By Alison Wallace | 3 Sep 2018

One could argue that, like a fine wine, life only gets better as you grow older.

Data suggests the older you get, the happier you will be1. That, and it’s more likely that you’ll start a new business2, win a Nobel Prize3, and, become a world leader4. Quite the opposite to stereotypical perceptions of the older generation – a concept commonly referred to as ‘ageism’.

Urbis recently completed a national research study of 1,400 people for The Benevolent Society on community attitudes towards ageing and older people. What is different about this study is that it aims to explore not only attitudes and beliefs, but what lies behind them with the aim of addressing negative stereotypes. 

As we all know, similar to many other countries in the world, the Australian population is ageing. Increased longevity and falling birth rates have resulted in steady growth in both the number and the proportion of the population who are older. In the fifty years from 1964 to 2014, the proportion of the Australian population aged 65 years and nearly doubled from 8% to 15%. By 2056, it is estimated that close to one in four (22%) Australians will be aged 65 or more5

Ageism is different to other ‘isms’. Unlike sexism or racism - ageism is fluid. Ageism will affect us all one day. It is, in effect, discrimination against your future self.

Alison Wallace View Profile

The research conducted by Urbis for The Benevolent Society has found that the ageing of our population creates great opportunities, but also a number of challenges. Our social norms, attitudes, structures, policies and practices have not kept pace with the fact that there are many more older Australians living in our community and that most will lead longer, healthier lives than ever before.

While improvements in longevity and health during old age present an opportunity for this growing cohort to make meaningful contributions to the communities in which they live, current stereotypes that surround older people often act as a barrier to their full participation. Prejudicial attitudes, discriminatory practices in the workplace and institutional polices, however subconscious, can perpetrate stereotypical beliefs about older people and reduce their opportunities.

International research tells us that the status and perceived value of older people is in decline, especially in western culture, and that is having a negative impact on attitudes and behaviours towards older people.

Urbis Director Alison Wallace commented, “Ageism is different to other ‘isms’. Unlike sexism or racism – ageism is fluid. Ageism will affect us all one day. It is, in effect, discrimination against your future self.”

Focus groups were undertaken as part of the study. These groups included people of varying backgrounds, professions and, importantly, ages. Of those surveyed aged 65 or older, many shared surprising and somewhat alarming remarks: 

  • 29% said they had been turned down for a job because of their age; 
  • 14% said they had been denied a promotion at work because of their age; and
  • 57% said they had been ‘talked down to’ by others.

Meanwhile, a substantial number of the 1,400 people surveyed displayed negative beliefs or ‘unconscious bias’ towards older people: 

  • Almost 30% think employers should be able to make older employees take on a reduced role; 
  • One in four think employers would get better value out of training younger staff rather than older people; 
  • One in five think younger people should be given priority over older people when it comes to work promotions; and
  • One in five people think that people who do not retire at 65 years are taking jobs away from younger people. 

Despite these negatives, the great majority of people surveyed think ageism is a problem that needs to be addressed.  We asked people to describe how Australia would be different if ageism was tackled. People told us Australia would have:

  • Greater empathy and compassion; 
  • More knowledge transfer through the generations; 
  • More tolerance, respect and acceptance; and
  • Happier, stronger and more connected communities.

In addition, older people would be more visible, active, productive and confident. 

Australian and international research shows us that being part of a community is vital not only for a good life in older age, but also for a healthy and connected community. Intergenerational aspects of community are particularly important: the most effective communities encourage different generations to come together.

Ms Wallace stated, “Our research for The Benevolent Society found that the more contact people have with people of different ages, the more likely they are to have positive attitudes towards ageing and the role and contribution of older people in society.

“There are many community benefits from integrating rather than segregating people of different ages –  whether it be in housing, the workplace, or in social life.  We have been very excited to have been involved in this ground breaking research and look forward to seeing where it leads.”

The research is being used by The Benevolent Society to develop a national advocacy campaign EveryAGE Counts launched earlier this year. 

1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2018). 
2. The Nobel Prize (2018).
3. Maritz, P.A., Zolin, R., de Waal, G.A., Fisher, R. Perenyi, A., Eager, B. (2015). Senior Entrepreneurship in Australia: Active Ageing and Extending Working Lives
4. Two-thirds of the G20 world leaders are aged 60 plus. 
5. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2018).