Ageism in an ageing world

If you ask the average young person how old is ‘old’, they would say over 50. Ask an older person and they would say over 65.

To complicate things further, chronological age is not necessarily the same as biological, social or psychological age. Some 65-year-olds might look, feel and act younger than someone who is 50.

In any case, the discrepancy in perceptions of ageing fuels stereotypes, one of the issues at the heart of ‘ageism’ – prejudice against older people that causes discrimination.

Our “youth-obsessed culture” doesn’t help, worshipping glossy images of young people and pushing treatments and lotions to hide grey hair and iron out wrinkles.

According to gerontologist Robert Butler, ageism – like racism or sexism – sets people apart from other groups. It allows “the younger generations to see older people as different than themselves; thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings.”

Ageism pervades our culture and language, as Associate Professor Briony Dow observes, with attitudes like “stupid older drivers.” It creates all manner of discrimination including housing and services. In the workplace, ageism causes unfair hiring, training, retention, promotion and work assignments.

In the media, old people tend to be portrayed as forgetful, frail, slow, helpless and sick, according to a survey of over 2,000 older adults. These prevailing stereotypes would now be frowned on with different races or genders.

For decades, many aged care residents have even been abused or neglected, leading to a long overdue royal commission.

The growing old

Unlike sexism or racism, ageism affects us all directly. Why? Because, if we’re not struck by lightning, a fatal accident or disease in the meantime, all of us will be old one day – whatever age that is.

And the number of people aged 65 and over is set to double between 2009 and 2020. In fact, this cohort is set to exceed the number of children under 5 for the first time in history by 2020, according to Dow.

This growing aging demographic is causing retirement ages to increase while pensions are threatened as society struggles to support older adults. But their recognition or protection is not yet explicitly reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Even where workplaces have put equal opportunities policies into place, they don’t necessarily align with attitudes, behaviour and practice.

Honouring age

Honouring all people, young and old, is pivotal to a truly civilised society. It acknowledges not only everyone’s fundamental humanity, but older adults’ contribution, raising and nurturing of children, and years of hard work.

“Each time we see an older person, we need to imagine them as our future self, and rather than recoil from their wrinkles or infirmities, applaud their resilience. We need to re-humanise older people,” says British writer Anne Karpf.

Importantly, older adults bring a wealth of wisdom, resilience and maturity that can come with greater experience and lived years if we take the time to slow down and listen to them.

In the workplace, older adults can contribute their knowledge to help younger people handle complex or emotionally challenging situations that they are not yet equipped to deal with.

It’s time to revisit policies and attitudes to reflect that.

Meanwhile, some baby boomers are actively embracing retirement as they reinvent themselves in their “third age”, “encore stage” or “unretirement”.

Are you game to take stock of your attitude to ageing? You can explore it via the Attitudes to Ageing Questionnaire in the video or link below.


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