Chapter 3: Australians’ attitudes and behaviours

This chapter provides details of the prevalence of stereotypical attitudes and behaviours within the business community and broader Australian society.

3.1 The prevalence of negative behaviours

The outward expression of a negative stereotype is often negative behaviour. Building from discussions in the focus groups, a series of behavioural statements were developed, which describe behaviours deemed to be ageist in nature. Themes include:

  • presumption/presupposition
  • diminished physical capacity
  • diminished mental capacity
  • being a source of amusement (the concept of ‘doddering’ discussed in the qualitative stage)
  • irrelevance or invisibility.

All respondents aged 18-54 years were presented with a listing of behaviours and asked to rate their level of agreement. Table 4 outlines the net agreement across all respondents with each behavioural statement as well as a comparison by age group. Agreement with most negative behaviour statements is relatively low. The exceptions to this are feeling sorry for older people because of perceived complex health problems (44% agree) and a perception that there is a need to take extra time to explain complex topics to older Australians (35% agree). While it is reasonable to assume that both of these statements reflect behaviours that could be seen as respectful, discussions during the qualitative phase indicate that this form of presumptive behaviour is often a concern and are indicative of deeply held misconceptions about older people.

Across a majority of statements, those aged under 34 years are generally more likely to exhibit negative behaviours than those aged over 35 years. Interestingly, it is older respondents (those aged 45-54 years) who are more likely to report telling jokes about older people. This supports findings from the qualitative research, where jokes about older people are considered to be more acceptable when they come from someone who is close in age to the recipient (a form of friendly teasing).

Table 4: Behavioural interactions – net agreement

 
Total
18 – 24
A
25 – 34
B
35 – 44
C
45 – 54
D
I feel sorry for older people as they often have complex health problems.
44%
54%
CD
45%
40%
41%
I often have to take extra time to explain complex topics to older people.
35%
42%
CD
38%
CD
30%
31%
I avoid conversations about technology with older people as I know explanations will take a long time and a lot of effort.
20%
28%
CD
26%
CD
14%
15%
I tend to speak louder to older people as I assume they cannot hear all that well.
13%
19%
CD
15%
CD
10%
10%
I sometimes tell jokes about older people.
11%
12%
9%
8%
14%
BC
I don’t stand in line behind someone who is older, because they are often slow to progress.
10%
13%
D
15%
CD
8%
D
4%
I tend to be impatient with older people.
9%
13%
CD
11%
7%
7%
I often avoid conversations with older people as they generally don’t have anything interesting to say.
4%
6%
D
7%
CD
4%
D
2%


Question: Thinking about older people, how strongly do you agree or disagree with the following statements?
Base: All respondents aged 18 – 54 years: (n=1,511).
A/B/C/D: Significantly higher at the 95% confidence level.

The relationship between negative attitudes and negative behaviours is clear. In all cases, respondents who are more likely to express negative attitudes towards older people are also more likely to agree with the negative behavioural statements listed above.

3.2 Perceptions of older employees’ abilities

Business respondents were asked a range of statements relating to their beliefs about the abilities of older employees in the workplace. Their level of agreement with each statement is charted in Figure 7.

Of concern, 50% of business decision makers agree that older employees are at higher risk of being made redundant. This belief is significantly more likely to be held by smaller businesses (63% of those with less than five staff agree). Discussions during the focus groups support these conclusions, with many feeling that the global financial crisis has resulted in older employees being more likely to be made redundant than younger employees:

“Getting older means you are more likely to lose your job.” (35-54 years)

“Many people don’t disclose their age in the workplace, because they know that others may make presumptions about what that person might be thinking or doing...there are others who modify their age.” (65+ years)

More than one third (36%) of business decision makers believe that older employers are less likely to be promoted and 29% believe that older employees have difficulty adapting to change.

Around one quarter (23%) agree that older employees will not be in the role as long as younger employees and that it is difficult to teach older workers new things.
A similar proportion (22%), agree that they do not expect older employees to have the same technical skills as younger employees.

