Shifting ageist attitudes requires widespread acceptance of a new narrative, recognising the contribution that older people make to society, says Peter Dale, Vice Chair of EngAgeNet and Chair of the South East England Forum on Ageing.
Our mission at SEEFA and EngAgeNet, is to challenge the way society appears to think about ageing, the old narrative, and to create a new way of looking at and thinking about ageing – our new narrative. Ageist attitudes in society, work and business underpin and reinforce the many challenges older people face.
Shifting such ageist attitudes requires widespread acceptance of a new narrative, recognising the value and contribution that older people have and make to society. Only then can we hope to mitigate those challenges and enable older people to live fulfilling lives as equal members of society.
So, what does this old narrative look like and why do we need to challenge it?
Let’s start with some general stereotypes
- Older people are well off
- Older people are a burden
- Older people are unproductive
- Older people are a drain on social care costs
- Older people are set in their ways
- Older people are not very good with technology
- Older people are responsible for the pressure the NHS is under
These stereotypes play out in small unassuming ways; some typical ageist ‘tropes’ include:
- TV ads that poke fun at older people
- So called humorous birthday cards
- Comedy where there are jokes about older people
Such things may not affect us too much (we tend to shrug these things off – laugh at ourselves maybe) but ageist attitudes also play out in practical ways and begin to have an impact on our daily lives, for example: travel insurance, mortgages, car hire.
These stereotypes, negative portrayals of older people, and commonly held but false assumptions all foster a culture where older people are not valued, and more importantly may not value themselves. And all this can play out in ways that do potentially have significant impact on our lives:
- The debate in the pandemic about whether saving the lives of older people was worth the sacrifice being made by younger people
- The idea that lockdown restrictions should only apply to older people
- The threat of older people being a low priority for treatment and the increasing use of DNR notices
- Calls for older people to free up housing
- Suggestions that older people shouldn’t be allowed to drive
- And chillingly, a recent German political party broadcast seriously proposing that older people shouldn’t be allowed to vote
So, social attitudes to ageing (the old narrative) do matter because this negative view of ageing leads to a society where older people are seen as a problem. All older people are likely to be affected in some way – perhaps for many of us it is just a case of having to put up with being patronised – but for some perhaps less fortunate it means that the help and support they may need is less than adequate. Perhaps the most telling example of the lack of priority afforded older people is the broken social care system.
What is a new narrative and how do we achieve it?
A recent publication produced by SEEFA and EngAgeNet, A New Narrative on Ageing (available at www.seefa.org.uk and www.engagenet.org.uk ), aims to challenge these stereotypes and commonly held assumptions. It examines five basic proposition that form the basis of a more positive view of ageing:
- Ageing itself is not a social and economic problem. It is an inter-generational issue, presenting both opportunities and challenges.
- Everyone is a unique individual, each with a different story. ‘Lumping’ all older people together leads to a negative view of ageing.
- Older people are active citizens and assets within their families and communities.
- Older people are not an economic burden but net contributors to the economy.
- Equal access to employment opportunities for older people will benefit business and society as a whole.
The New Narrative on Ageing seeks to challenge the common assumptions associated with each of these propositions:
Ageing itself is not a social and economic problem
The old narrative:
- People talk about the demographic time bomb
- Ageing is a financial pressure on society
- In an increasingly ageing population, more older people means more public money to fund pensions and other financial benefits
- An ageing society places a greater burden on the health and social care system
- The more older people, the greater the demand on health and social care services
- Older people are dependent on the rest of society
- The more older people, the fewer younger people to look after them
- The majority of older people age well and lead healthy and active lives
- Many of the social problems faced by older people are also faced by all generations across society. Blaming an ageing society is an easy way out of addressing the root causes of these problems.
- There are more people of working age with a long-standing illness or disability than those of pension age
- Health care spending is more influenced by technological change such as medicines and surgical techniques than by demographic change
- Only a small proportion of older people (around 6%) are in the social care system
- The majority of older people look after themselves or each other. 1.2 million older people look after other older people
Everyone is unique; ‘lumping’ older people together as some homogenous blob reinforces a negative view of ageing
The old narrative:
- Older people are commonly referred to as ‘the elderly’ suggesting we’re all the same, with an underlying perception that we’re separate from the rest of society and that who we are is determined by the minority of older people for whom everyday life may be a struggle.
