Say NO to Ageism

Wales is a nation of older people; we are a nation of older people. All individuals have a right to be treated equally, fairly and to have their rights respected and upheld.

Wales has a long history of fighting for fairness, social justice and equality. These are concepts and values that we should all hold dear and we all have a role to play in standing up for people’s rights.

I feel proud to be part of a society that has done so much to fight for and promote equality, rightly challenging racism, sexism and homophobia to create fairer, more just communities.

But while racism, sexism and homophobia are almost certainly familiar concepts to most people and their impact is generally understood, one form of discrimination is all too often overlooked.

I’m talking, of course, about Ageism.

Ageism is just as wrong as other forms of discrimination, can be just as devastating and as deeply institutionalised, yet as a society we rarely talk about it and know very little about it despite many studies and reports highlighting its extent and impact. We need to accept, hard as it is, that our society can be ageist.

We live in a society in which it is apparently still acceptable to use the expression ‘coffin dodgers’ to describe older people, a society that considers an individual is ‘too old’ to do jury service at 70, a society in which only 1% of crimes against older people lead to a prosecution, compared with 19% for other ages.

These stark facts help us to understand how difficult it can be for older people to challenge ageist attitudes or behaviour and ensure their rights are upheld. The right to freedom, equality and dignity does not change with age, but for too many older people their rights diminish as they grow older. Older people have shared with me in many ways what this looks and feels like to them as individuals. This is why we should all stand up and speak out against ageism.

But where do we begin? We already have a range of legislation in place designed to prevent age discrimination, as well as clear equality and human rights duties within the public sector, stronger in Wales than in other parts of the UK, yet ageism is still prevalent. To tackle ageism effectively, we need to challenge the stereotypes and change the imagery and language used about older people in order to change the way society thinks about older people and the value we place on them.

Contrary to the pernicious narrative that they are a burden, older people in fact contribute a huge amount to our society, both economically and socially, through ongoing employment and paying taxes, unpaid caring, childcare and volunteering.

Older people also have a wealth of knowledge and experience that could be utilised far more effectively. Without older people, our society would be a poorer nation in so many ways. Put simply, older people are a national asset whose contribution every year in Wales exceeds £1bn, net of health, social care and pension costs.

In a time of financial austerity, Wales should be asking itself ‘How can we invest in our older people to make this £1bn into £2bn?’. We are currently missing opportunities to increase the return on investment of the social capital we have available through our older people.

But despite this contribution, which is significant, and the active role that so many older people play within our communities, the images of older people most often presented are images of frailty and dependence. Age can, of course, bring with it trials and tribulations, but frailty and dependence is not the norm for older people. We need a new set of images that reflect older people in all of their diversity, which, as well as being a good thing in themselves, will also help to drive the change in thinking needed and perception of older people if they are to be supported to make an even greater economic and social contribution.

We need imagery that presents older people as who they really are – professionals, teachers, mentors, managers, carers, volunteers – people who play an integral role within our communities. And when older people are seen in this way, it is far easier to understand just how much they contribute.

This change in thinking will be particularly important in the years ahead as the country will face a significant skills-gap and a period of austerity not seen for a generation. We need our older people to stay in employment, to come back to employment. We need our older people to volunteer. We need our older people to support our younger generations. It’s good for older people, it’s good for the economy, it’s good for the country. It’s also good for the public purse as staying active, still feeling that you have something to contribute and that you are valued, improves overall health and wellbeing and helps to prevent dependence and frailty.

Yet as things stand older people face a number of barriers to remaining in or re-entering the labour market. Ageism and discrimination within the workplace, for example, which is founded on debunked myths about a lack of productivity, poorer health and an unwillingness to adapt to change, is still a significant issue for many older people in the labour market. Older jobseekers are also more than twice as likely to be long-term unemployed compared with younger jobseekers and more than 1 in 3 people in Wales aged between 50 and State Pension age – over 214,000 people – are jobless.

Employers across Wales need to recognise the skills and experience older people can bring to an organisation and provide support to those who wish to carry on working or re-enter the labour market. This would bring significant benefits to the economy: if half of the 1.2 million older workers in the UK who are currently unemployed moved into employment, GDP could be boosted by up to £25bn.

Another narrative that can fuel ageism and age discrimination is that older people now ‘have it easy’, that the measures introduced to protect them against aspects of the UK government’s programme of deficit reduction has resulted in older people having better lives compared with other groups in society. This position, however, is based on very partial views of austerity measures and do not take into account factors such as the reliance many older people have on incomes from limited savings and investments, costs associated with care and the impact of the effect of spending cuts on public services, upon which older people can be more dependent.

Of course there are wealthy older people, but this narrative conveniently overlooks the fact that the pension in the UK is one of the lowest in Europe and that one in six older people live in poverty. Fuel poverty is also a significant issue for older people, and a contributing factor in many of the 18,200 avoidable Winter deaths in England and Wales during 2013/14 (latest figures).

The reality is that many older people in Wales face real hardship and are unable to change their position.

In addition to the issues described above, false and dangerous views are also emerging about how older people’s behaviour impacts upon other generations. That older people are inappropriately staying in large and unsuitable houses, for example, something that is supposedly denying younger generations the opportunity to get the housing they need, particularly in terms of social housing. The fact of the matter is that our housing stock is inadequate, both for older and younger people alike. Contrary to the impression created by a number of commentators, older people down-sizing their homes would not solve the current housing crisis.

Similarly, it is often suggested that those older people who do remain in employment are somehow taking jobs from younger people, preventing employment opportunities, stifling youth employment. In fact, there is overwhelming evidence to show that the more people working, regardless of age, stimulates the economy and creates more job opportunities.

This narrative, which presents older people as a scapegoat for many of the issues we face as a society, fuels intergenerational conflict and the view that, as one national newspaper headline put it, older people are ‘Public Enemy Number One’.

Why does it matter that society changes the way it thinks about and perceives older people? It matters because a stereotypical image of frailty, decline and dependence, together with a lack of understanding about the vital role that older people play across society, not only demeans the people we care about and undermines their self-worth, but also fuels ageism.

And ageism, like sexism, racism, homophobia and all other forms of discrimination can destroy individuals and diminishes us all. 

Sarah Rochira
Older Peoples Commissioner for Wales