Younger business respondents (those aged 18-34 years) are more likely to agree with most statements. However, they are less likely to feel that older employees have difficulty being promoted.

Figure 7: Business behaviours in relation to older Australians (net agree)

Figure 7: Business behaviours in relation to older Australians (net agree)

Question: Thinking about older employees (someone aged 55+ years), how strongly do you agree or disagree that, compared to younger employees...
Base: All businesses: n=504.

Beliefs about older employees’ abilities in the workplace are directly related to willingness to employ an older worker. Business respondents who indicate that there is a certain age over which the business is reluctant to recruit (9% of the sample with a mean cut-off age of 50 years) are more likely to agree with almost all negative statements about the abilities of older employees. Related to this, those who encourage older employees to apply for positions (48% of the sample) are more likely to disagree with all statements.

Findings from the qualitative phase provide insight into the prevalence and impact of age-related discrimination in the workplace, with many participants feeling devalued, depressed and isolated after experiencing discrimination on the grounds of age:

“It was discrimination. I had turned 65, I had an injury and they said they didn’t have suitable duties for me anymore and gave my job to a young girl who was only 33. They knew there was a loophole because I had turned 65 and I could get the pension but they didn’t realise that my husband works so I get nothing.” (65+ years)

 

3.3 Attitudes and stereotypes

All respondents were asked a series of attitude statements which were designed to assess the prevalence of specific stereotypes within the Australian community. Building from the qualitative research and the review of literature, the statements were designed to understand stereotypes which tapped into the following themes:

  • Invisibility: Perceptions that older people’s views, opinions or experiences are not taken into consideration
  • Financial drain: Perceptions of the negative impact that the older cohort has on the financial status/capability of younger cohorts
  • Cognitive ability: Perceptions that older people have difficultly learning new tasks or may be slower to adopt new technology
  • Productivity: Perceptions that older people do not contribute to the workplace or workforce
  • Social capability: Perceptions that older people are grumpy, short-tempered or do not have intimate relationships
  • Victimisation: Perceptions that older people are more likely to be victimised.

The phrasing of the questions was different for older and younger respondents. Older respondents were asked to indicate whether they feel younger people hold these views, while younger respondents were asked to indicate whether they personally hold these views. As such, a total population figure is not available and findings are present by age cohort.

(a) How younger people feel about older people

No single stereotype theme is consistently more likely to be considered to be true. Rather, there is a mix of perceptions across all stereotypes measured. Stereotypes mentioned by at least half of all respondents include perceptions that older people:

  • Are often isolated and lonely (59%): This is a key concern for many older participants in the qualitative research (focus groups). Many feel that younger Australians do not understand the diversity present in the older community and appreciate the fact that relationships and activities continue well past the numeric ceiling of 55 years.

“I am doing more energetic things now than then.” (65+ years)

  • Are more likely to be victims of crime (52%): Discussions during the qualitative phase (focus groups) indicate that both older and younger participants feel that the media underpins perceptions that older people are more likely to be victims of crime.

“If you are in your 80s, you are hardly going to get mugged coming home from a club...come on, it’s a beat up.” (35-54 years)

Findings from the media scan support these qualitative comments:

  • Unknown older people (i.e. those who did not hold a prominent public profile) are most often mentioned in the analysed news and current affairs coverage as victims of crime, reinforcing the stereotype of older people as frail and vulnerable.
  • In print media, four of the five front-page articles identified in the scan refer to crime peaks.
  • Social media discussion of older people is similarly focused around reports of older people as the victims of crime, or as otherwise physically vulnerable or at risk of illness.
  • These characteristics are reinforced in advertising, where older people are often presented as vulnerable (emotionally, physically or financially).
  • Are more likely to be forgetful (51%): This is despite the findings from the media scan which show that there was a distinct absence in analysed coverage of the portrayal of older people as lonely, alone or forgetful.
  • Do not like being told what to do by someone younger (43%).
  • Do not like change (41%): Findings from the media scan show that, when older people are at the heart of a ‘feel good story’ they are generally shown as competent and able to adapt. However, the overall dearth of stories focusing on the positives of ageing and older people in the media (the invisibility discussed previously) leads to a belief of this stereotype.

