Most Australians know our population is ageing, and ageing fast. Average life expectancy is rising and fertility rates are low.
Australians aged 65 years and over now make up 15 per cent of the population, but by 2030 they will for the first time outnumber those aged under 15 years.
One of the consequences of this demographic shift is that more older Australians are staying in the workforce for longer. They are being encouraged to do this by governments worried about the balance between working-age people and retirees. This ratio is projected to keep falling in Australia, from 4.4 workers for each retiree at present, to just 2.7 by 2050.
What do Australians think about these changes and are they fuelling ageism? We’ve carried out a representative survey of 1000 people to find out.
What causes ageism?
The results tell us that while ageism exists, overall it isn’t a strongly held view by most Australians. However, the leading cause of ageist attitudes appears to be beliefs over succession of enviable resources, with perceptions that older people aren’t making way for younger people in the workplace and in other contexts when they should.
We took a representative ‘snapshot’ of Australians’ attitudes by surveying people aged 18-70 years who reflected the whole population in attributes like sex, age, place of residence, and employment status.
We asked them to respond to two general sets of statements about ageing and older people. Our aim was to measure the extent of ‘ageism’, which we defined as negative attitudes that are targeted at older people because of their age. By studying these attitudes, we hope to better understand the causes of the discrimination that continues to affect older people, particularly when it comes to opportunities for workforce participation in later life.
We first asked our participants for their views of what older people are like, asking them, for example, whether: ‘Many old people just live in the past’. We then explored their views about how older people should act in society. For example, we had them respond to the statement that: ‘Most older people don’t know when to make way for younger people’. Participants indicated how strongly they agreed or disagreed with each of the statements posed. We then analysed the results to create scale measures that informed us about the different kinds of ageism and how widespread these views are in Australia.
Ageist attitudes in Australia: How much, who, and why?
Our first finding is that few Australians are resolutely ageist in their views. By this we mean that they don’t have consistently negative attitudes about how older people are or how they should be. Most Australians only agree with a handful of the negative statements we posed. Fewer than one-in-ten Australians endorsed a majority of these statements. From this, we can conclude that ageism does exist in Australia but it isn’t usually a strongly-held prejudice.
By grouping the statements into categories that represent different varieties of ageism, we can draw some further conclusions. The most common form of ageism in Australia is driven by beliefs about ‘succession’. In this view, older people are perceived negatively when they don’t actively ‘make way’ for the young, and instead hold onto their resources and positions of status, power and value. Ours is the first study to establish that succession-based views are the leading source of ageist sentiments in Australia today.
The second most widespread form of ageism we found involves ‘stereotyping’ older people. This occurs when attitudes are formed by partial, obsolete, or even completely false beliefs. Stereotypes by definition don’t fairly reflect the behaviours or capacities of a group – they are a sort of mental shortcut that simplifies thought and action. Unfortunately, this makes stereotypes hard to overturn, which is why they often underpin discriminatory behaviours. Our findings suggest that Australians haven’t yet abandoned their ageist stereotypes, and there is more work to do in tackling these views as our population ‘greys.’
The final part of our study relates to who is ageist. Australians are not all alike in their views. Men are significantly more likely to be ageist than women, and this result persists after we control for other sex differences, including age, education, and location.
Our study doesn’t determine why men are more prone to be ageist, but we can speculate that this perhaps stems from differences in care-giving responsibilities and empathy. Women continue to do much more of the caring that our ageing society needs, both formally within the aged-care sector, and informally within families. If empathy can be fostered through closer contact, then tackling male ageism will require that more men spend more of their time with and around older people, including providing aged care.
Controlling for differences in sex, we find that younger people are generally more likely to be ageist than older people. This difference is most apparent for succession-based ageism, with people under 30 years being twice as likely as those over 50 years to agree with succession-based statements. We interpret this age difference as indicating some tension over how resources and status are currently divided between generations of Australians. The perception of a widening ‘generational divide’ has become a topic of major interest in Australia recently, and our survey has picked up on this sentiment. Such feelings should be of concern in a society that is only getting older.
It’s time to stamp out ageism
The workforce is one obvious site in which intergenerational tensions play out, as older workers trying to stay in employment come up against younger workers looking to progress in their careers. The unprecedented presence of up to five different generations in the same workplaces creates massive positive potential, if managed well, but also risks considerable discord if we fail to recognise and put an end to age biases.
Our survey findings suggest that Australia’s society and our workplaces have yet to find the most productive way to fulfil the potential of an ageing population. Progress is stymied by the persistence of ageist stereotypes and the emergence of newer, succession-based forms of ageism. We need our workplace managers to first confront their own attitudes and check that these don’t reinforce ageist biases. We need more and better resources that challenge the notion of intergenerational job competition and show how increasing older employment can be mutually beneficial for both young and old. We need organisations that encourage workers to collaborate across generations and, in doing so, learn and teach new perspectives and skills.
Inside and outside the workforce, ageism is an urgent economic and social issue. We cannot afford to neglect or undervalue the capacities and contributions of older citizens, who make up a growing part of our ageing population.
The full results of the survey will be released as a report in April.
This article has been co-published with The Conversation.
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