Is ageism the last socially acceptable prejudice?

Ageism is the most accepted form of prejudice in Australia, according to Age Discrimination Commissioner Dr Kay Patterson

In Australia, ageism hides behind humourous remarks like "OK, boomer" or generalist slang like "grey nomads" but make no mistake, there are insidious consequences to ageism for both younger and older people, including poorer health outcomes. Carolyn Tate tackles the topic.

By Carolyn Tate

When it comes to injustice, Australia has come a long way in the past 50 years, to build a more inclusive and accepting society.

Discriminating against someone for their gender or sexual preferences, the country they come from, or the language they speak is no longer socially acceptable. There are even laws in place to help prevent acts of prejudice from happening in our communities.

But there seems to be one elephant left in the room of prejudice: age bias.

Why is it that more and more people over the age of 50 are finding themselves on the outside of this inclusivity bubble?

Ageism is everywhere

To say ageism doesn’t exist would be a denial of reality. We’ve found 4 ways in which older people are excluded, and the evidence to back it up.

Workplace discrimination

Over 50s are sometimes labelled as ‘over-qualified’, a euphemism that can make it difficult to find new career opportunities.

Lisa Taylor, President of the Challenge Factory and author of The Talent Revolution, says excluding older workers can be a massive mistake, saying, "Companies that embrace an age-diverse workforce can gain a competitive advantage.”

Taylor believes that it’s time to “shed outdated career and work-related thinking.”

This is in line with the Australian Human Rights Commission, which states that “managing multigenerational teams and ageism is critical to ensuring a productive and high-performing workforce.”  

Media stereotypes

TV shows, movies and ads do a great job of making older people look forgetful, cranky and non-tech savvy. But many of us are extremely friendly with technology, and our minds are still brilliantly sharp.

These stereotypes aren’t just wrong, they can also be detrimental, says Dr Jane Barratt, Secretary-General of Australia’s International Federation on Ageing.

“Ageism in the media can have profound effects on the wellbeing of older Australians,” she says.

Dr Barratt points out that it’s important to “challenge ageist narratives and promote positive representations of ageing."

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to see happy, healthy, and open-minded older people on our screens?

Medical and health prejudices

Some health conditions are (wrongfully) linked to age. For example, certain drugs and medicines are not trialled on older people for fear that their bodies cannot handle them.  

Experts suggest that if the medical industry encouraged older people to take control of their health and pursue a healthy, active lifestyle regardless of age, that could also help reduce certain health conditions, such as early onset Alzheimer’s disease or high blood pressure.

Professor Annette Dobson, an Australian epidemiologist known for researching public health issues, says, “Addressing age-related biases in healthcare is essential for achieving health equity."

Professor Dobson argues that we must first acknowledge and accept that age bias exists to provide healthcare and medical attention specifically designed for older people.

Social exclusion

Socialising, going out and having fun is important at any age. Whether someone is at university or in an older phase of their life, being surrounded by good friends is beneficial to anyone's mental health.

The Australian Human Rights Commission suggests we start “seeing and treating older [people] as individuals,” not elders, because people should be judged by their “capabilities not limitations.”

So, the more years you have, the more comfortable you become around people and you can hold better conversations and connect with others on a deeper level.

Negative effects and missed opportunities of excluding older people

Sadly, the community misses many benefits by alienating more mature members from society, including:

Wisdom – Tapping into the life experiences of older people is also beneficial to society. Ignoring our wisdom means missing a valuable perspective when facing personal and professional challenges.

Economic losses – Older people can make an enormous contribution to the workplace. Excluding us could mean a loss of potential earnings for a company (and family).

Media representation – Showing older people who are vibrant, healthy, and active can help create a more positive mental representation of ageing, which benefits everyone.

Healthcare and medical research – Many health conditions are more likely to occur in an older demographic. Excluding entire sectors of society from research can affect the outcomes, and the quality of medical care – particularly for that demographic being excluded from the studies.

Cultural preservation –Many elders contribute valuable cultural knowledge and traditions and including them helps preserve cultural heritage. Ageism feeds into a fear of getting older, and discourages society from embracing the exciting ageing process and seeing all the positives associated with it.

What needs to happen to ageism in Australia

Ageism is not something to fear. Age should be embraced with open arms - after all, it beats the alternative of dying young. As years go by, we accumulate life experience, develop deeper social connections, and have a mountain of knowledge and wisdom to contribute to close family, friends, and the broader community.

Even though ageism is still (sadly) alive, starting conversations about age bias can create a positive movement that advocates for more inclusivity for us all.

Around one in three Australians (35%) aged between 55 and 64 years say they have experienced discrimination because of their age, according to the Human Rights Commission.

How to fight ageism

Facing ageism can feel overwhelming when it’s coming from all angles, but there are things we can do:

1.     call it out when we see or hear it

2.    engage in the world and don’t submit to what we think is being expected of us

3.    surround ourselves with people of all ages we can learn from

4.    offer our life experience so we can shift how older people are perceived in society and build a more inclusive future for everyone, regardless of age.

For more serious cases of ageism, organisations like the Australian Human Rights Commission can offer support and advice. No one deserves to suffer alone, and the time for ageism is long past.

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