Ageism – just another challenge you face when you hit 60

A few years ago, I posted a ‘happy birthday’ tweet to a friend celebrating his 64th birthday and included a YouTube link to the Beatles singing, When I’m Sixty-Four. I thought he might appreciate the wishes and the humour of the song and didn’t think much more about it once I’d posted it.

So I was somewhat surprised when I got a message later in the day from my friend. It read, “Much appreciated but can you take it down? And I’ll tell you why. After I left [my role at] school I have been for four jobs. They look at your birth certificate mate, I’m telling you. I don’t want people knowing my age even though I don’t feel it. I feel as fit as when I played.”

I was taken aback by this message. I duly deleted the post as he had asked, but I was forced to consider the implications of growing old in a way I hadn’t previously.

My friend is an ex-VFL/AFL footballer who played professionally for a decade and then later coached at the highest level of the game. He is extremely well respected throughout the football world.

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And yet, here he was at 64, struggling to get a job because he was perceived as ‘too old’.

I was 53 at the time, and had not yet experienced ageism – at least not knowingly. I am now 57 and am not aware of having been knocked back for a job because of my age, although it’s hard to know. When you miss out, you don’t usually receive a lengthy explanation as to why.

Ageism is real, though, and my friend’s experience a few years ago was by no means a rarity. A recent survey conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) found that 63 per cent of respondents said they had experienced ageism in the past five years.

AHRC published its findings in a report titled What’s age got to do with it? The report highlighted the World Health Organization’s definition of ageism as being “when people are categorised and divided based on age in ways that cause harm, disadvantage and injustice and erode solidarity across generations”.

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The survey found that ageism can be institutional (affecting society as a whole, interpersonal (between two or more individuals) and self-directed, which occurs when “individuals take on ageist attitudes and internalise them against themselves”.

In defining the different ways in which ageism can manifest, the report provided four main groupings:

  • experiences of social exclusion
  • assumptions of cognitive, physical or social competence
  • lack of respect
  • receiving unwanted help or ‘special’ treatment.

As I head towards 60, the last of those definitions has begun to enter my mind. Ongoing degenerative issues with my knees have resulted in occasional days when I walk with a bit of a limp. When I travel on public transport, I usually stand but I am steeling myself for the day when someone offers me a seat.

Much like my Twitter friend, I usually don’t feel old (except when the knees play up). In summer, I still play cricket every weekend and train twice a week. In fact, often at training I still think of myself as one of the young’uns, listening intently to what the coach might be saying. Then I remember that the coach is about half my age.

Read: Why are people so willing to accept ageism?

Ageism can be highlighted at an earlier age in sport, often subconsciously. I have witnessed younger players being selected ahead of others whose form is as good, or even better, than their junior counterpart.

At footy’s highest level, there’s a perception that most players are ‘past it’ when they hit their mid-30s. That perception has been around since at least the 1960s, and yet life expectancy – which in 1962 was 64 for men and 72 for women – is now 82 for men and 85 for women. If us blokes are now living 18 years longer than our counterparts of two generations ago, it’s surely reasonable to expect that we’ll be in peak shape for longer, isn’t it? And yet the evidence suggests society’s expectations have not kept pace with our advances in health.

In that Beatles song, Paul McCartney asks, “Will you still need me when I’m 64?” The answer appeared to be ‘no’ for my friend a few years ago. In seven years from now, when I reach that magical number, I’m hoping the answer from most will be ‘yes’.

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Written by Andrew Gigacz