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Ms. Winschief worked as a Production and Shipping Administrator in her late fifties. In June 2017, her manager claimed that she would not be a “good fit” in a “younger team” which would be created. Her position was terminated, and two new positions were created in December 2017. She applied for both of the new roles, but was not successful, making her feel bad especially when thinking back to what her manager had said.

This situation is a case of direct age discrimination where Ms. Winschief suffered less favourable treatment because of her age. The position termination was used as a cloak for dismissal which was decided upon largely due to age bias.

Older persons are often discriminated against in the labour market, restricted from goods and social services and stereotyped in the mass media. For instance, they are seen as less productive and unable to manage new technologies. Age discrimination often happens in employment, financial services, housing and rental, leisure facilities and educational programmes.

By 2050, it is predicted that 25 per cent of the population in Asia and the Pacific will be 60 or older, resulting in 1.3 billion people. The cost of discriminating against such a large number of people will be monumental.

What does ageism mean to individuals and society?

Ageism refers to stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people based on their age, as in the case of Ms. Winschief.

Age stereotypes in society often contribute to “self-ageism,” which shapes individuals’ views of their own ageing in an unfavourable way, adversely affecting their health and well-being. Research on ageism suggests that it has detrimental effects on older persons’ physical, psychological, behavioural and social functioning. Evidence from a Yale Study shows that older adults with negative attitudes about their own age may live 7.5 years less than those with positive attitudes. 

Age prejudice and discrimination denies older persons access to goods and social services, and impedes their integration into social networks of families, friends and communities. It also prevents them from participating in the labour market. This can jeopardize the goal of reducing poverty in all its forms, given that social protection is still insufficient in many countries.

Discriminatory practices against older persons not only violate their dignity and rights, they have significant financial implications. For instance, another Yale study showed that ageism in health care costs the United States $63 billion annually.

Even in Asia and the Pacific, where honouring older persons plays a large role in traditional cultures, this respect is declining, giving rise to ageism. The progress of societal modernization and the dominance of youth‐oriented consumerist culture have largely eroded traditional expectations and practices, as evidence published by the American Psychological Association shows.

Combating ageism

Tackling ageism contributes towards achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and implementing the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing.

Many positive efforts to address age discrimination and ensure age equality can be seen across Asia and the Pacific. To achieve greater success, first and foremost, it is essential to remove ageist provisions in legal and regulatory frameworks and enforce the implementation of equality acts. For example, the Act on Prohibition of Age Discrimination in Employment and Aged Employment Promotion in the Republic of Korea aims at precluding age discrimination in the labour market. Moreover, mandatory retirement was abolished in Australia, New Zealand and other countries to remove barriers to older persons’ participation in society. This can, in turn, alleviate the weight of an ageing workforce on welfare systems.

Societies should acknowledge the heterogeneity of older persons and assess the capabilities of older individuals in order to more effectively benefit from such potential. An ESCAP policy paper clearly highlights the gains of including older persons in the labour market. For example, simulations show that, in Thailand, if retirement were delayed or older persons were given a choice of working longer, annual savings of 1.4 percentage points in social expenditure as a percentage of GDP could be realized by 2050.

The private sector can lead by involving older persons in economic activities and harnessing their specific skills. For example, a tech start-up in the Republic of Korea hires older persons for IT work and values their outstanding attention to detail.

In addition to legislative and economic factors, other aspects of a comprehensive approach to addressing ageism are needed. This includes mass media engagement to challenge age stereotypes as well as highlight older persons’ contributions. Ageist stereotyping should be tackled over the life course, since attitudes, such as those which led to Ms. Winschief’s loss of work, become internalized by individuals early on and are easily entrenched.

In sum, promoting age equality ensures that no one is left behind. ESCAP works with partners to address ageism in the region by acting as a platform for the exchange of experiences, and through events and research collaboration.

Ageism is a critical and challenging social issue, only together we can build a society for all ages!

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Vanessa Steinmayer
Population Affairs Officer
Social Development +66 2 288-1234 [email protected]