Chapter 2: The context of ageing and age discrimination

Before discussing ageist behaviours and attitudes, it is important to understand the context in which these attitudes and behaviours are held. This chapter provides a summary of community and business perceptions of ageing, specifically:

  • how ageing is perceived
  • older Australians’ experiences of age discrimination.

2.1 How old is ‘old’ in Australia

Ageing as a concept is clearly positioned from a negative standpoint. In almost all focus groups and across all age cohorts, discussions initially revolved around concerns and fears associated with the ageing process. A considerable degree of reflection was required before positives associated with ageing were discussed. When positives were mentioned, discussions quickly returned to the perceived negative aspects of the ageing process. In many ways the term ‘ageing’ is a loaded term which holds predominantly negative connotations:

“I’m afraid of getting older, afraid of some of the things that I can’t control and worried about the future.” (55-64 years)

“It’s terrible.” (18-25 years)

“It’s to be avoided.” (65+ years)

Younger respondents (under 30 years) are generally more negative about the concept of ageing. These participants are less able to articulate specific concerns and more likely to simply be concerned about the broader issues associated with health, welfare, financial stability and housing access. Their views are more likely to be linked to the concept of loss associated with ageing (loss of health, loss of hearing, loss of mental capacity, loss of income). Members of this group find it extremely difficult to identify any benefits associated with ageing and many indicated it is simply not something they have given much thought to at this point in their lives.

All respondents were asked to indicate how old someone of ‘old age’ was and to indicate how old an ‘elderly’ Australian was. There is little difference in the perception of old age between community and business respondents, reporting a mean age of 61.7 and 62.5 respectively. Perceptions of the age of an ‘elderly’ Australian are also similar, reporting a mean of 70.5 at a national community level and a mean of 72 years in the business sample.

There are differences in perception between younger and older participants. Within the community sample, the mean age of ‘old age’ for respondents aged 18-24 years is 55.9 years, compared to 66.9 years for respondents aged 65+ years – a difference in perception of more than 10 years. The differences between age cohorts are similar when the concept of being ‘elderly’ is discussed. Younger respondents (those aged 18-24 years) indicate that an ‘elderly’ Australian is someone aged 66.7 years while those aged 65+ years indicate that an ‘elderly’ Australian is 74.4 years.

In addition to age, other factors impact on a respondent’s opinions:

  • The average age of ‘old age’ is higher for females (62 years) when compared to males (61 years).
  • Personal experience also has a major impact. Respondents who have a relationship with an older person have a higher average age for ‘old age’ when compared to respondents who have no relationship with an older person (60.7 compared to 56.6 years).
  • There is also a notable difference in mean age between Indigenous and non-Indigenous respondents. ‘Old age’ is seen to be much higher among non-Indigenous respondents (61.6 years) compared to Indigenous respondents (56.7 years). Similar differences are observed in relation to the concept of ‘elderly’.

Table 3: Ageing in context: mean age for old age and elderly

 
Total
Respondent age
All
respondents
18 – 24
A
25 – 34
B
35 – 44
C
45 – 54
D
55 – 64
E
65+
F
‘Old Age’
Community
61.7
55.9
59.1
60.3
63.4
64.7
66.9
Business
62.7
60
64
65.2
‘Elderly’
Community
70.4
66.768.1
69.8
AB
71.3
ABC
73.2
ABCD
74.4
ABCD
Business
72
69.7
73.1
75.8


Question: We often hear the term ‘older Australian’ in the media – how old do you think an ‘older Australian’ typically is?
Question: And at what age would you say someone becomes ‘elderly’?
Business ages collapsed to accommodate for smaller samples.
Base: All respondents (Community, n=2,020), (18 – 34, n=175), (25 – 34 , n=436), (35 – 44, n=452), (45 – 54, n=448), (55 – 64, n=234), (65+, n=275) (Business, n=504) (18 – 34, n=225), (35 – 54, n=207), (55+, n=72). A/B/C/D/E/F: Significantly higher at the 95% confidence level.

