Despite people living longer and being more active, ageism is still rife within society. And so much of it isn’t even noticed; there is often no thought given to “casual” jokes, or the absence of older people on TV. It tends to be a result of believing in negative stereotypes, even when they have been disproved. Despite being a protected characteristic under the UK Equality Act 2010, ageism is one of the last socially “acceptable” forms of discrimination.
The effects of ageism
Ageism isn’t always obvious – in fact, a lot of the time, people don’t even realise that they’re doing it. But obvious or not, it creeps into almost every area of our society to some extent.
In the workplace
Most companies would tell you that there is no ageism in their workplaces. However, in 2017 YouGov found that 36% of over 50s polled felt that they had suffered at work due to their age. This kind of discrimination can manifest in a number of different ways – from being passed over for challenges or opportunities, or even promotions, to “playful” comments about retirement plans. Despite their experience and qualifications, older people can often find themselves overlooked.
In the media
Commonly, older people in the media are portrayed in ways that reinforce negative stereotypes, such as being weak, helpless, or grumpy. This is when they appear at all, a problem that is far more common for older women. It’s a relatively recognised fact that female broadcasters are routinely replaced with younger women. It is similar in marketing; most items are aimed at younger generations, despite studies which suggest that older consumers outspend their younger counterparts. Except when it comes to anti-aging beauty products, or dye to cover grey hair of course – after all, in the media, youth and beauty are seen to be paramount.
In social interactions
Ageism encourages an already existing divide between the young and the old, both in society and within our own homes. Older people can often be treated as if they do not understand what is going on, or won’t be able to keep up with things, even by their own families. Sometimes they are encouraged to move into care homes unnecessarily, or have things done for them when they are perfectly capable, removing their feeling of independence. Speaking to older people as if they are children (i.e. very slowly and loudly) is also common, even in the medical profession, which is hurtful and insulting.
How we view aging can actually affect both our bodies and our brains as we get older. Having a positive view to aging can help protect against dementia and cognitive decline, as it tends to reduce our stress levels. It can also help us live longer and heal quicker, while negative views make us more susceptible to harmful age-related issues. Being constantly surrounded by negative stereotypes makes it very difficult not to take these opinions as fact, and lets them affect us physically and mentally as a result.
Challenging ageism in society
Eradicating ageism in society is possible, but it will take time. There are ways that we can start working on this however.
Admit that it happens
Ageism is often a “casual” form of discrimination, in that it is often not deliberately intended to offend so most people don’t even notice it happening. But it is happening, and the first step to combating it is to admit and accept that. This is not easy, as it requires society as a whole to look at their own unconscious biases – being told that you might be discriminatory is not an easy thing to accept.
Challenge your biases
Once we can see and challenge our own biases, it becomes easier to notice and call it out in others. Part of this involves thinking about how we define “old age” and educating ourselves on the facts. If we can accept that views that we hold are only stereotypes, then we can begin to stop idolising youth over experience. Look at your own use of language, and work on cutting out negative phrases or jokes that focus on age.
It’s likely that challenging the stereotypes you see perpetuated at work will ruffle some feathers, but it’s worth doing. So, the next time someone makes a “jokey” comment referring to another worker’s age, ask them what they mean – having to explain that they were making an ageist joke often makes people re-examine their prejudices! If you can, also try to ensure older staff are not overlooked for opportunities. If their experience on a project would be invaluable, but they’ve been automatically ruled out due to their age, speak up and voice why they should be included.
Challenge the media
This one is trickier unless you actually work in the media and can actively encourage a diversity of age and gender in your marketing. For the rest of us, we need to use our voices – and our wallets. Try to go and see the film at the cinema with an older cast, or read the book written by an older author. If you think the portrayal of an older person in a show or a newspaper article is inappropriate or problematic, then write to the company and tell them, or talk about it with others. The more exposure and revenue these things make or lose, the more the media will respond accordingly.
Encourage inter-generational groups and activities
This is something that can be done at your workplace or in your local community. If a social club or society seems to only have younger members, consider why that might be, and see what you can do to help change this. Make a point to talk to people of all ages at different events, and don’t just immediately discount something because it seems like it is for “older people”. They have just as much of a range of hobbies as anyone else!
Challenging ageism as an older person
It’s not just society we need to look at – ageism can be internalised, which isn’t healthy for us. Presenting a positive image can help dispel some of the negativity that causes ageism, and make us feel better in the process.
Stay active and independent
There have been numerous scientific studies that have shown that the more active we stay – both physically and mentally – the better our physical and mental health will be. It is a positive feedback loop that can show people that getting older doesn’t have to mean declining health. It’s also good to remain independent where possible. Learned helplessness means that if you are inclined to think you can’t do something, then you won’t be able to do it, and this is common among older people. So make sure you keep doing those things that you can, such as going shopping, seeing a movie or organising your finances.
Staying engaged is not only good for your own health, but for showing others that older people are not detached from the modern world. Don’t be afraid to join clubs or classes, even if they seem to be mostly full of younger people; they’ll have no problem with you being there, so why should you? Volunteering is another great way to interact with people of all ages. Staying up to date with the news or checking out that new show that everyone’s talking about can help if you’re worried about conversation. And don’t necessarily shy away from social media; it’s a great way to get involved with things that are going on!
Using your voice is one of the most important things you can do. Challenge people when you hear them make ageist comments, and make sure to take a note of what was said, when and by who if it happens in the workplace. Don’t let people speak for you because they think they know better. How you communicate is also important; being positive in your attitude can actually make you feel happier. Try to avoid using “negative” language that instantly ages you, such as referring to all modern music as “noise”, or phrases such as “back in my day”. We’re not saying you have to use emojis, but using more positive language can not only affect your own outlook, but those of the people around you.
At SuperCarers, we help people to maintain their independence by matching them with home carers in their local area. If you are considering home care for yourself or a loved one, feel free to give us a call on 020 8629 1030.
You may also be interested in our article about challenging the myths about ageing.