Australia– like the rest of the developed world – is greying. In the five decades between 1964 and 2014, the proportion of the Australian population aged 65 years and over doubled from 8 percent to 15 percent. By 2064, it is estimated that close to one in four will be aged 65 or more. This well-documented trend has led to worries about the fiscal and economic impacts of a rising old-age dependency ratio.
As our population ages, it is important to examine how Australian society views and treats its older citizens. Does Australia sufficiently value older people and ageing? A nationally representative survey prepared for the Councils on the Ageing (COTA) Federation suggests that there is a lack of recognition of the positive contributions that elderly people make to our society.
Released late last year, COTA's State of the Older Nation 2018 survey was the most comprehensive national study ever undertaken to seek the views of Australians aged 50 and over. It found that a large majority of participants (74 percent) believed that they had much to offer society based on their life experiences. Yet, nearly half felt less valued by society than they did when they were younger.
There is evidence that the failure to adequately recognise the value older Australians, often rich in skills, experience and knowledge, is resulting in age discrimination. The COTA survey found that one in three older Australians had experienced age discrimination of some kind, with the most frequent type being related to employment, either when already employed or when seeking work. Nearly 20 percent of those surveyed said they had experienced aged discrimination while looking for a job. Those in the 50-59 age group were the most likely to report age-related employment discrimination (29 percent).
Overall, age discrimination ranked alongside health and financial security as the most pressing issues to older Australians in the COTA survey.
As American researchers Sheri R. Levy and Jamie Macdonald have observed, older people were historically valued and respected members of society across cultures due to their accrued experience, knowledge and wisdom. However, in recent times there has been a discernible shift toward a general devaluing of older persons in modern societies, especially in Western cultures.
What has caused this negative attitude toward ageing and older members of our society? Some of the blame can be apportioned to our shallow contemporary youth-obsessed culture, which is promoted in the mass media. In stark contrast to the positive, effervescent portrayal of youthfulness, older people are often depicted as frail, depressed, stubborn, senile, out-of-touch, and needy. Furthermore, in our growingly materialistic society, there is an unfair perception held by some that older people are a drain on the economy.
A 2018 research report by the Benevolent Society, entitled The Drivers of Ageism, noted that the language of public discourse in Australia - which often tends to describe the issue of an ageing population as a problem, a burden and a cost - has perpetuated negative stereotypes about older people. For instance, Australia's Intergenerational Reports, produced by the Commonwealth Government, conveyed a view that older Australians represented a growing burden on Australia's economy and wider society.
The Drivers of Ageism report noted:
Our social norms, attitudes, structures, policies and practices have not necessarily kept pace with the fact that there are many more older Australians living in our community and that most will lead longer, healthier lives than ever before. While improvements in longevity and health during old age present an opportunity for this growing cohort to make meaningful contributions to the communities in which they live, current stereotypes that surround older people often act as a barrier to their full participation.
American geriatrician and epidemiologist Linda P. Fried, who has studied how societies can successfully transition to benefit from an ageing population, has stated:
Our negative attitudes towards aging blind us to the fact that millions of people in their '60s, '70s, '80s, and beyond are robust, active, functional, experienced, capable and talented-and that they want to remain engaged and contributing. However, we have not yet created the social structures, roles, and institutions to capitalize on our success in adding years to life by also adding life to years.