These findings are supported by discussions with older Australians during the qualitative phase (focus groups). Many older participants (55+ years) who participated in the focus groups felt that the term ‘old age’ did not apply to them and that the horizon of old age had shifted as they themselves have aged:

“I can’t think of ageing because the only way I look at ageing is someone around 70-90 years. I don’t think I am [old].” (55-64 years)

“I walk along the street and see my reflection in the shop window and think who is that old codger?” (65+ years)

“We are boomers most of us. None of our peers seem old.” (55-64 years)

For these participants, ageing and old age are not simply defined by numeric age. Rather they are underpinned by deeper perceptions of self and associations with health, wellbeing, life-balance and social interaction.

In contrast to older participants, younger people are more likely to see old age as a number. This is essentially someone who is older than 50.

Not surprisingly, the concept of a shifting horizon of old age or ageing was not discussed in as much detail in the younger groups. However, some participants in their middle years (30-40 years) recognise that when they were younger (in their 20s) they would have perceived someone in their 40s as ‘old’. They indicate that as a result they would have projected some negative perceptions about ageing onto these individuals.

The differing perspectives of old age and ageing are seen to create a tension, with younger people seeing older people differently to how older people see themselves. As a result, misconceptions, underpinned by differing definitions of old age, were commonly discussed in the focus groups and appear to be related to many of the stereotypes observed and much of the discriminatory behaviour experienced.

The quantitative findings (online survey) lend support to these observations:

  • Those classified as more likely to show predominantly negative behaviours (those who agree with four or more statements), are significantly more likely to feel that old age set in at a younger age than those who are not classified in this manner (a mean of 57.9 compared to 61.1 years). This difference is also seen in relation to those who hold predominantly negative attitudes (those who agree with 10 or more statements).
  • Business respondents who hold predominantly negative attitudes estimate old age to be significantly lower than those who are less likely to be classified in this manner.
  • Business respondents who are reluctant to recruit above a certain age are significantly more likely to feel that old age set in at a lower age (58.3 years), compared to businesses who are not reluctant to hire above a certain age (63 years). The same pattern is observed in relation to perceptions of the age of an elderly Australian.
“I’m afraid of getting older, afraid of some of the things that I can’t control and worried about the future.” (55‑64 years)

 

2.2 Perceptions of age discrimination

(a) Commonality

All participants were also asked to indicate how common they feel age discrimination is in Australia. As shown in Figure 3, a majority of respondents (71%) feel that age discrimination in Australia is common (47% common, 24% very common). Findings for business respondents are consistent with the consumer sample (53% common and 18% very common).

In line with comments from the qualitative stage (focus groups), younger respondents are less likely to feel that discrimination is common in Australia. The percentage of Australians who feel it is common is:

  • 68% of those aged 18-24 years
  • 62% of those aged 25-34 years
  • 76% of those aged 45-54 years
  • 81% of those aged 55-64 years
  • 75% of those age 65+ years.

Experiences of discrimination peaked at 55-64 years, reflecting the negative impact of age-related discrimination in the workplace, as discussed in the focus groups.

Figure 3: Commonality of discrimination in Australia

Figure 3: Commonality of discrimination in Australia

Question: How common or uncommon do you feel age discrimination is in Australia?
Base: All respondents (Community, n=2,020), (18 – 34, n=175), (25 – 34, n=436), (35 – 44, n=452), (45 – 54, n=448), (55 – 64, n=234), (65+, n=275).

Specific sub-groups are more likely to feel that age discrimination is common in Australia. These include respondents:

  • who have a relationship with an older person (70%), compared to respondents with no relationship (62%)
  • from Queensland (76%), when compared to those in NSW and Victoria
    (69 and 70% respectively)
  • from English speaking backgrounds (73%), when compared to those from non-English speaking backgrounds (57%).

There are also sub-groups within the business sample that are more likely to feel that age discrimination is common in Australia:

  • businesses with less than five staff (74%)
  • those aged 55+ years (77%).

In addition, respondents classified as holding predominantly negative attitudes or as displaying predominantly negative behaviours are significantly less likely to feel that age discrimination is very common in Australia.

