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The ongoing issues with ageism

We may not realise it but ageism - discrimination on the grounds of someone’s age - is all around us. It may be that you are treated differently in the workplace because of your age, assumptions that you are unable to use technology, or your family believing you are lonely or aren't able to take care of yourself.

Last updated: July 27th 2022
Sad man at home.
Ageism is prejudice towards a person because of their age, this could include stereotyping, discrimination and mistreatment. [Source: Shutterstock]

Key Points:

  • Ageism can have an impact on every facet of your life, including physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially
  • Sixty-four percent of older people indicated they had experienced ageism in the last five years
  • Sometimes ageism is present among older people, due to years of developed internalised ageism

Ageism is prejudice towards a person because of their age, which can include stereotyping, discrimination and mistreatment.

EveryAGE Counts, an advocacy campaign tackling ageism, describes ageism as “not benign or harmless".

“It is a big problem because it impacts on our confidence, quality of life, job prospects, health, and control over life decisions.”



Why is it important we recognise ageism?

The Benevolent Society, an Australian charity, found that ageism can take three different forms - attitudes and beliefs, behavioural discrimination, and formalised policy and practices.

Ageism can even lead to elder abuse, whether it’s financial, physical, psychological, emotional or sexual.

Another big problem with ageism is that it can be done unconsciously.

There are a lot of age stereotypes that float around that can have an impact on the older generation as a whole.

People view older people as frail, "out of touch", boring, unable to help themselves, and grumpy.

These ageist beliefs are resulting in unfair attitudes towards older people, their experiences, and their capabilities.

And this discrimination can have a run-on effect in all parts of life, including socially or economically, in the workplace, around the dinner table, and be passed on to younger generations to continue the vicious cycle.

Not only that, ageism can have a disastrous impact on the physical and mental health of older people and can encourage elderly people to feel isolated.

Ageism in society

While it is known that people are living longer than ever, society's perception of age tells us that getting old is a bad thing. And older people are not portrayed positively in the media, there is lacking awareness about the positives of getting older.

An Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) research report from 2021 found that ageism is the most accepted form of prejudice in the country.

Age Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Kay Patterson AO, says, "Ageism is arguably the least understood form of discriminatory prejudice, with evidence suggesting it is more pervasive and socially accepted than sexism or racism."

Sixty-four percent of older people indicated they had experienced ageism in the last five years.

The most likely ageism older people experienced was being "helped without being asked", as the oldest generation are seen as "frail", "depressed", in ill health, lonely and "lacking competence" in many areas.

These types of stereotypes are leading to the view that older people didn't have a role to play in meaningful life - that they were seen "predominantly as nice onlookers to life".

But what ageing looks like is changing, participants in the AHRC report say that older people no longer fit into the "traditional boxes".

Dr Patterson says, "While we found common stereotypes about different age groups during our research, I was struck by the warmth expressed by participants towards members of age cohorts other than their own – and a real understanding of the life issues faced by those of other age groups."

Ageism in the workplace

Many older workers have indicated they feel discriminated against in the workplace because of their age, as research shows that middle-aged people are viewed as the height of workplace competency.

Ageism in the workplace could be as simple as being overlooked for a training opportunity, raise, promotion, or project, and a younger employee receiving these new avenues.

However, perceptions about the older workforce are slowly changing and becoming more positive.

A 2021 report from the Australian HR Institute (AHRI), a professional body for Human Resources in Australia, discovered that the older worker bracket has been redefined over the last five years, and the age of an "older worker" has shifted from the 51 - 55 bracket to a 61 - 65 age bracket.

While older workers were seen as having higher loyalty, being more reliable and having great awareness, younger workers were rated as having higher levels of ambition, technology skills and physical capabilities.

One-third of research participants believe that their organisation's recruitment practices had negatively impacted older workers and only 9.7 percent of Australian organisations are proactively recruiting older workers.

On top of this, 23 percent of businesses and organisations are not making the effort to encourage age diversity within their workforce.

Dr Patterson, says, "There is a satisfying ongoing drop in the numbers of organisations that say they ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ have an age above which they are reluctant to recruit, but the gains have gone to increase the number who said ‘maybe’ rather than those who said ‘definitely not’ or ‘probably not’.

"Overall there are some small continuing gains, but also a number of areas where progress has stalled or even gone backwards."

Internalised ageism

Sometimes ageism is enhanced by older people's actions and attitudes.

Whether it’s a fear of being perceived as old or rejecting any form of help at home, this is considered internalised ageism.

Dr Kirsty Nowlan, the former Co-Chair of EveryAGE Counts, told the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety in 2019 that internalised ageism in older people was resulting in people ending up in aged care during a crisis, rather than through choice.

Research has shown that negative messages throughout a person's life can have an impact on their view of themself as they age.

One particular research article from 2019 found that internalised ageism had an impact on an older person's health and pushed them into early retirement.

There is nothing wrong with ageing and it’s important to accept that part of your future. Not only accept, but embrace everything ageing gracefully has to offer.

What can we do to be better?

EveryAGE Counts says that older Australians don't take action when they are faced with ageism either because it was hard to prove, they didn't know how to respond, or didn't know what options were available to them.

Campaign Director Marlene Krasovitsky of EveryAGE Counts, says, "Ageism is pervasive, but often hidden. The only way we can end it is to bring it out of the shadows.

"Often older Australians feel powerless when we encounter ageism. However, if we know what it looks like and name it, we can take constructive actions in response. In this way, each of us can help build an Australia without ageism."

To combat ageism, the first thing to do if you hear or see something that stems from ageism is call it out! Challenge ageist rhetoric you encounter. You shouldn’t stand for anything less than being treated like everyone else.

If you are still working, make the effort to engage with younger employees. All it takes is a positive encounter for it to break the chain of ageism for that individual.

Pay attention and notice ageism in your general community and in the media you consume, it can be obvious or subtle. And it is important to express to people, whether friends or family, why ageism is unacceptable and the harm it can do to older Australians.

If you find another person holds ageist views, don't let their influence change your mind about being happy or living your life.

If you are unsure about whether you hold ageist views, why not quiz yourself? EveryAGE Counts has an online quiz to identify how “ageist” you are. To take the quiz, head to the EveryAGE Counts website.

How can you be better in the fight against ageism? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:

Myths about getting old and ageing
The freedom of growing older
How to empower older people
What is an aged care advocate?

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