The challenge of age discrimination

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In a recent study we found that age discrimination was the most common type of discrimination reported by older adults, followed by discrimination due to gender and financial status. While this finding might not come as a surprise to some, what our study does do is highlight that age discrimination remains both prevalent and a very real problem for society.

Analysis of data from the Fifth Wave of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) indicated that approximately one in three men and women aged 52 and older experienced age discrimination, with rates increasing to 36.8% among respondents aged 65 and over (1). Those most at risk were older, male, retired, had higher levels of education, and lower levels of wealth. Studies using data from the European Union have also shown that age discrimination is experienced by many older adults. On average 26% of European citizens over 62 years old have experienced discrimination due to their age, with over one in ten frequently experiencing discrimination (2, 3).

Although steps are being made to address age discrimination in the workplace and in the provision of goods and services through the Equality Act 2010 (4) this is only part of the answer. It is equally important to address ageism in society more broadly or that which may be experienced in an everyday situation.

Our research also focused on five everyday discriminatory situations: being treated with less courtesy; receiving poorer service than other people in a shop or a restaurant; people treating you as if you were not clever; being threatened or harassed; and receiving poorer service or treatment than others from a doctor or in a hospital. Of these five situations, rates of perceived age discrimination were highest where people were treated with less courtesy (17.7%) and least where people were threatened or harassed. While approximately 10% of the whole sample reported perceived age discrimination in a healthcare setting, providing further evidence of the existence of ageism in healthcare, an area that previous research has identified as a particular problem (5).

However, as argued by Robert Butler (6): “Fortunately, we can treat the disease I call “ageism”- those negative attitudes and practices that lead to discrimination against the aged.” Part of the answer lies in increasing engagement of all age groups in policy making processes. While another important step will be to be challenge the often negative stereotypes of older people, including how we as individuals perceive older age and ageing in general.

Either way the fact that a high proportion of older people are reporting experiences of age discrimination in England must be taken into account and as the proportion of older adults increase this will become all the more important. After all isn’t it important for all of us as individuals to be treated with courtesy and respect regardless of our age?

Isla Rippon, Joint ILC-UK/UCL Impact PhD student


1. Rippon I, Kneale D, De Oliveira C, Demakakos P, Steptoe A. Perceived Age Discrimination in Older Adults. Age and ageing. 2013. doi: 10.1093/ageing/aft146

2. van den Heuvel WJ, van Santvoort MM. Experienced discrimination amongst European old citizens. European Journal of Ageing. 2011;8(4):291-9.

3. Age UK. A Snapshot of Ageism in the UK and across Europe. London: Age UK, March 2011.

4. Equality Act 2010. London: The Stationery Office; 2010.

5. Wait S. Promoting age equality in health care. A report for the alliance for health and the future. London; 2005.

6. Butler RN. Dispelling Ageism – the Cross-Cutting Intervention. Ann Am Acad Polit Ss. 1989;503:138-47.

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