Interestingly, for some younger participants (particularly those aged 26-34 years in Melbourne), age discrimination was not seen to be as negative as other forms of discrimination. Discrimination has a hierarchy, with other forms of discrimination considered to be more unacceptable than age-related discrimination:

“If you look at discrimination based on sex or sexual preference or religion it’s [age discrimination] sort of more socially acceptable to joke about and for banter.” (26-34 years)

“It just doesn’t seem to have that sting to it. If you look at other things like religion and sexual preference and sex and so forth, it’s so careful and there are such stringent HR policies and other things – whereas people seem to be able to have a laugh about the old bastard or something like that.” (26-34 years)

(b) Locations where discrimination was felt to occur

Respondents were also asked to identify the locations where age discrimination was most likely to occur. Most community and business respondents feel that age discrimination is likely to occur in the workplace (88% community respondents, 92% business respondents). Retail situations are also commonly cited (60% business and 60% community) as are social situations (56% business and 57% community).

Discrimination is also perceived to go beyond the scope of the community or business, with more than two in five reporting that discrimination is present within the healthcare system (52% community, 49% business), within government policy (44% community, 45% business) or in access to services (46% community, 43% business).

“It just doesn’t seem to have that sting to it. If you look at other things like religion and sexual preference and sex and so forth, it’s so careful and there are such stringent HR policies and other things – whereas people seem to be able to have a laugh about the old bastard or something like that.” (26-34 years)

 

Figure 4: Locations where discrimination was seen to be most likely to occur

Figure 4: Locations where discrimination was seen to be most likely to occur

Question: In what situations do you think age discrimination is most likely to occur?
Base: All respondents indicating discrimination exists (Community, n=1,836), (Businesses, n=435).

In general, perceptions about the commonality of discrimination in different locations, increases relative to the age of the respondent. The most significant differences between younger and older respondents are in relation to perceived discrimination within government policy, retail situations and access to banking and insurance products and services.

“I walk into a nice dress store, I don’t get served – they see me and they think that I can’t possibly be interested in something fashionable and that I am probably killing time waiting for my grandkids.” (55‑64 years)

 

Noteworthy sub-group differences include:

  • Females are significantly more likely to feel that discrimination occurred in almost all situations, excluding government policy, the workplace or access to banking and insurance products and services. In the qualitative discussions, discrimination from financial institutions (for example, not being able to get a loan because of your age) is more often noted as an issue by males. However, when respondents were prompted, there appears to be no significant difference by gender.
  • Respondents who had relationships with older people are significantly more likely to feel that discrimination occurred in the workplace, retail settings, within government policy and in relation to service access.
  • Respondents from Queensland are significantly more likely to feel that age discrimination exists in the workplace (93%) compared to those in NSW (88%) or Victoria (86%).
  • Those in regional areas (90%) are also more likely to feel that age discrimination exists in the workplace than those in metropolitan areas (87%).

Differences within the business sample were also seen:

  • There are similar trends by age as those seen within the broader community sample.
  • Females are significantly more likely than males to highlight age discrimination in social situations or within families.
  • Respondents from businesses with 1-4 older staff are significantly more likely to see discrimination at the workplace or within government policy compared to respondents from large businesses (50+ older staff).
  • Businesses which are less likely to encourage older applicants are significantly more likely to indicate discrimination occurring in the workplace (97%) compared to businesses which do not discourage older applicants (91%).

Consistent with findings associated with the perceived degree of age discrimination in Australia, respondents who hold fewer negative attitudes (or engaged in less negative behaviour) are more likely to be aware of age discrimination in almost all settings.

(c) Personal experience of discrimination

More than one third of respondents (38%) aged 55+ years have experienced age discrimination of some kind (35% of those aged 55-64 years and 43% of those aged 65+ years). The mean age at which this discrimination was experienced is at the lower end of the age cohort, at 56 years.

