A new report has found disturbing evidence that ageism remains a last bastion of ‘acceptable discrimination’ in the UK. Six in 10 people feel it is a big problem that needs fixing and two-fifths feel that more funding is needed for older people, alongside other government measures such as mandatory age gap reporting for businesses, a ‘Kickstart’ scheme to incentivise hiring an older workforce, a Minister for Older People in England and a technology fund to boost connection between generations.
The Vision For Later Life report from McCarthy Stone, the UK’s leading developer and manager of retirement communities, doesn’t pull any punches. It reveals that over a quarter (27 per cent) of over 65s in the UK – equivalent to more than 3 million people – have been victims of ageism. The company says that the consequences of age-based discrimination include prejudice and dehumanization, and are calling for immediate action from the government and wider society to fix the ongoing bias against our oldest communities.
In a damning indictment of current policy and government behaviour, nearly half of respondents in a 5,000 person survey (43 per cent) that was commissioned by McCarthy Stone believe the government itself is the number one source for driving everyday ageism and negative perceptions of older people. Some 44 per cent of those aged 65 and over feel that as a result, government policies fall short in delivering what older people need. Only 17 per cent of respondents believe that older communities are given sufficient social care support. The advertising, media and entertainment industries are also deemed guilty of pushing negative perceptions of ageing.
John Tonkiss, Chief Executive of McCarthy Stone, said: “Our report shows the UK is blighted by ageist attitudes that prevent society from providing the support and opportunities older people need. Ageism dehumanizes our most vulnerable and perpetuates misrepresentation. The post-pandemic era presents the opportunity for us all to re-set and champion the needs and wellbeing of older people in society. We must collectively tackle the root causes and impact of ageism and create a society in which later life is filled with joy, happiness and purpose. We are calling on government and society to make positive changes to establish Britain as the best place in which to live and grow old.”
Anna Dixon, CEO of the Centre for Ageing Better, commented: “The current portrayal of older people in the UK is so negative, with disability and decline unfairly presented as inevitable consequences of ageing. These stereotypes have a hugely detrimental impact, both on individuals and society more broadly.
“But we know that these assumptions don’t reflect the reality and diversity of how people experience later life. We need to see action across society to tackle ageism and create a more age-inclusive culture.”
Ageism dehumanizes our most vulnerable and perpetuates misrepresentation
There also appears to be a wide gap between young people and old people, perhaps exacerbated by enforced distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Young people’s perceptions of ageing are predominantly negative and based on fear, whereas older people actually find their lived experience is much more positive. Almost half (48 per cent) of those who have retired say that retirement is better than they expected while only 13 per cent disagreed. Some 58 per cent say they have been able to do more of what they like since retiring and 41 per cent say it’s the ‘start of an exciting new chapter’. And two thirds (65 per cent) say they are pleased with having more opportunities to pursue their hobbies. Just one in four (26 per cent) say they miss working.
However this sense of positivity isn’t making its way down to younger generations. Starkly, 18 - 24 year olds surveyed felt that 64 was the last age at which happiness could be experienced.
We must create a society in which later life is filled with joy, happiness and purpose
Caroline Abrahams, Director of Age UK, puts forward a theory why this divergence is occurring. “Unless you happen to have familiarity with older people through family, then younger people and other parts of society tend not to be terribly well joined up with older people”, she explained.
It’s a view supported by David Sinclair, Director of the International Longevity Centre, who says that inter-generational differences are partly fuelled by the media. “There’s a narrative of young versus old which gets built up,” he says. “It’s undoubtedly true that social attitudes vary by age and we probably haven’t done enough to challenge that thinking.”
While older people have been more at risk of death and serious illness with COVID-19, the pandemic has shifted perceptions somewhat: 20 per cent of people say they have more favourable perceptions of older people than before and almost half (46 per cent) believe the elderly are more resilient than previously thought.
The UK population is growing older, which may help to redress some of the issues of perception over time. The Office of National Statistics has forecast that the number of over-65s in the UK will rise to 20 million in 2050, representing a quarter of the population. This compares with 13 million in that age group in 2019, or just one in five.
Despite this trend, the UK comes in at only number 17 in the league table of best countries to live in for older people. Published by Age UK, a recent report shows Finland to be the best, across categories including happiness, property affordability, life expectancy and health care.
While massive changes appear to be needed to address the issues of ageism and to create a more equitable society for older people, probably the most important thing is to make sure that we don’t generalise. Peter Hall, a McCarthy Stone homeowner, reminds us not to rush to assumptions: “Don’t treat us like oldies just because we look it. You can’t see our mental age. I’m a teenager.”