Ageism: how age discrimination can be fought in society and the workplace – but older people have to stop believing the stereotypes first

  • Ageism should be treated as seriously as other ‘isms’ such as racism and sexism, experts say – it’s not just a social injustice but a threat to the economy
  • Seniors should be aware of self-directed ageism – that is, stop believing the negative stereotypes of growing old with which they are bombarded

Ageism is something that’s likely to affect everybody as they grow older and it should be treated as seriously as other “isms”, such as racism and sexism. That was the main takeaway from a recent “Solutions to Combat Ageism” webinar, organised in New York by the Global Coalition on Ageing, which aims to educate and drive change to improve older people’s health, productivity and social engagement.

Panellists noted that governments, local authorities – and seniors themselves – must take steps to change public attitudes and stop this form of discrimination.

Older people can help to effect a cultural change, speakers said. Self-directed ageism, in which older people believe the stereotypes of growing old that they are bombarded with and thus develop a negative perception of ageing themselves, is part of the problem.

In the economic sector, older people are a much underused resource and are often forced to retire before they are ready to do so, the audience heard. Eradicating ageism will keep talent and knowledge in the system and bolster economies.

An idea propounded during the conference was that older people should organise and make their voices heard.

“We are helping to catalyse a grass roots movement like the women’s movement. That is what we need,” said activist Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. “Legislation always follows grass roots cultural change. Ageism is often unconscious, and campaigns can change that. We need a global movement to end ageism, and that is under way.”

Many people worry about how getting older will affect them at work – will they be forced to retire, or be marginalised or undervalued simply because of their advancing years? It’s a valid concern, said Daisy Auger-Dominguez, chief people officer at Vice Media Group, a media company operating in 35 cities around the world which writes, produces and reports in 25 languages.

“We acknowledge that we do have a problem,” Auger-Dominguez said. “There is much talk about other ‘isms’, but not much talk about ageism, even though it affects as all. We need to talk about the values that older people bring to an organisation regarding their experience.”

The nature of work is changing and older people will have an important role to play in the workplace of the future, she added. “The future of work is hybrid and distributed, and takes note of different perspectives. Cross-generational work interaction is important.”

“Ageing is not a problem to be fixed or a disease to be cured. It is a natural, powerful, lifelong process that unites us all.”

-Ashton Applewhite, author, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism

Companies should find new ways for employees of all ages to work and interact with each other, as everyone has different qualities to offer, she said.

Words are an important weapon in the battle against ageism, said John Beard, former director of the World Health Organization’s department of ageing and life course. We should not use words that belittle older people and make them sound inferior, he said, while noting ironically that he had to take mandatory retirement from his WHO post. Older people want more than to be treated with respect – they want to continue to have meaningful lives, he added.

“We always talk about ensuring lives of dignity for the old. But lives of meaning are more important, and meaning gets lost when marginalisation occurs,” Beard said. Meaning is often tied to employment, he noted, which is why mandatory retirement can have a devastating effect on those who wish to keep working.

Ageism is not just a social injustice but a threat to the long-term economy, said Richard Jackson, founder of the non-profit Global Ageing Institute, explaining that older people need to be brought into the workforce to ensure the long-term success of national economies.

“Discrimination affects members of the group and society as a whole,” he said. “The elderly population is growing in all the countries of the world. They are our most underused resource.”

The city of New York is not just talking about the problems of ageism – it is trying to address them on the ground by showing residents the positive roles that older people play. Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez, commissioner of the New York City Department for the Ageing, talked about a recent campaign which highlighted “real New Yorkers who are doing amazing things. It defies all the stereotypes [of older people] that you can think of.”

The campaign included a video, set to rock music, which pointed out that the qualities of human existence, like love and ambition, are ageless, and featured older New Yorkers talking about their daily lives, hopes and dreams. Explaining what ageism is, and why it is negative, is the first step towards eradicating ageism, Cortes-Vasquez said.

As activist Applewhite noted: “Ageing is not a problem to be fixed or a disease to be cured. It is a natural, powerful, lifelong process that unites us all.”


Ending ageism – panel highlights


Panellists from the Global Coalition on Ageing webinar suggested these five ways to combat discrimination against seniors:

  1. Older people can organise and form action groups to educate and advocate against ageism.
  2. Seniors should be aware of self-directed ageism – that is, stop believing the negative stereotypes of growing old with which they are bombarded.
  3. Savvy employers value the knowledge and experience of their older employees and enable an intergenerational workflow in the workplace.
  4. Government-run campaigns can inform and remind people of the value older people bring to society.
  5. Governments should legislate against ageism in the way that they legislate against racism and sexism.

Source: South China Morning Post

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