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I recently came across a report, developed by the World Health Organization (WHO) : The Global Report on Ageism in 2021.

One of the things that is interesting in this report is how they see the definition of ageism.

WHO defines ageism

They recognize that ageism is a multifaceted social phenomenon. They draw on a rich definition based upon how you might engage with other people based upon age.

Their model of ageism looks at three perspectives which are described as Dimensions, Manifestations and Expressions.

For the Dimension perspective there are three dimensions that they identify as:

  • Stereotypes (how we think or what we believe),
  • Prejudice (how we feel) and
  • Discrimination (actions or behaviours which may arise from stereotypes and prejudice).

For the Manifestation perspective there are three manifestations of how ageism shows up which they identify as:

  • Institutional Manifestations – companies, governmental and non-governmental organizations, the arts, media, sport, law, regulation can all manifest ageism.
  • Interpersonal, which is, as you might expect, is manifested by how individuals relate to one another and express ageism to one another.
  • Self-directed: As we start to accept the socially imposed views of ageism we bring them into ourselves and adopt them as truth for ourselves.  This process can be reinforced by institutional and interpersonal gas lighting.

For the Expression perspective they distinguish between two expressions:

  • Explicit: conscious or intentional
  • Implicit: unconscious and unintentional

Many people will be familiar with the term unconscious bias that has been widely applied to racism which may be an institutional, interpersonal or even self-directed manifestation.  Similarly explicit racist bias has been identified in the UK with manifestations as institutional racism, person to person racism or even as lower self-expectations of their own potential in marginalised group.

Does it Have to Be so Complicated?

This whole complex classification scheme may seem to be unnecessary and only of academic interest.  But just consider a few examples:

You may have thoughts that are stereotypical – younger people are more energetic.  You may have a role of influence that means these are expressed institutionally -that’s where they’re manifested.  The manifestation may be explicit in policies (fill certain positions with new graduates) or unconsciously expressed by the culture you help shape (assume younger people are the best candidates to run the charity sports day).  Now that the sports committee is dominated by younger people, older people assume that they shouldn’t apply or participate (the manifestation becomes self-directed).

This example, helps you to recognise the interaction between the different perspectives and to carefully consider where the most powerful intervention can occur.  Perhaps for the charity sports day you can challenge the unconscious institutional bias by nominating a range of ages to join the committee.  Or maybe you recognise that there are a variety of charity events that are less likely to exclude those of particular ages or with physical disability.

It may that language in various forms of corporate communication feeds stereotypes around age.  Or it could be that particular labels are explicitly prejudicial such as ‘old fogey’, ‘menopausal’, ‘midlife crisis’.

On the other hand, if there is a pattern of managers and leaders failing to select direct reports older than themselves then although this could be evidence of discrimination, you may struggle to address it if you fail to examine whether this arises from other institutional policies, unconscious bias, prejudice or the adoption of stereotypes.  If it appears that older candidates are not even applying then this could be a self-directed manifestation of ageism that is being reinforced by discriminatory language in the advert, job description or person specification.


As you seek to challenge ageism and you need to understand your culture then these perspectives of dimensions, stereotypes, manifestations and expression provide a powerful set of lenses with which to tease out what is happening and how best to address it.


Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.