies need volunteers or our society needs caregivers. The interest convergence concept captures a long-standing concern in the productive-aging literature—that instead of adequately funding/supporting the unpaid work of volunteers and caregivers, we will exploit older adults filling these roles.

‘Clearly, our work in productive aging will be thwarted if we center age to the exclusion of other identities.’

Intersectionality, a central concept in CRT (Crenshaw, 1991), is critical to advance inclusion and equity in productive aging work. Systems of inequality based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability overlap across a lifetime to create disparities we see in later life. Age by itself may create some vulnerabilities to negative well-being outcomes, but more often, it is the accumulation of minoritized identities that put older people at risk of disadvantage. The COVID-19 pandemic spotlighted intersectionality and illustrated how ageism and racism combined to devalue certain lives (Chan, 2021). Clearly, our work in productive aging will be thwarted if we center age to the exclusion of other identities.

Advancing Interventions

There are national and international efforts to reduce ageism, and productive aging scholars and advocates must support and advance these initiatives. The World Health Organization (2021) and AARP (Jenkins, 2016) provide social media and educational materials to raise awareness about ageism and age discrimination. To the extent that these large-scale efforts reduce age stereotype and age bias more generally, the negative effects of ageism on the productive engagement of older people could be alleviated.

The Reframing Aging Initiative, organized by the Gerontological Society of America, seeks to improve the public’s understanding of what aging means and the many contributions older people bring to society ( The Reframing Aging initiative highlights the contributions of older adults, society’s loss when excluding older adults, and the development of supportive policies and programs. The Reframing Aging initiative embraces the productive aging perspective.

Communication strategies advanced by the Reframing Aging initiative call for 1) promoting collective responsibility versus individualism to achieve well-being in later life; 2) increasing awareness about the heterogeneity of the older population; and 3) using positive language about changing demographics and avoiding language that “otherizes” older people. Productive aging scholars and advocates would be well-served to support implementation, dissemination, and evaluation efforts to change the narrative about later life to include the possibility of vital engagement for the longer life course (Sweetland et al., 2017).

In addition to these campaigns to confront ageism, an important piece of legislation has been introduced that could address ageism in the workplace. Although the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 was created in reaction to rampant ageism in the workplace, subsequent rulings weakened its effect and its impact is often minimal. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (Lipnik, 2018) found that while the majority of older worker experienced age discrimination in the workplace, only 3% make any type of report. The Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (2023), introduced in the Senate, seeks to strengthen the protections so that age can be a contributing and not the primary factor in an age discrimination case. Further, some states are taking action to eliminate dates from employment applications (like birth date or year of college graduation) to reduce age discrimination in the hiring process (An Act Deterring Age Discrimination In Employment Applications, 2021). In sum, efforts must continue on federal and state legislative levels (Gonzales et al., 2021).

In addition to legislation, we must seek to intervene at the organizational level. Legislative mandates might not change the behaviors of organizations with age-biased practices, ageist employers, and ageist colleagues. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives have grown in organizations, but age does not garner much attention as a diversity factor—only 8% of organizations include “age” as a part of their diversity and inclusion strategies (Trawinski, n.d.). And although most universities include age as an identity factor in organizational mission statements, there is little programming on campuses to increase age-inclusivity (Morrow-Howell et al., 2022). We must strive to increase awareness and education on age discrimination and the age diversity in employment and educational institutions.

In sum, initiatives exist to confront ageism in society and legislative actions to address ageism in employment organizations. There are DEI efforts in organizations, with some activities toward reducing ageism. But we need more action and commitment in all of these arenas. And, there remains a daunting reality that challenges interventions against ageism: ageist attitudes (external and internal) develop over a lifetime; and from early on in our lives, we absorb our society’s narrative about age as decline and how later life should be avoided.

The challenge is to design, evaluate, and disseminate interventions early in the life course to prevent the development of age biases and ageist attitudes (Gendron, 2022). Although the task is daunting, we must determine how to intervene at early phases of life to ensure that when we all enter later life, we do not experience the barrier of ageism as we pursue productive engagement.

