At a glance:
- Majority of people over the age of 45 say they’ve either been personally affected by, or know of, age discrimination occurring at their job.
- The first step of anti-ageism is raising consciousness among those who look on others as old and among those of an older age themselves.
- Not only are there more older people than at any other time in history, but we’re likely to live longer, active lives too.
David Stewart’s revelatory moment came behind the lens. “I was an advertising photographer for a long time and I began to notice that the people I shot all seemed to stay roughly the same age while I just got older,” he laughs.
“And when I did shoot people closer to my age, they were all medical basket cases. I just started thinking: ‘I don’t know anyone like that’. The thing is that we’re all subject to this cultural brainwashing that’s set these ideas as to what people of my age and older are supposed to look like and how they’re supposed to behave. It’s a mass delusion. And it’s very powerful.”
Stewart went on to become, four years ago, the founder of weareageist.com, a creative agency (“terms the likes of ‘golden years’, ‘silver’—as in dollar, surfer or fox—and ‘boomer’ are banned,” he notes) that’s found itself busy explaining to brands selling everything from insurance to sneakers how to reach ‘older’ consumers. These, after all, account for some 70 percent of global spend, with those aged 60-plus—the year in which the fourth and final phase of life begins, according to Pythagoras—expected to spend USD15 trillion next year.
“The people at these brands aren’t dumb,” he says. “They just consistently get the messaging wrong. But then go to an ad agency and there’s nobody over 40. They can’t know what it’s like to be older when they’re not. So they just keep selling everything to younger people—even if that’s not the target market—because that’s all they know how to do.”
Indeed, whether the media shapes deeply ingrained attitudes or reflects them, look to it and, broadly speaking, most things short of stair-lifts, dental implants and non-iron trousers is given the plump and shiny veneer of youth.
Older people—if they’re visible at all—are typically portrayed as though belonging to this largely conservative, safe-playing, nostalgic, slacks-wearing, tech-naive, doddery if not decrepit species somehow detached from the rest of humanity. Representations of the older aged tend to fall into the trap of either tugging at heartstrings or suggesting some form of exceptionalism—‘Look at this guy! He’s 102 and still sky-dives!’
Yet the facts are somewhat counter to the image: over 60s comprise, for example, the fastest growing market for smartphones, social media and Internet services; they’re the fastest growing group on dating sites; they’re financially less risk-averse than younger people; and there are more and more of them—within five years one in four US workers, for example, will be over 55.
So just why is the general perception of older people—and, according to studies by IPSOS, ideas of when old age kicks in averages at 66, with the Spanish suggesting it starts at 74, but the Saudis, scarily, at just 55—so out of date? In a word, ageism.
If sexism and racism are taboo, more widely it remains socially acceptable to stereotype, sideline or denigrate those considered old (and, to a lesser extent, young too). Ageism—a term coined by gerontologist Robert Butler 50 years ago—is real, if not quite leading us to the kind of dystopian society envisaged in the sci-fi classic Logan’s Run, in which everyone leads a hedonistic life and then is euthanised at age 30.
All the same, studies have repeatedly shown how employers are less likely to hire older workers. If Hollywood is famously ageist, at least against women—actresses’ earnings peak at 34—so too is Silicon Valley. “Young people are just smarter,” Mark Zuckerberg has opined.
But then Facebook— whose policy on hate speech prohibits the singling out of people based on ethnicity, religion, nationality, sex… in fact just about everything except age— has been hit with accusations that it allows age-discriminatory advertising. IBM too has been sued for targeting older people for lay-offs, while, earlier this year, Google reached an USD11 million settlement with 200 job seekers over 40 who applied for positions at the company.
But ageism affects all industries. One survey, by the American Association of Retired People, found that a large majority of people over the age of 45 say they’ve either been personally affected by, or know of, age discrimination occurring at their job.
A new study by ProPublica and the Urban Institute in the US shows the chances of someone over 50 who loses their job earning the same salary in their next job are virtually nil. It’s something even Madonna is complaining about. She is, she says, being punished by the critics for turning 60. That comment itself has been cause for jocularity.
“Ageism is one of those issues that’s much more pervasive and much more damaging than many realise, such that there’s a tendency not to take it so seriously,” argues Emma Twyning, spokesperson for the UK’s Centre for Aging Better.
