Understanding Ageism: The Forgotten Prejudice

Ageism is the most commonly experienced form of discrimination. In the UK nearly one in three people have reported experiencing it. Yet it is also known as the forgotten prejudice. Not only is it under researched compared to other forms of prejudice, but (and this may be related) it was one of the last characteristics to be protected under UK law, with the Equality Act (2010) making it unlawful for service providers to discriminate on the basis of age from 1 October 2012.

Ageism is complex. Commonly people assume that ageism only affects ‘older’ people, but in reality ageism can be experienced by anyone at any age. So far, research exploring people’s experiences of ageism has neglected the fact that anyone at any age may be judged ‘too old’ or ‘too young’ depending on the age of the person making the judgement and the situation they are in. There is even the possibility that someone maybe simultaneously judged too old in one situation, but too young in another! This transient nature of categorising people into age groups makes ageism very interesting to study, but also very difficult to combat. More needs to be done to understand when a person’s age becomes an important factor in a situation, what age-based assumptions are being made and what the consequences are.

The fight against ageism is made all the more difficult given that there is often a certain level of acceptability and a sense that ageism is inevitable or somehow justified. It is often hard not to make assumptions about a person’s health, experience or competence based on their age. Older people may find it particularly difficult to recognise prejudice against them as reportedly they are more likely to experience prejudice in form of being patronised, pitied, ignored or treated with a general lack of respect. In comparison, younger people are thought to experience more direct, negative or hostile expressions of ageism. However, it is unlikely that experiences are so clear-cut, can’t younger people be ignored or patronised too? Aren’t there situations where older people experience hostility?

In the context of an ageing population and changing patterns in our lifecourse and life expectancy, attitudes to ageing are fundamental to how society prepares to ensure we all grow up and grow old well.

The Everyday Ageism Project aims to raise awareness of the many different ways ageism is experienced by people of all ages. It provides a safe and secure forum for people to share their experiences of ageism anonymously. If you are interested in ageism, think you might have experienced or witnessed ageism then visit our websitewww.everydayageism.co.uk. On the website you can submit your experience of ageism to the project, and if you wish – your experience can be shared anonymously. By participating in the project you can help make ageism the last prejudice, and not the forgotten prejudice.

By Dr. Hannah Swift, researcher in ageism and attitudes to age at the University of Kent, member of EURAGE (European Research group on Attitudes to Age) and member of the Age Action Alliance.