Growing older is something to celebrate
Our ageing society is both our biggest social change and our greatest achievement.
A girl born today has a 50% chance of living to see her 100th birthday, and by 2026, there will be 14.1 million people aged 65 and over – 2.3 million more than in 2016, a 19.5% increase over 10 years.
Our longer lives are an extraordinary success story of public health, nutrition and medical science. At the Centre for Ageing Better, we want everyone to enjoy a good later life. Unfortunately negative attitudes to ageing threaten this vision.
A socially acceptable discrimination
Despite being one of the nine protected characteristics under the UK Equality Act 2010, age is still something that appears to be socially acceptable to discriminate against. Product marketing, the fashion and retail industry, representations in media and even by charities can reinforce negative stereotypes.
We recently held an event with a wide range of people and organisations to debate how we could take steps to collectively break the taboo surrounding ageism.
There were five key things we took away from the discussion.
1. We need to rethink ‘old’
Often everyone over the age of 60 is lumped together as older people. This spans 40 years with huge differences between people. Older generations are becoming increasingly diverse and will continue to become so. We wouldn’t dream of thinking that everyone under the age of 40 is the same!
Despite rapid rises in how long we are living, we continue to use an outdated concept of how old is ‘old’.
2. We need to stop idolising youth and perceiving old age as a time of misery
It’s commonly suggested that older age is a time of loneliness, but recent data from ONS suggests that actually young people are more at risk . There is an urgent need to change the way we talk about old age.
We need to stop seeing decline, disability and misery as inevitable experiences of old age. We need to start seeing our longer lives as something to be celebrated.
After all, research suggests that our personal happiness increases in our 60s.
3. From anti-ageing to pro-ageing.
Walk into any health and beauty shop on the high street and you’ll see a wide range of products being marketed as anti-ageing, reinforcing the idea that getting old is something to be avoided at all costs.
Ageing is the most natural thing in the world; we shouldn't be fighting it.
It doesn't mean we don't want to look good as we get older. Our panel (and live audience) suggested products should be marketed as pro-ageing, communicating that we can look good as we age.
4. We need more diverse role models
There are a lot of positive role models in later life, from Hollywood stars to sports people and community leaders – even politicians. We see them all the time.
But there are fewer realistic role models that represent the diversity of older people in advertising or on TV.
We need popular culture to reflect and make people in their 60s, 70s and 80s more visible. And that doesn't just mean the odd article about an actor 'ageing beautifully' or someone who's taken up skydiving in their 80s (impressive though that is!).
5. When stereotypes affect reality
These negative stereotypes affect how we are treated when others perceive us as ‘old’, whether we are hired for jobs, considered for promotion, seen as valued customers or entitled to services. We see it in the fact that once people over 50 are out of work, they struggle more than younger age groups to get a job. Our work on the role of home adaptations suggests that people are put off getting products such as handrails installed in their homes because they don’t want to accept they are getting older and less mobile. Our report on Inequalities in Later Life showed that chronological age can be a barrier to treatment for a range of physical and mental health conditions.
There is a fine line between ageist attitudes and discrimination.
On behalf of our future selves
We also internalise these stereotypes and this leads us to fear our future selves.
Changing ageist attitudes and tackling age discrimination will not only make a difference for older people today but will also make a difference to our future selves.
Campaigns such as #NoMoreWrinklyHands to combat stereotypical images of older people has a loud voice on social media, suggesting that the culture is beginning to shift. But we’ve a long way to go.
Anna Dixon is the Chief Executive of the Centre for Ageing Better.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Independent Age.
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