Table 5: Behavioural interactions – net agreement

Older people...
Total
18 – 24
A
25 – 34
B
35 – 44
C
45 – 54
D
(Social) Lonely or isolated
59%
50%
58%
59%
A
65%
AB
(Victimisation) Victims of crime
52%
46%
49%
56%
A
55%
A
(Cognitive) Forgetful
51%
50%
52%
47%
55%
C
(Social) Don’t like being told what to do by someone younger
43%
43%
47%
C
40%
42%
(Social) Don’t like change
41%
46%
49%
54%
49%
(Health) Likely to be sick
36%
51% BCD
39%
CD
31%
26%
(Productivity) Don’t want to work long hours
32%
37%
30%
31%
30%
(Cognitive) Are bad drivers
27%
26%
31%
D
32%
D
20%
(Cognitive) Have difficulty learning complex tasks
26%
33%
CD
29%
25%
23%
(Cognitive) Have difficultly learning new things
26%
30%
D
31%
D
27%
22%
(Financial) Are a significant cost to the Australian health system
24%
18%
27%
A
26%
A
23%
(Temperament) Don’t understand the pressures that younger people face
24%
26%
26%
D
23%
20%
(Cognitive) Prefer not to use technology
23%
34%
29%
27%
29%
(Social) Complain a lot
22%
21%
24%
22%
20%
(Social) Don’t have sexual relationships
18%
24%
CD
21%
CD
15%
15%
(Social) Are grumpy or short-tempered
17%
15%
20%
16%
17%
(Productivity) Are less likely to contribute at work
12%
15%
13%
11%
10%
(Social) Don’t care about their appearance
8%
17%
CD
12%
CD
5%
5%
(Financial) Don’t contribute to the Australian economy
7%
8%
9%
D
8%
D
4%
(Social) Are boring
5%
5%
8%
CD
4%
4%


Question: With this in mind, do you personally agree or disagree that older people...
Base: All respondents aged 18-54 years, (18 – 24, n=175), (25 – 34, n=436), (35 – 44, n=452) (45 – 54, n=448).
A/B/C/D: Significantly higher at the 95% confidence level.

60% of all respondents aged 18-54 years can be considered to hold predominantly negative attitudes (i.e. agreement with 10 or more negative attitude statements). Respondents who fit this profile are significantly more likely to be:

  • university graduates (46% of those classified as having predominantly negative attitudes, compared to 37% of those who are not classified as having predominantly negative attitudes)
  • those aged under 35 years (47% compared to 43%)
  • on higher incomes (27% compared to 24%)
  • full time employees (49% compared to 44%)
  • CALD respondents (17% compared to 13%)
  • those who do not have a relationship with an older person (20% compared to 15%)
  • living in a capital city (62% compared to 52%)
  • males (50% compared to 40%).

What was also clear was that younger people are more likely to hold stereotypical views of older people across almost all statements assessed. This is particularly the case when data for respondents aged under 35 years is compared to those aged
35-54 years, with significant differences between cohorts seen across many attitudes.

(b) How older people feel they are viewed

Older respondents (those aged 55+ years) were asked to comment on whether they feel younger people agree with particular behavioural statements about older people (see Table 6).

Interestingly, there is a reasonable degree of alignment between how older people feel younger people perceive them as a cohort and comments from younger respondents (see Table 5). For both younger and older respondents, the attitudes perceived to be most commonly held are that older people are forgetful, don’t like change, are lonely or isolated or are likely to be victims (although the order for older Australians is slightly different to younger Australians). Similar patterns are also seen between older respondents in relation to the least likely attitudes to be held and those that younger respondents report.