Those on higher incomes are less likely to report experiencing age discrimination in the online survey than those on lower incomes. This is linked to observations in the focus groups, where older participants who hold senior positions or work in industries where sole-contracting or self-employment is the norm feel they can avoid some forms of workplace age discrimination:

“It doesn’t matter what you have learned, you are no longer employable unless you own the agency.” (55-64 years)

As shown in Figure 5 the most common types of discrimination experienced are being turned down for a position, being ignored, being treated with disrespect and being subjected to jokes about ageing, with all of these forms being experienced by at least half of the sample. Some of the research highlights include:

  • The likelihood of being turned down from a position because of age is significantly higher among 55-64 year olds (67%) when compared to respondents aged 65+ (50%).
  • Being ignored is more common among respondents living in a capital city (71%) when compared with respondents living in regional or rural areas (54%).
  • Being denied access to a service or product is significantly more common among respondents aged 65+ years (33%) when compared to
    55-64 year old respondents (19%). In line with findings from the focus groups, older participants (particularly women) feel that retail settings are geared to the needs of younger consumers. This is despite the fact that the older market often has a greater degree of discretionary spending power.

Figure 5: Specific experience of discrimination

Figure 5: Specific experience of discrimination

 

Question: And have you been...?
Base: All respondents 55+ years who experienced discrimination (55 – 64, n=81), (65+ years, n=118).

These findings reflect comments from the focus groups with older people. The most discussed form of age-related discrimination was linked to employment. Many participants in the older age cohorts either personally experienced this form of discrimination or knew of others who had. Many younger participants also indicated that either their parents or older work colleagues had experienced age-related discrimination in the workplace. Many feel that this type of discrimination has increased since the global financial crisis:

“You try getting a bar job at 50.” (35-54 years)

“One of the things about being our age [over 65 years], is that we have passed one of the major age discrimination things and that is discrimination for a job – we have moved out of the workforce...in some ways we have moved beyond that little problem area...[not so] anybody who is 45-55 trying to get a job.” (65+ year old participant discussing the fact that, because they are over working age, they will not face the issues with employment related age discrimination, but that others will)

Most older participants discussed a sense of being devalued by society and being isolated from one’s peers and colleagues. Some feel that their years of experience and their depth of knowledge have been overlooked:

“Of course it has an impact on you – I wanted to continue working – I was told ‘we don’t have suitable roles and duties for you anymore’ and that took me 12 months to get over. I had to have counselling because I thought that I still had a lot to offer and I still want to work therefore it affected my self-esteem.” (65+ years)

Another commonly experienced form of age-related discrimination is the experience of invisibility. Many participants in the older focus groups had been made to feel invisible because of their age. For many, this invisibility manifests itself in different ways:

  • Service invisibility: A feeling of being ignored or overlooked because those responsible for the service do not see value in spending time with an older person (who is deemed to either not have the spending power or not be ‘in the market’ for products being offered). Most feel that this was underpinned by a lack of understanding about the diversity of older people and a simple lack of engagement with the needs of older Australians:

“I walk into a nice dress store, I don’t get served – they see me and they think that I can’t possibly be interested in something fashionable and that I am probably killing time waiting for my grandkids.” (55-64 years)

“I had a friend who was looking to buy a new car...with cash. She walked into the dealer and was basically told that she ‘probably wouldn’t be interested in these types of cars’ and that she should look at some of the other businesses down the road.” (65+ years)

  • Product invisibility: Many older participants feel that once they reach a certain age, they are ignored by corporate Australia. For many, this is underpinned by a lack of understanding about the financial capacity of older people (beyond spending on age-specific services such as ‘insurance and funeral services’):

“There is a presumption that old people will have difficulty with the newer technology, the computer technology – they just design it in such a way and don’t bother thinking about the older market.” (65+ years)

  • Relationship invisibility: Many report that they feel like they are a burden or feel forgotten or ignored because of issues associated with ageing. Participants feel that this is underpinned by stereotypical views about the physical abilities of older people and a lack of understanding about the diversity of interests that older people have.
  • Cultural invisibility: Some feel that there is a lack of representation in popular culture which leads to a sense that the important role of older people in the community is being overlooked, devalued or ignored. Many feel that this form of invisibility is driven by basic market forces. Older people are not seen to sell, to be interesting or to drive interest. As a result, older people do not play a prominent role in popular culture or media:

“The only thing I actually see from real advertising on TV is about funerals – and incontinence. There is nothing out there to say to just a normal run of the mill [older] person – ‘let’s have a bit of life’.” (55-64 years)

Others also feel that this form of invisibility is the result of programming or advertising decisions being made by younger people. Some people, particularly those from Melbourne, feel that younger people are in charge of programming and content and that these younger individuals are disengaged from the older audience. As a result, they do not see value in portraying older people beyond the more stereotypical roles of grandparent, carer or victim. For some older participants, this is of considerable concern, as they feel that younger people who may not have a family relationship with an older person rely on media and popular culture to gain an insight into the qualities of older Australians.