- Seeing older people as all the same reinforces the perception of ageing as a problem and leads to negative portrayals and stereotyping.
- Using chronological age to define older people is a convenient but arbitrary notion; it can be used to include people from 50 to 100+
- Older people are individuals with their own story
- Older people are as diverse as any other group of people:
- Fit and health 90 year olds alongside people in their sixties with serious long term conditions
- Those still working alongside those retired
- Those who have led rich and fulfilling lives alongside those who are isolated
- Those caring alongside those being cared for
- Happy and outgoing alongside grumpy and misanthropic
To recognise diversity is to recognise that ageing should be viewed more positively and that older people deserve to be valued
Negative views of ageing have serious consequences. The New Narrative publication references a research study that suggests that people who had a more positive view of ageing were shown to have lived 7.5 years longer than those with a less positive self-perception.
Older people are active citizens and assets in their communities and families
The old narrative:
- Older people need to be looked after and are a dead weight on society
- Older people play a vital role as carers – 1.2 million older people have caring responsibilities
- The value of older people volunteering is estimated to be over £10 billion a year
- Older people are family anchor points, looking after grandchildren and enabling parents to work and contribute to the economy
Older people are not an economic burden
The old narrative:
- Older people are a drain on the country’s resources
- Younger people are having to pay for their pensions, health and social care
- Older people are tax payers and consumers
- Older people have contributed to the economy over their lifetime
- Older people are making an annual net positive contribution of £40 billion a year to the UK economy, forecast to rise to £77 billion by 2030
Equal access to employment for older people benefits business and society
The old narrative
- You’re over the hill by the time you’re 50
- Older people have little to contribute in the work place
- Employing older people takes jobs away from younger people (the argument used to deny job opportunities for women)
- The skills and life experience of older people are important assets in the work place
- Older employees tend to be reliable and loyal
- There is a work force shortage
- Employing older people does not take jobs away from younger people
- Many older people need to work
- Work can be good for people’s health and well-being
As a result of the pandemic and arguably Brexit, there appears to be widespread acceptance that the old narrative no longer holds so much sway; older people are being encouraged to return to the work place. There is still a sense, however, that the world of work is ‘youth centric’
These five propositions, backed by evidence, amount to a robust challenge to the old narrative, but how do we get society in the shape of policy makers and decision makers to sign up to our new narrative, the one where older people are valued and where the old common beliefs are torn down?
- how do we get society to see that ageing is not in and of itself something to panic about;
- how do we create a world where older people can be seen as individuals within a rich and varied landscape, where their contribution as active citizens (carers, volunteers, family leaders,) is valued and recognised;
- how do we create a world where instead of being castigated for draining the country’s coffers, their massive financial contribution is understood and acknowledged;
- And given the changing nature of work, how do we overcome age discrimination in recruitment?
Because if we are able to create this world, then we have taken a giant step forward in terms of addressing the challenges that come with ageing.
While getting the message across – that older people need to be seen more positively and to be more valued by society – is absolutely critical, there seems to be a real absence of what we might describe as an activist movement representing the injustice and exclusion we as older people may feel – like those movements perhaps that have very successfully challenged discrimination against excluded groups in the past. There are of course a number of organisations that do operate in the interests of older people, but little it would seem in the way of a grass-roots movement led by older people that is focused on asserting their rights to equal citizenship and non-discriminatory treatment.
Perhaps the crucial questions are:
- Do older people have the resilience and energy to establish such a movement? Are we too weighed down by our health concerns, multiple hospital visits, family commitments? Do we too readily accept society’s negative view of us, believing we’ve lived our lives and shouldn’t really want for more?
- Is it time to have a real dialogue with younger people about the challenges of ageing and how a civilised society should treat, and respond to the needs of, its older members? And is it perhaps those younger people who should be at the heart of any activist movement – ensuring justice, inclusion and equality for their future older selves?