We need to grow up and leave ageism behind

We need to grow up and leave ageism behind

This piece, by EveryAGE Counts Director and Co-chair Dr Marlene Krasovitsky, was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age 28 June, 2021

Like a single cigarette, a single incident of ageism is unlikely to kill you. But inhale enough ageism over the course of decades and you’ll likely shave years off your life.

The World Health Organisation recently found that older people who hold negative views about their own ageing will live 7.5 years less, on average, than those with positive attitudes.

And where might these deadly views come from? Well if you get passed over for job opportunities, ignored in stores, dismissed by medical practitioners, heckled by media commentators, excluded from community involvement and described as a burden by your own government – you might just start feeling a little negative about your place in the world.

When you are consistently treated as frail, forgetful and foolish it’s hard to see yourself as empowered, autonomous and valued.

Last week a new landmark survey by the COTA Federation (Councils on the Ageing) found 37 per cent of Australians over 50 have experienced age-based discrimination – up from 33 per cent in 2018.

Yet unlike other ‘isms’, it’s remarkably easy and common for people to simply laugh off ageism as a trivial matter. Dismiss someone as a silly old duck, assume they can’t get across new technology, tell them to get off the road – all of this is generally tolerated with a social acceptance quite different to racism and sexism.

Yet there is abundant evidence that ageism costs all of us in very real ways. By discriminating against older people in the workplace, for example, we are preventing genuine economic growth. A 2012 report by the Productivity Commission found that even a modest 5 per cent lift in participation among workers aged 55 and over would see $48 billion added to the GDP.

The proportion of the Australian population aged 65 year and over has doubled from 8 per cent to 15 per cent over the past 50 years. It’s set to hit 22 per cent by 2057. Surely we can’t keep discriminating and locking out of work a fifth of our population. People are living longer and healthier lives. To improve our society we need to update our attitudes, structures, and practices.

All this is accepted by most. Where the friction generally kicks in is when you start suggesting ways to advance. Because the problem with tackling a big amorphous problem like ageism is there are no neat sweeping manoeuvres to be made. As Desmond Tutu wisely noted, there’s only one way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time. And it’s these bites that are vulnerable to derision.

This year, for example, a number of local governments in Victoria signed up to the EveryAGE Counts campaign against ageism. Despite the initiative being warmly embraced by most, it was also seized upon by a small number of media megaphones who decried them as woke nonsense, an assault on common sense, an incursion by the thought police. It was suggested that there was now some decreed ban on supposedly benign and affectionate terms like “old dear”.

We’ve been here before, of course. The destiny of any attempt to update social norms is to be met with howls of incredulity.

Because the thing about social norms is they are unspoken and unquestioned. They underpin all our expectations of daily life and behaviour, so we don’t notice them until they’re pointed out. And when our fundamental assumptions and practices are challenged it’s pretty natural to simply lash out at whoever is doing the challenging. Certainly, it’s far easier than turning your gaze inward.

There was a time, not long ago, when it was completely normal and common for blokes to call women in the office “sweetheart”. Not everyone who did so was a terrible misogynist. But as our attitudes to women have evolved so too has our language.

Ageism is a pervasive, pernicious form of discrimination with devastating impacts. It is not just about the language we use, but language is important. Language matters because it is an expression of how we think. Tackling ageism is not about drawing up a list of terms and banning them. If you send someone an ageist birthday card you shouldn’t instantly be “cancelled”. But if our efforts are successful, hopefully you might encounter some perspective that gives you pause and prompts you to reflect on it a little. A few million such moments and progress happens.

And given ageing is something that’s going to happen to most of us, it’s progress you can bank on.

Marlene Krasovitsky is campaign director at EveryAGE Counts.

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