Denial of service or an inability to access specific services or products is also a commonly experienced form of age-related discrimination. This is particularly an issue when it comes to accessing financial services or, for some, health-related services. Many feel that this form of invisibility is underpinned by a lack of recognition of the needs of older Australians and a lack of awareness of the diversity and spending power that this cohort possesses:

“Being declined – I come back to travel insurance, being declined certain things and not having access to all of the facilities that one once had. It applies to credit I’m sure as well.” (65+ years)

For some older participants, discrimination is seen to be more subtle and is often linked to a sense of condescension. These participants feel that, in some instances, a lack of understanding about the capabilities of older people leads younger people to ‘assume the worst’ and offer assistance when assistance is not warranted or needed:

“Sometimes I think there is an attitude in society towards older people who may be physically frailer – but there is an attitude that they are mentally frail when often they are as sharp as tacks.” (65+ years)

While these participants appreciate offers of assistance, it is the tone with which this assistance is offered that is problematic. The main concerns centre on the tendency for younger people to simply assume that an older person cannot do something or take part in an activity – essentially passing judgement without asking.

Being a source of amusement is also identified by some as a form of age-related discrimination. This is a complex issue, as the feeling of being discriminated against in this context depends on the relationship of the individual making a joke, the age of the person making a joke relative to the person being told the joke and the situation in which the joke is told. More important than age and relationship however, is the tone of the joke. If it is designed to be affectionate and inclusive, then most feel that this is simply part of the Australian culture. If it is designed to ridicule, belittle or bring someone down then it is classified as discriminatory.

While not discussed in detail, there is some discussion about the positive aspects of age discrimination, of being valued for being older and of younger people seeing diversity through the actions of older people:

“I see it as both sides – I like my bus pass and there are other things.”
(65+ years)

“Something I have noticed on the tram, the aged get preferential treatment on the tram so there is a positive – in that you are actually giving them preferential treatment...although you never know if they are going to be offended or grateful!” (26-34 years)

“I have two boys, one got married last year and one is getting married this year. I’ve been invited to their friends’ bucks parties because I’m accepted among that group. I think they recognise my age, but not in a negative way.” (65+ years)

“All of the things I do I think they [younger people] are quite amazed – me being 72 and doing all that and cycling and travelling and playing tennis and everything else – so it’s not age discrimination but it’s a positive attitude toward ageing” (65+ years)

Respondents who had experienced age discrimination were asked to indicate how this makes them feel. The key themes are outlined in Figure 6.

Not surprisingly, some very strong negative emotional responses were reported – in particular, feelings of shame, anger or sadness. For a notable proportion, there are also direct impacts on personal perceptions of self-worth, and impacts on how they define ageing as a result of their experience:

“Made me feel angry and sad – my response to that person was one day you will get older too and somebody will say that to you.”

“Invisible, angry, my contribution to society, education etc. was not recognised or appreciated.”

“I call it being invisible...nobody sees you and your opinion does not matter. I feel very vulnerable.”

“Made me feel not a member of society, in fact very inadequate and I felt very distressed about it.”

Among the predominantly negative responses, there are also a small number who laughed it off or said it was “water off a duck’s back”.

Figure 6: Feelings associated with discrimination

The size of each word is directly proportionate to the number of mentions of that theme.

Figure 6: Feelings associated with discrimination

Question: How did this make you feel?
Base: All respondents who experienced discrimination (n=199).

Importantly, respondents who thought the portrayal of older people in the media is a fair representation of the older population are significantly less likely to report having experienced discrimination.

“Made me feel not a member of society, in fact very inadequate and I felt very distressed about it.”