Table 6: Behavioural interactions – net agreement for older Australians

Younger people think older people...
55 – 64
65+
(Cognitive) Are more likely to be forgetful
75%
70%
(Social) Don’t like change
73%
65%
(Social) Are often lonely or isolated
65%
63%
(Victim) Are more likely to be victims of crime
62%
61%
(Social) Don’t have sexual relationships
58%
61%
(Temperament) Don’t like being told what to do by someone younger
68%
61%
(Cognitive) Have difficultly learning new things
59%
59%
(Cognitive) Have difficulty learning complex tasks
63%
58%
(Cognitive) Are bad drivers
60%
57%
(Financial) Are a significant cost to the Australian health system
56%
54%
(Social) Are grumpy or short-tempered
52%
54%
(Productivity) Don’t want to work long hours
48%
54%
(Health) Are more likely to be sick
51%
53%
(Cognitive) Prefer not to use technology
49%
51%
(Social) Don’t understand the pressures that younger people face
47%
51%
(Social) Are boring
39%
47%
(Productivity) Are less likely to contribute at work
44%
46%
(Social) Complain a lot
48%
45%
(Financial) Don’t contribute to the Australian economy
32%
43%
(Social) Don’t care about their appearance
20%
25%


Question: With this in mind, do you personally agree or disagree that younger people feel older people...
Base: All older respondents (55 – 64, n=234) (65+ n=275).

(c) How business decision makers view older workers

Business respondents (those in charge of strategic decisions including recruitment) were also asked to indicate which attitude statements they were likely to agree with in relation to how they viewed older people (see Table 7).

Across all statements, business respondents are less likely to agree than respondents from the broader community sample, although the order of the top statements remains relatively consistent. Business respondents are more likely to agree that older people:

  • don’t like change (37%)
  • are often lonely and isolated (36%)
  • are more likely to be forgetful (33%)
  • are more likely to be victims of crime (32%).

Around one in five business respondents agree with attitudes which could be more closely related to discrimination in the workplace:

  • are more likely to be forgetful (33%)
  • do not like being told what to do by someone younger (31%)
  • have difficulty learning new things or complex tasks (23%)
  • do not want to work long hours (22%)
  • prefer not to use technology (20%).

However, contribution in the workplace is generally not seen to be an issue associated with ageing, with only 5% of business respondents agreeing that older people are less likely to contribute at work. This is despite the fact that almost one in ten business respondents have an age above which they would not recruit and 22% do not encourage applications from older workers.

Table 7: Behavioural interactions – net agreement for business

Older people...
Business
(Social) Don’t like change
37%
(Social) Are often lonely or isolated
36%
(Cognitive) Are more likely to be forgetful
33%
(Victimisation) Are more likely to be victims of crime
32%
(Temperament) Don’t like being told what to do by someone younger
31%
(Financial) Are a significant cost to the Australian health system
24%
(Cognitive) Have difficultly learning new things
23%
(Cognitive) Have difficulty learning complex tasks
23%
(Productivity) Don’t want to work long hours
22%
(Cognitive) Prefer not to use technology
20%
(Cognitive) Are bad drivers
15%
(Temperament) Complain a lot
15%
(Temperament) Don’t understand the pressures that younger people face
15%
(Health) Are more likely to be sick
13%
(Temperament) Are grumpy or short-tempered
11%
(Social) Don’t have sexual relationships
8%
(Social) Don’t care about their appearance
5%
(Social) Are less likely to contribute at work
4%
(Social) Are boring
3%
(Financial) Don’t contribute to the Australian economy
3%


Question: With this in mind, do you personally agree or disagree that older people...
Base: All older respondents (55 – 64, n=234) (65+ n=275).

Almost half (47%) of business respondents can be considered to hold predominantly negative attitudes (i.e. agreement with 10 or more negative attitude statements). Business respondents who fit this profile are significantly more likely to be younger (60% of those aged 18-34 years), when compared to older respondents (41% of those aged 35-54 years and 25% of those aged 55+). There were few other differences across business demographics.