Why Society Needs To Change How We Think About Aging

With the Age Discrimination in Employment Act coming into force back in 1967, the notion of age discrimination has a long history. Unfortunately, it’s an issue that we still grapple with today, and whereas it’s easy to assume it’s only a problem for those in and around retirement age, a survey from Senior Living suggests it can kick in as early as our 40s.

The research, which saw over 1,100 Americans over 40 years of age quizzed about their workplace experiences, and particular any discrimination they experienced, found that biases kick in relatively early in terms of recruitment, promotions and compensation.

The study finds that around one in five workers over 40 have experienced age-related discrimination in some way at work, with this rising to 24% of those over 60 years of age. This wasn’t confined to explicit discrimination, as jokes and harassment related to age were also sadly commonplace.

“Our survey respondents who had experienced age discrimination at work reported two actions at roughly the same rate — being passed up for job opportunities (45 percent) and being overlooked for raises and promotions (43 percent),” the researchers explain. “Some notable differences emerged along generational lines with younger people (ages 40-60) being more likely to say they’d experienced unwanted jokes about their age.”

Health implications

Interesting research from Yale University highlights not only how ageism can be unfair, but how it can also have implications for the life expectancy of the individuals involved.

The research was conducted across 45 countries and included a review of some 422 different studies involving over 7 million participants. 96% of these studies highlighted the adverse effect ageism had on older people.

The study is believed to be the first systematic review of the impact of ageism on health. It finds that the implications are wide-ranging, and include reduced access to health care and individual level bias against people, which can increase the stress levels of individuals. Stress was one of a number of mental health conditions that were affected by ageism, with the research also identifying increases in depression.

The study builds on previous research from the team, which estimated that the cost of ageism could reach up to $63 billion, just in terms of health costs in the United States alone.

The work is believed to be the first of its kind to quantify the health costs associated with ageism. Indeed, they found that ageism was responsible for some 17 million cases of the eight most expensive health conditions in just a single year.

Aging well

This matters, as society generally is aging rapidly. Mauro Guillen, dean of the Cambridge Judge Business School, outlines in his recent book 2030 that there are set to be over 438 million people over 65 in China, by which time 1 in 5 people in Japan will be over 80. Similarly, nearly one in five EU citizens is over 65 years of age, with that figure expected to grow rapidly in the coming decades.

We live in an age where longevity has typically risen, but our response to this can perhaps best be summed up by Joseph Coughlin, from MIT’s AgeLab, who said “the greatest achievement in the history of mankind and all we can say is, is it going to bankrupt Medicare.”

There are numerous benefits from getting better at supporting our aging populations, but perhaps the spending power of this demographic is the biggest incentive of all. Estimates suggest that they possess $7.6 trillion spending power in the U.S. alone, which would make them the 3rd largest economy in the world.

Who does best?

Research from Michigan State University explores which countries tend to do best for older people, especially in areas such as ageism. The study finds that older adults tend to do better in China and Japan than they do in countries like Germany and the United States.

“Older adults are one of the only stigmatized groups that we all become part of someday. And that’s always struck me as interesting—that we would treat so poorly a group of people that we’re destined to become someday,” the researchers say. “Making more equitable environments for older adults are even in younger people’s self-interest.”

The researchers tested public sentiment and any biases towards the elderly via an Implicit Association Test that was administered to over 800,000 participants. The test measures the strengths of our subconscious associations so can reveal any hidden biases we may have.

The data reveals that the kind of country, and the kind of culture it has matters. Those countries with a more collectivist orientation typically had a much more positive view towards the elderly, whereas countries with a more individualistic orientation did not.

“In some countries and cultures, older adults fare better, so a natural question we had was whether the people living in different countries might think about older adults and aging differently. And, maybe that explains why societies are so different in the structures put in place to support older adults,” the researchers explain.

So, collectivist countries, such as Korea, India, Brazil, and Japan, appear less biased towards older people as their cultures focus more on group cohesion and harmony than their more individualistic peers.

By contrast, countries such as Ireland, Australia, and the United States, tend to focus instead on independence and individual identity. As such, these countries not only tend to have higher levels of age bias but also focus more on staying youthful and active.

Tackling ageism

Becca Levy, the lead author in the two Yale studies mentioned earlier, outlines the importance of changing perceptions of aging in her recent book Breaking the Age Code. She suggests a three-pronged approach to tackling ageism:

  1. Raise awareness – As with any change in attitude or approach, the first step is to understand that these things happen and are incredibly common. Research from Stanford last year showed that even people who are staunch defenders of equality will engage in agist practices, which signifies the scale of the problem. This step should also try to encourage greater positive images of aging and the elderly.
  2. Place blame where it belongs – Ageism is unfortunately quite rampant throughout society, but it can be easy for the elderly to blame themselves rather than its societal sources. Levy argues that many of the difficulties presented by aging have their source in ageism, but this is seldom recognized.
  3. Challenge negative age beliefs – The final step is to call out ageism when you encounter it. Numerous public figures have been doing this, such as Madonna and Robert De Niro, but more clearly needs to be done, especially in an organizational context.

“Our aging society is undoubtedly one of the major trends of our time, and so we have to get better at helping people to age successfully,” Romano Toscano, Founder, MyLifeKit says. “There can often be an image of older people as reluctant to take charge of their health, but we’ve found that if people are given the right tools and the right data then they really can ensure that longevity is a premium rather than a curse.

“We developed our product specifically to give insights to individuals about the state of their health and how to improve it, giving power back to people to know where they stand.”

It’s clear that alongside having the right tools, we also need society to have the right attitude towards aging and the elderly so that not only do they feel that they can age healthily but they also have societal support to do so.