Centering Ageism in Research

Productive aging scholars must elevate ageism in our research agendas and in conceptual and empirical endeavors. First, we must include ageism more squarely in our conceptual frameworks. Different types of age biases are relevant at the individual, interpersonal, organizational, and societal levels. At the society level, we need to capture the existence and effectiveness of federal age-discrimination laws and state policies to elucidate their effects on working. We need to capture the organizational environments where older people work and volunteer to understand the experience and outcomes associated with these productive roles.

Similarly, families have expectations based on age stereotypes and age-graded social norms, and internalized ageism affects an older person’s assessment of their capacities and preferences. Ageism affects types and levels of engagement in productive roles, the experience in performing those roles, and the outcomes related to this engagement. Yet our theoretical propositions and analytic frames do not capture these contexts and restrict the impact of our research to build understanding and guide interventions.

How can employers and work colleagues be legally compliant with age discrimination laws yet continue to be ageist in all phases of the employment cycle?

We need to ask research questions directly related to ageism and productive engagement. There are undoubtedly many important questions to advance this scholarship, and I highlight several high priority areas of inquiry. First, we need a deeper understanding about the intersection of age with other marginalizing identities to reduce disparities in productive engagement. We have asked, “How do race and age intersect to determine productive aging patterns and outcomes?” We have assessed moderating and mediating relationships with age and race variables; and we use secondary data to conduct these analyses. However, the focus is on the individual and this may lead to overly simplistic analyses. It may be more fruitful to think on a more macro, more structural level and ask, “How does structural racism contribute to structural ageism, and vice versa?”

The implementation of legislation at the state and national levels is limited in its effect on age discrimination, as discussed above. We need to understand more about how employers and work colleagues can be legally compliant with age discrimination laws but continue to be ageist in all phases of the employment cycle. We need to develop and test interventions to reduce hiring and promotion biases. How is age being incorporated into organizational DEI practices and how can we introduce age as an identity factor that merits more attention?

The powerful effects of internalized ageism on the health of older adults are well-documented (Levy, 2022); but we don’t know how internalized ageism affects engagement in productive activities. How do individuals’ beliefs about aging and their expectations about what they should be doing relate to decisions to engage in activities, the experience of participation, and the outcomes? The same question can be asked about the attitudes of family members whose beliefs and expectations might affect an older person’s decision to work, volunteer, or engage in ongoing education. When it comes to caregiving and volunteering, the effects of interpersonal and internalized ageism remain largely unexplored.

One of the biggest challenges will be identifying critical points and situations in the life course where interventions toward externalized and internalized ageism have the most effect on later life behavior and outcomes. The methodological challenges are great, but we must know which programs targeted toward youth and younger adults contribute to advancing long and productive lives.

Finally, we have long advocated for programs and policies to facilitate older people in working, volunteering, and caregiving roles; and we have long known that implementation and dissemination of effective programs and policies are very constrained. We may be well-served by centering dissemination and implementation research questions.


The productive aging perspective has advanced and offers a more complete view of the reality of the older population. Alongside the narrative that age is a problem, a decline and a loss, there exists the potential for contribution and growth. The focus has not been on individuals but on programs, policies, and social and environmental contexts to facilitate engagement in the vital roles of working, volunteering, and caregiving. There has been knowledge and intervention development; but the long-standing challenge continues to be including older people in all levels of human, social, and financial capital and including those in marginalized social positions.

One of the underlying barriers to gains in facilitating productive engagement in later life is ageism. Growing evidence that ageism negatively impacts individuals and organizations brings an important impetus to the productive-aging agenda. Policies and programs will not be enough if ageist attitudes and behaviors constrain the participation of older adults in important societal roles. In this next phase of productive aging scholarship and advocacy, we must elevate our focus on ageism to improve the possibilities of a productive aging society.

Nancy Morrow-Howell, PhD, is the Betty Bofinger Brown Distinguished Professor of Social Policy at Washington University in St. Louis.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Marcos Castillo



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