Why are people so willing to accept ageism?

Friday is both Ageism Awareness Day and the United Nations International Day of Older Persons.

And it is fitting, because older Australians face considerable prejudice every day, whether it be in the workplace, when applying for work, from their families, or out and about in the community.

The prevalence of age-based discrimination is highlighted in a scathing report from the Australian Human Right Commission (AHRC), which found ageism is the most acceptable form of prejudice in Australia.

Read: How Australia could reduce dementia by 40 per cent

The What’s age got to do with it? report, led by age discrimination commissioner Dr Kay Patterson, found that 63 per cent of Australians had experienced ageism in the past five years.

The report also found that 90 per cent of Australians agreed that ageism existed and 83 per cent thought it was a problem.

“Ageism is arguably the least understood form of discriminatory prejudice, with evidence suggesting it is more pervasive and socially accepted than sexism or racism,” Dr Patterson said.

Read: Are you ageing successfully?

Australia’s campaign to end ageism, EveryAGE Counts, found that very few people knew how to combat ageism when confronted with it.

EveryAGE Counts commissioned a nationwide poll, which found that 82 per cent of Australians who experienced ageism did not take any action in response.

Of that group, 27 per cent said they didn’t take action because it was hard to prove, 24 per cent said they didn’t know how to respond and 22 per cent said they were not really sure if it was ageism.

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What to do when you encounter ageism
EveryAge Counts campaign director Marlene Krasovitsky says there are a range of constructive actions people can take, including setting up affinity groups at work, escalating complaints strategically, and understanding how to approach conversations that make a difference.

“Ageism is pervasive, but often hidden,” Ms Krasovitsky said. “The only way we can end it is to bring it out of the shadows.

“Often older Australians feel powerless when we encounter ageism. However, if we know what it looks like and name it, we can take constructive actions in response. In this way each of us can help build an Australia without ageism.

“People often don’t know how to approach difficult conversations about ageism, but we know there are approaches that work better than others. For example, it’s tempting to argue that ‘one day you’ll be in my shoes,’ but the latest research shows people find it hard to conceptualise their future selves, and that it may actually be more persuasive to simply explain the impact the ageism had on you personally,” she said.

“Another example is ageism in the workplace – people may suspect they’re missing out on opportunities to learn new tech or skills because of ageism, but it can be difficult to prove.

“Setting up an affinity group of older colleagues can be an effective way to compare experiences and identify patterns.”

Ageism Awareness Day ambassador Monica Trapaga is well known to Australians through her decades of work on stage and screen, including on the ABC’s Play School.

She said she was inspired to join the campaign to help raise awareness of this form of discrimination.

“I’ve encountered all kinds of ageist discrimination during my time in television, and I know my experiences are far from unique,” Ms Trapaga said.

“It’s something I believe we really need to start taking more seriously in Australia. Yes, we’re ageing as a nation, but that’s only a negative if we continue to discriminate against older people and make unfair assumptions about who they are and what they can and can’t do,” said.

“Like all forms of discrimination, the place to start is by spreading awareness. So much ageism happens unconsciously, and it’s allowed to keep happening because we don’t feel sufficiently informed or empowered to push back. Ageism Awareness Day is about ending that.”

The AHRC report wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, with many Australians rejecting stereotypes when questioned and fewer than 20 per cent agreeing that any age group was a burden on their family or a burden on society.

“While we found common stereotypes about different age groups during our research, I was struck by the warmth expressed by participants towards members of age cohorts other than their own – and a real understanding of the life issues faced by those of other age groups,” Dr Patterson said.

With many older Australians choosing to return to the workforce from retirement as a result of the COVID pandemic, AustralianSuper’s head of business growth, Vicky Maguire, said that employers needed to think of fresh and innovative way to support these workers.

Ms Maguire said the way people are approaching retirement is changing radically from past generations and more needs to be done to provide different transition pathways for older workers.

AustralianSuper is part of a project called Ageing Workforce Ready, which is focused on helping employers engage and support older workers.

“The employers who were part of the Ageing Workforce Ready project were looking for a framework so they could support older workers as they approached retirement,” Ms Maguire said.

“Supporting individuals, recruiting experienced workers wanting to return to work after retiring and countering age discrimination in the workplace is a win-win for employees and businesses.

“A key part of the project is focused on how we can improve the skills of managers so they can support workers who are transitioning to retirement or who are deciding to return to work.”

Ms Maguire also said it was time for some myth busting in relation to older workers.

“There’s all too common perceptions that older workers want to work part-time, take more sick leave and cost more to employ, but it’s simply not the case. It’s time to change these outdated views.”

Have you experienced age discrimination? Did you take any action in response? Why do you think ageism is so prevalent in Australia? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

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Written by Ben



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