Ageism: the forgotten discrimination?

Whilst some forms of discrimination have been outlawed for decades, discrimination on the basis of calendar age has only more recently been the subject of legislation. In the UK, age discrimination (in employment) was first outlawed in 2006. The Equality Act 2010 is the new law which is set to provide protection against age discrimination in employment, training and adult education for people of all ages. When the Act comes fully into force in 2012, it will for the first time introduce protection against discrimination on the basis of age in goods and services, including health and social care services.

There is plenty of evidence that the formal prohibition of age discrimination is needed. For example, in 2009, a National Review of Age Discrimination in Health and Social Care (for the Department of Health) concluded that ageist attitudes were affecting investigation and treatment levels for older people. Research for the UK charity Age UK (published in March 2011) shows that age discrimination is the most widely experienced form of discrimination in Europe. In the UK, 64 per cent of those interviewed said that age discrimination was a serious problem. The survey found that those people aged over 50 were very concerned that employers would tend to give a job to someone aged in their 20s rather than an older person. In the UK, 49.7 per cent of those interviewed judged this perceived tendency on the part of employers to favour younger rather than older workers to be a problem. British people were above the European average in believing that prejudice towards other age groups is wrong. Nonetheless, the survey also showed that older people in the UK were looked upon as being friendlier, but also as less competent than by people in the rest of the Europe. Across Europe, people aged 70 or over were shown to be at the age least likely to be envied. There have also been high profile cases involving ageism claims, such as Miriam O’Reilly’s case against the BBC in January 2011.

Although the new legislation is intended to outlaw discrimination on the basis of age for people at all stage of the life course, much of the wider debate about ageism is actually about the prejudices experienced by older people. Yet, children, teenagers and young adults can also be subjected to stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. You only have to think of shops displaying notices saying ‘No unaccompanied children’ or ‘No more than three school children are allowed in the shop at any one time’. Young drivers pay more for their car insurance than older drivers, and young workers get lower levels of the minimum wage on the basis of their calendar age. It is unlikely that the Equality Act will operate to eliminate these kinds of ageism against children and young people, but on the whole it is a welcome development. Alongside stronger and more widespread laws outlawing ageism, however, we also need a change in everyday attitudes as to what a person’s calendar age can, or can not, tell us about their interests and activities, their attitudes and beliefs, and their competencies and experiences.