“We tend to think about older people as though they’re a separate class of people, lumping together maybe four decades [of age groups] together, when there’s a huge diversity there. We talk about old age as this single state that’s blighted with illness, rather than as a phase of life that’s full of potential. Society’s obsession with youthfulness has certainly got more intense—partly due to social media—but look around and you see the infantilising attitude of ageism everywhere.”
Such ageist attitudes are in some contexts illegal, though a winning legal case is typically hard to make. But day to day, they’re at once seemingly more innocuous and more subversive, whether they be found in comments about succession—the idea that older people should move aside to make way for younger people; identity—the idea that older people shouldn’t ‘act’ young; consumption—the idea that they shouldn’t consume so many scarce resources, the likes of healthcare; or even simply with regard to the ‘relevance’ of older people. What is their point exactly?
When, in 2016, the population of the UK voted in a referendum to leave the EU, older voters were subject to a sustained and callous tirade of abuse online and in the press from those who wanted to remain within it; since they would soon be dead, commentators said openly, they had no right to have their voice on an issue that would affect future generations.
Rarely was it argued that with age might come experience that made its voice more, not less, relevant.
Likewise, in the US, Democrat presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden have spoken of having to deal with constant ageist digs. “There’s this assumption that, post-retirement, your intelligence, your economic value, your cultural usefulness is compromised,” explains Ronald Bracey, founder of Urban Psychologist, a psychology practice that works on discrimination issues.
“This might be because there are in-built survival biases—our primitive unconscious associates old age with illness and hence with our own mortality. There are figures who counteract that—look at Mick Jagger after his heart operation. But a standard 76-year-old, rather than an icon, is looked at in a very different way.
“Some people do embrace the ‘old person’ script, because there’s a degree of social protection in it—you’re not expected to be assertive or competitive anymore. There’s a pay-off of sorts,” he adds. “But there are also more people not conforming to the age stereotypes. They dress in an age-neutral way. The movies they see, the restaurants they eat at, the culture they absorb—they don’t buy into those products targeted at people of ‘a certain age’. There is resistance. People tell me I don’t look or behave like a 60-year-old. And I have to ask myself ‘well, what’s a 60-year-old supposed to look or behave like’?”
Ken Bluestone is at the front line of change. He’s head of policy for Age International, which works to improve the lives of older people across 33 countries in terms of their access to employment, income, health assistance and the like. How people in later life are perceived—in terms of their capabilities, their status—is context-specific, he notes, differing from culture to culture. But always, he stresses, some perception of otherness is there.
“Ageism is pervasive even in countries where older people are traditionally respected. We have this idea that the future lies with just one segment of the population [the young], but that’s rubbish. It lies with everyone,” he says.
“We should be looking at a person of 85 as having a whole future ahead of them. That person can continue to have a productive life if society allows them to. But we’re resistant to the idea of, say, a master bricklayer still working well beyond retirement age because he can or wants to, sharing his expertise with others. Rather, we accept the attitudes that tell the likes of him that he can’t because they’re hammered into us. What we really need, frankly, is more angry people of all ages, including young people thinking ‘this is not the world I want to grow old into myself’. After all, ageism is the only form of discrimination that practically everyone will experience.”
Ashton Applewhite is one such angry person—albeit one who’s pretty upbeat about it. She’s a campaigner against ageism and author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. She started writing about ageism because, she realises with hindsight, she was afraid of getting old. But also because her experience of ageing—she’s 67—bore little resemblance to the way she saw it being presented. When she first pitched her book, publishers turned it down because, remarkably, bizarrely, they thought the audience was too niche.
“The narrative is that to age at all is in some way to fail, that the imperative is for us to always work to look and act like younger versions of ourselves,” argues Applewhite.
“It’s an idea that’s fuelled all the time, such that much of what we [and especially millennials] think about ‘old age’ is flat out wrong. Of course we have fears about getting old, but they’re way out of proportion to the reality. The fact is, for example, that very few people require nursing care at the end of their life. The odds of getting dementia continue to drop. And yet society is structured to encourage those fears. If ageing is framed as being a problem then we can be suckered into buying products to ‘fix’ it. Basically our attitudes to old age now have been made up. But we can un- make them.”
