Ageism: the most acceptable form of human rights violation?

Who likes to think of his or her own older self? No one likes to think about ageing. Because when we do, most of us refer to negative stereotypes about older age. Is it because we do not want to be reminded about our own ageing that we tend to label older adults as belonging to a separate age group in a process of ‘othering’?

With such ambient denial, it is not surprising to observe the relative incapacity of our societies to tackle inequalities in older age. Even worse, our prejudices and fear of ageing prevent us from recognising unequal treatment on the grounds of age as a form of discrimination.

According to a 2017 report from a working session of the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing: “Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that all human beings are born free and equal, it is evident that the enjoyment of all human rights diminishes with age, owing to the negative notion that older persons are somehow less productive, less valuable to society and a burden to the economy and to younger generations.”

Ageism is pervasive, embedded in our cultures, institutions and policies.

We find it all around us: in advertisements of products that aim to ‘fight ageing’, jokes about the death of older people as a solution to the health crisis or fairy tales that depict older people as synonymous to forgetfulness, frailty, grumpiness and death. Language is also a tricky channel of ageism. In general, our societies tend to praise young people as ‘smarter, more dynamic, more capable’ than the old.

In some EU member states, older people above the age of 70 are denied the right to rent a car regardless of their driving abilities. People ageing with a disability will be granted access to relatively good support services up to the age of 60 or 65 afterwards it may no longer be possible to access rehabilitation, mobility allowance or care outside a nursing home. Some laws exclude people beyond a certain age from access to innovative surgical treatments or from benefitting from work-related training due to age limits. On the labour market, it is more likely that if you are unemployed over 55, you will not be employed again.

For the majority of national laws and courts, these age-based restrictions are ‘objectively justified’, just as distinctions on the basis of one’s sex were also considered as ‘objectively justified’ not so long ago. Until the 1970s, for example, Irish women had to give up their jobs in civil service once they got married. Whereas it is unthinkable in Western societies today to deprive women of their fundamental right to work, we still force people to retire once they hit a certain age. If this kind of discrimination is unacceptable based on sex or race, why are they permitted on the ground of age?

A new global campaign to smash ageism

There is something fundamentally flawed with those assumptions that consider the discrimination and exclusion of older people as more acceptable than the discrimination and exclusion of people on the ground of their gender, race or ability. Quite the contrary, age discrimination adds to the burden of life-long differential treatments for those groups (such as women, migrants, LGBTQI, etc.), resulting in greater risk of precariousness and social exclusion in old age.

Some of these distinctions on the ground of age do not even make sense. It is tempting to think that early retirement or mandatory retirement ages are necessary to allow younger people enter the labour market. However, according to research there is no evidence of such policies leading to higher employment rates among young people.

On the one hand, such policies fail to address the issue of youth unemployment that they intend to address while, one the other hand, we lose from the expertise and skills of older people as potential mentors. Early retirement or mandatory retirement policies also contribute to the stereotyping of generations, pitting age groups against one another and feeding the fear of the younger generations that they will – one day – be part of the older one.

If we live long enough, ageism is the one discrimination that we are all most likely to experience, so we can all benefit from fighting against it. As individuals we can gain on average 7.5 years of life by holding positive attitudes towards older age.

As a society, we can benefit from the skills, experience and knowledge of the older generation by actively involving them in decision-making, in our communities, and in paid or unpaid work.

We must start rethinking ageing now both for the older persons of today and for our older selves of tomorrow. The global campaign #AgeingEqual was launched by AGE Platform Europe, the network of older persons, to raise awareness of ageism and its negative consequences on the capacity of older persons to fully enjoy their human rights and fully contribute to society.

Kicked-off on 1 October 2018, which is the International Day of Older Persons, the campaign will run over 70 days and culminate on 10 December, which is International Human Rights Day and the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Seventy years after its adoption by the United Nations General Assembly, the Declaration is just as powerfully relevant as it was on its first day, and serves as a great reminder that human rights do not diminish with age.

Because it is deeply rooted in our cultures, institutional behaviours and attitudes, smashing age discrimination can only be tackled by collective efforts. Given the magnitude of ageism, reaching a critical mass of activists will be essential if we want to tackle it. We are better than this: let’s join forces to create a society for all ages!

Learn more about ageism on the campaign website and add your voice by proposing a blogpost or sharing your personal stories with the hashtag #AgeingEqual.