In a diverse society and as human beings we tend to unintentionally group people based on what we look like for example sex, race, disability. In doing so we stereotype people and make the assumption that all members of a “group” are the same.
Stereotyping and discrimination against individuals or groups on the basis of their age is called ageism1. It affects both younger and older people but older adults tend to experience the brunt of the problem. Stereotyping is always problematic and especially regarding ageing as a hallmark of older age is great diversity.
Ageism can take many forms, including prejudicial attitudes such as:
categorizing older people as frail, out of touch, burdensome or dependent;
discriminatory practices, such as health care rationing by age; and
institutional policies that perpetuate stereotypical beliefs, such as mandatory retirement.
Ageist depictions are prevalent in everyday language and across a range of media including television, popular music and social media2, 3, 4. A recent analysis carried out by the World Health Organization using World Value Survey data of 83,034 adults from 57 countries highlights just how widespread the problem is. Sixty percent of participants reported that older adults are not well respected, with respondents from higher income countries being more likely to report so5. Yet, unlike other stereotypes and forms of discrimination, including sexism and racism, ageism is largely accepted and commonly unchallenged because of its largely implicit and subconscious nature6,7.
Ageism concerns us all. Children take on the attitudes and stereotypes from the family or cultural environment and are aware of their cultures age stereotypes as young as four8. As we get older we are not only subjected to external stereotyping and discrimination but the negative ageist attitudes become internalized into unconscious self-stereotypes6,8. Internalized ageism exhibits by older people trying to stay young, feeling shame about getting older and limiting what they think that can do instead of taking pride in the accomplishment of ageing9.
Tackling ageism—both external and internalized—has great potential to improve the physical and mental health of older adults. Longitudinal research by Levy et al in the United States found that, after controlling for gender and socioeconomic status, older people who hold positive self-stereotypes make better recovery from disability and live on average 7.5 years more than people with negative attitudes to ageing10,11.
Changing public discourse around population ageing—which largely depicts older adults as burdens on public spending and economic growth can also help to capitalize on the great human capacity that older people represent. Older adults make significant social and economic contributions to their societies. In the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the contributions older people made through taxation, consumer spending and other economically valuable activities (such as care giving) were worth nearly 40 billion Pounds Sterling, more than expenditure on them through pensions, welfare and health care combined. This is set to rise to 77 billion Pounds Sterling by 203012. Although less evidence is available from low- and middle-income countries, the contribution of older people in these settings is also significant. In Kenya, for example, the average age of smallholder farmers is 60 years, making them critical for ensuring food security13.
In May, the World Health Assembly adopted the first Global strategy and plan of action on ageing and health, which spans the 15-year period of the Sustainable development Goals. The vision of the Strategy is a world in which we can live long and healthy lives. A priority for action is to combat ageism. The WHO Director-General was specifically asked to develop, in cooperation with other partners, a global campaign to combat ageism in order to add value to local initiatives and to achieve an ultimate goal of enhancing the day-to-day experience of older people and to optimize policy responses.
We have a number of proposed actions but look forward to working with a broad coalition of actors to decide what these should be.
Get the evidence we need to inform effective communication and concrete actions to combat ageism;
Develop a global coalition as ageism is everybody’s business;
Create a communications platform that supports a global public campaign to reframe ageing and combat ageism;
Make selected structural changes to health and social policy and training that will be central to combatting ageism.
While combatting ageism is a monumental challenge, experience with sexism and racism has shown that changing social norms is possible and can result in more prosperous, equitable and healthier societies.
For the first time in history, most people can expect to live into their sixties and beyond. While we are living in an ageing world it doesn’t have to be an ageist one. As a first step we all must stop defining ourselves and others by chronological age.
1 Organization, W.H., World report on ageing and health J.R. Beard, Officer A.M., and Cassels A. K. , Editor. 2015, World Health Organization Geneva. p. 1- 246.
2 Zebrowitz, L.M., J., Too young, too old: Stigmatizing adolescents and elders, in
The Psychology of Stigma, T. Heatherton, Kleck, R., Hebl, M. & Hull, J. , Editor. 2000, Guildford Press: London. p. 334-373.
3 Kelly, J., et al., Representation of age and ageing identities in popular music texts. J Adv Nurs, 2016.
4 Levy, B.R., et al., Facebook as a site for negative age stereotypes. Gerontologist, 2013. 54(2): p. 172-6.
5 Officer, A., et al., Valuing older people: time for a global campaign to combat ageism.
6 Levy B, B.M., Implicit ageism, in Ageism: stereotyping and prejudice against older persons, T. Nelson, Editor. 2002, MIT Press: Cambridge (MA). p. 127–8.
7 Cuddy, A.J.C., M.I. Norton, and S.T. Fiske, This old stereotype: The pervasiveness and persistence of the elderly stereotype. Journal of Social Issues, 2005. 61(2): p. 267-285.
8 Levy, B., Stereotype Embodiment: A Psychosocial Approach to Aging. Curr Dir Psychol Sci, 2009. 18(6): p. 332-336.
9 Applewhite, A., This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. 2016: Networked Books.
10 Levy, B.R., et al., Association Between Positive Age Stereotypes and Recovery From Disability in Older Persons. Jama-Journal of the American Medical Association, 2012. 308(19): p. 1972-1973.
11 Levy, B.R., et al., Longevity increased by positive self-perceptions of aging. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002. 83(2): p. 261-270.
12 Cook, J., The socio-economic contribution of older people in the UK. Working with Older People, 2011. 15(4): p. 141-146.
13 Organization, W.H., World report on ageing and health. 2015, Geneva: World Health Organization.
about the author
Alana joined the World Health Organization's Department of Ageing and Life course in July 2014 to lead the development of the World Report on Ageing and Health, which was published in October 2015. She currently oversees the Organization’s work on age-friendly environments including the Global Network on Age-Friendly Cities and Communities as well as the Global Campaign to Combat Ageism.