What is Ageism?

Ahead of Older Peoples Day on the 1st October, Rachael Saunders Age at Work Director calls for action on ageism whilst reminding us that the age does not have to be the terrifying inevitability that many people feel it will be. 


Ageism is about our own approach to ageing - we seek to defeat it, or we pity those who lose the battle. 

In seeking to defeat it, we fetishise youth.  If you “look good for your age”, it probably means that you look younger.  The beauty industry is built on youth as an objective – “anti ageing” face creams sell.  Few women allow their hair to go grey naturally, and men are following.  Natural physical ageing is deeply stigmatised. 

Then, once the battle is lost, and you are indisputably old, you are “over the hill” and “past it”, an old duffer.  You are “elderly”, and will be pitied, undermined, silenced, patronised, underestimated, marginalised.   

I sometimes speak at conferences and other events, and I have been telling the stories of people I have met.  Sometimes the atmosphere is the room can be a bit strained, as if talking about older people being made redundant in disproportionate numbers, or finding it tough to get a job, is a slightly embarrassing subject.  Each time though, when I am queueing for the loo or making my way out the door, people will quietly stop me and thank me for talking about it, for giving a voice to their experiences. 

We fight the signs of ageing, at least in part, because we are scared of what comes next. 

Ashton Applewhite, in her brilliant polemic  “This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism”, worked through her own fears about ageing. She found that the numbers of older people with poor quality of life, in nursing homes, with age-related diseases, was far far lower than she had imagined.  In the UK, only 3.2% of people over 65 live in nursing homes.  In the UK, in 2013, there were 815,827 people with dementia in the UK (Alzheimer’s Society, 2014).  This represents 1 in every 14 of the population aged 65 years and over. Significant, but not the terrifying inevitability that too many people feel. 

As we are all living longer, we can look forward to the extraordinary gift of more healthy years of life.   To make the most of it, we need to plan for it, look forward to it, enjoy it.  We need to defeat ageism. 

The UN definition of ageism:    

“Ageism is a widely prevalent and prejudicial attitude that stems from the assumption that age discrimination, and sometimes neglect and abuse of older persons is a social norm and therefore, acceptable. It is a reality in some form in all societies, and finds expression in individuals’ attitudes, institutional and policy practices, as well as media representation that devalue and exclude older persons”. 

Some of the impacts of ageism are clear to see.  Our Missing Million research with ILC-UK set out how people over 50 and more likely to be pushed out of work, by redundancy, ill health or caring responsibilities, and that, once out of work, it takes much longer to get a job if you are over 50.   There are practical steps that employers can take to retain, retrain and recruit older workers, set out in our recent report.  The real transformation though, will come when age really is nothing but a number, and beauty and ability is recognised across generations.