Ageism in Museums: Everywhere and Nowhere

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 visitors, from lifelong learning opportunities to programs for those experiencing memory loss, institutions are noting the continued growth of the demographic in their visitorship. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) has recognized the importance of serving older arts audiences, and a new report deepens AAM’s work on “how museums can foster curiosity, growth, and social connections among people ‘fifty-five and better’.”  

Yet, there is a dissonance between the institutional support for public-facing programs for older adults and the lack of recognition of ageism within the museum workplace. Successful creative programs for older people may, in fact, obscure the presence and recognition of internal issues.

Museum workers are asking for a work culture consistent with the values of diversity, equity, access, and inclusion (DEAI) — and one that 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. Museum DEAI policies increasingly admit culpability for race-related biases and propose actions and remedies. The Getty’s January 2021 statement, for example, states frankly, “… racism has stained all of our institutions, including museums and Getty, and must be confronted and eliminated.”

As a baseline, DEAI policies typically itemize the seven employment statuses — race, gender, disability, religion, ethnicity, genetic/medical information, and age (over 40) — that are legally protected.  This is usually the first and last place age is mentioned in such policies. While legal and civil rights are fundamental, they do not always protect individuals from conditions in the work environment such as structural imbalances and implicit biases. What DEAI policies can do is address that gap by building a more just workplace. Yet, right now, most of these policies are fundamentally silent on ageism. Why does ageism continue to be overlooked in DEAI?

Legal protections against age discrimination were enacted decades ago by President Lyndon Johnson with passage of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). It was a difficult sell to a skeptical Congress, which had earlier removed an age provision supported by Johnson from the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and instead directed the Labor Department to produce a study of the matter. One incontrovertible finding was: Half of United States employers barred those over 55, or in some cases, over 45, from applying for jobs. In turn, a class of under- or unemployed people in midlife was growing. To head it off, the ADEA’s explicit purpose was to “promote employment of older persons based on their ability rather than age [and] prohibit arbitrary age discrimination.”

Yet, flash forward to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website in 2021, which offers this advice on age and harassment:

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?” This language essentially ratifies a concise, present-day description of microaggressions that would be unacceptable in any context with respect to gender, race, or religion. Has progress been made in 54 years?

Today, two factors are renewing the relevance of the ADEA. Tectonic demographic shifts — plummeting birth rates alongside greater longevity — will skew the population and workforce older. The AAM report cites this, alongside projections that, by mid-century, people of color will represent a majority of the US population, as significant coming impacts on museum practice.   The United Nations has identified an aging world population as a key policy issue, designating 2021–2030 the “Decade of Healthy Ageing,” inclusive of strategies for “combatting ageism.”

The second factor is the durability of the “arbitrary” discrimination factors noted in the 1965 Labor Department report: baseless and stereotyping assumptions about the capacities of experienced workers. For example, the term “digital native” is widespread in employment advertising, although it constitutes age discrimination by qualifying a specific age cohort of people. Pervasive are ideas about older workers “stuck in their ways” and resistant to change and innovation (despite the uncontested value of “lifelong learning”). 

Thomas Cole, “The Voyage of Life: Old Age” (1842) oil on canvas, 52 1/2 x 77 1/4 inches unframed (image courtesy the National Gallery of Art)

The reality is otherwise. Experience does matter and can make it faster, not slower as many presume, to cut through workplace thickets. Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2018 survey notes that “older workers represent a largely untapped opportunity” as “a proven, committed, and diverse set of workers” with “more knowledge, experience, and wisdom.”

What can museums do?  Internal ageism may be hard to tackle because it is so mutable: affecting us at different life stages in different ways. An informal survey I conducted of cultural workers showed that their experience of ageism tracks with many studies, including one by AARP that found three in five workers over 45 have experienced age discrimination. Yet when posed the question in my survey, museum personnel see remedies and opportunities too.

Museum leadership can help their staffs by recognizing the validity of ageism inside and outside of the museum by clearly defining it within the DEAI policies, supporting education about ageism, and by creating authentic opportunities for intergenerational collaboration. Age is an inseparable, and inevitable, part of our shared humanity. Perhaps we need to relinquish our cultural obsession with naming, defining, and policing generational boundaries. We might adopt what the writer and entrepreneur Gina Pell has proposed as 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.

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