The first step, she argues, is a kind of consciousness raising among those who look on others as old and among those of an older age themselves. “Listen,” she says, “I’m certainly aware of my body not being able to do what it used to do. I can’t walk all day, for example. But then I also feel at the height of my intellectual powers. I keep coming across people all the time who say they don’t feel old. What they mean is that they don’t feel useless/sexless/unable— insert your negative term here. There are forces against that awareness that benefit from the status quo. But that kind of thinking has to stop.”
While younger people seem ever more terrified of ageing—cosmetic surgery among 20-somethings is rocketing, according to market research company Mintel—there are also growing numbers of anti-ageism campaigns. Some are working to bring about greater inter-generational contact as one means of combating ageist viewpoints. The World Health Organization has, since 2016, been working to drive understanding of how just thinking old negatively affects health. It’s expected to report with a series of recommendations next year.
“When we treat older people as less capable—in the way we speak to them, in the language we use, in taking away choice and the opportunity to engage—that can actually change their cognitive abilities,” explains Bluestone.
“It becomes self-fulfilling”. As Clint Eastwood, 89, has warned: “Don’t let the old man in.”
But then there are the mega-trends that will drive change too. Demographics, of course, are on the right side: not only are there more older people than at any other time in history, but advances in nutrition, health awareness, education, wealth and medical science mean we’re likely to live longer, active lives too.
By 2050, one-fifth of the world’s population will be over 60—“which is precisely what society should look like when we get it right. This is something that should be celebrated,” notes Bluestone. Economics will play a part—not simply older people’s spending power, but their often unacknowledged impact on the side: providing childcare, for example, so that younger people are free to work.
Cynthia Banks, interim CEO of the American Society on Aging, speaks of reframing the conversation around age much as the conversation around smoking was reframed, starting, as that campaign did, at school age. “Much as the image of smoking was flipped from being cool to harmful, so being older can be flipped towards an association with vitality, not just with Bingo,” she says.
Similarly, Bluestone draws a parallel with the transformation in attitudes to people with disabilities that has come about over recent decades—and key to that was a clear expression of freedom from discrimination on the ground of disability as being a fundamental human right, set into international law. The same will be required to tackle ageism, he reckons. This will require pressure on politicians, even those ‘elder statesmen’.
“It’s fully within our grasp to reframe things. It’s going to happen from increased awareness, but that’s some way off because we still don’t yet take discrimination because of age seriously,” he notes. “We constantly allow ourselves to reinforce negative perceptions, which you quickly realise if you imagine swapping out language used regarding age for, say, skin colour or religion. And ageism requires the same response to tackle those prejudices.”
“Things are getting better, slowly. You see more older actors and actresses capturing the true experience of ageing now. There’s more positive representation of older age and that will be crucial in improving attitudes over the longer term,” reckons Patti Temple Rock, author of I’m Not Done, a book examining ageism in the workplace. She herself experienced being sidelined in her job, despite her eminent capabilities and track record; she pushed back, at which point her boss asked her ‘just how long do you want to work anyway?’.
“But that change will come only over the longer term,” she stresses. “Every time I turn on the TV or look in a magazine, invariably it’s still full of young, beautiful people. Even greeting cards reveal how it’s still ok to make fun of being ‘over the hill’. People who are in their 50s and 60s now—and who have maybe subconsciously bought into the stereotype themselves— could be doing more to educate younger people by owning the age we are and showing that the conception we have of certain life stages is outdated.”
That’s what David Stewart keeps telling the Fortune 500 companies now beating a path to his door, desperate to find out just how to talk to these people; these people who, despite merely having lived more rather than less of their lives, who otherwise feel inside much as they did when they were 30, who still laugh, love, play, ponder, hope, and even covet now as they did before, have been given this strange, isolating designation: ‘old’.
“Until recently, old people were the anti-market—the one no brand, no company wanted to be associated with,” he says. “What everyone needs to grasp is that to be ageist is to hate your future self. My age is 60. That’s a fact. But why should that come with any negative connotations? Why is it that these days people can tell someone all about, say, their sexuality, but they can’t talk about their age? It’s weird.”