What is ageism and how do we combat it?

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We’re all getting older. It’s a truism not just for each of us, but for the Australian population as a whole.

In 2018, there were 3.9 million Australians aged 65 or over—around 16 per cent of the total population. That number is expected to rise to around 23 per cent by 2060-61, according to Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures.

That suggests ageism is set to become even more prevalent in our society unless we act now.

What is ageism?

World Health Organization (WHO) defines (i) ageism as “stereotypes (how we think), prejudices (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act)” based on age.

Ageism can be interpersonal (in interactions between two or more individuals), self-directed (aimed at the self) or institutional (present in the laws, rules, social norms, policies and practices of institutions to create systemic disadvantage)(ii).

What does ageism look like?

A 2017 study by the Benevolent Society (iii) exploring community attitudes towards ageing and older people sought to identify what influenced people’s attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. A survey of 1,083 people of all ages, plus a booster sample of 342 people aged over 55, was carried out.

Survey respondents aged 65 years and over reported experiencing ageism as:

  • Being told a joke about older people (57%)
  • Being talked down to (38%)
  • Being ignored (37%)
  • Being turned down for a job based on age (29%)
  • Being denied a promotion (14%).

Ageism is more common than you might think, from “old geezer” jokes to women patronisingly being called “love” or “dear” by younger people. In a blatant example, Google settled a class-action lawsuit (iv) with 227 people who accused the company of discriminating against highly qualified job applicants over the age of 40, despite a severe skills shortage in the technology sector.

The impacts of ageism

Ageism doesn’t get a lot of attention but it’s insidious and affects people’s lives. Ageism is, in short, a human rights issue.

A major 2013 report (v) by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) found older Australians feel “a sense of shame, anger or sadness” because of age discrimination. The report also found a “direct impact on personal perceptions of self-worth and an impact on how older Australians define their experience of ageing”.

In 2016, WHO reported “older people who hold negative views about their own ageing do not recover as well from disability and live on average 7.5 years less than people with positive attitudes”.

How prevalent is ageism?

The AHRC’s 2013 study (vi) found 71% of Australians felt age discrimination was common in Australia, with nearly a quarter saying it was very common. Where did they reckon it happened most often?

  • The workplace (88%)
  • Retail situations (60%)
  • Social situations (56%)
  • The healthcare system (52%)
  • Access to services (46%)
  • Within Government policy (44%).


The Benevolent Society’s 2017 study also found discrimination was common in:

  • Aged care (33%)
  • Families and local communities (31%).

2 men playing chess

Ageism in aged care

In its submission (vii) to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety in August 2019, the charity EveryAGE Counts said: “The proliferation of negative social views about ageing and older people are inevitably carried into aged care by the workforce, family members, decision-makers and older people themselves, reflecting values and attitudes in the broader Australian community.

“Ageist norms operate across our society, attaching a lower value and greater stigma to older life than any other part of the life course.”

Ageism combined with other stigmas and discrimination (for example, disability) is especially powerful.

It’s time to challenge ageism

We need to challenge ageism wherever we see it. Not just as individuals, but more broadly, in our communities, our media, and our institutions.

It can be as simple as being alert to elderspeak, an inappropriately simplified speech sounding like baby talk (viii). We need to hear and see older people’s viewpoints in the media and entertainment. Councils should be challenged to have dedicated advisory groups for youth and seniors living independently at home.

EveryAGE Counts suggested three key starting points to the Royal Commission:

  • Seek to change the broader social and political norms about older people, to address the problem at its source
  • Reform legislation, policy and research, to ensure the system is informed by rights-based principles and is responsive to the full diversity of older Australians
  • Strengthen efforts to focus on supporting the well-being of older people.


The Benevolent Society also identified areas to start eliminating ageism.

  • Healthy people aged over 80 being able to access travel insurance
  • Big businesses improving customer service to older people
  • More funds being spent upgrading public and private places to make them more accessible.

Older people have a lot to offer; we just need to listen

While ageism is prevalent not all attitudes to older people are negative. The Benevolent Society’s survey, for example, found almost three-quarters of young people thought older people had a lot to offer them, and almost two-thirds said older people had a strong work ethic and were responsible, and they believed wisdom came with age.

It’s time to respect that wisdom. The change has to start now.

The WA Primary Health Alliance and WA Country Health Service have produced a learning resource to improve awareness of ageism and promote positive change. You can find it here.


(i) https://www.who.int/news-room/questions-and-answers/item/ageing-ageism
(ii) https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240020504
(iii) The Drivers of Ageism, The Benevolent Society, September 2017.
(iv) https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/behavioral-competencies/global-and-cultural-effectiveness/pages/google-ends-age-discrimination-suit-with-11-million-settlement.aspx
(v) https://humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/document/publication/Fact%20or%20Fiction_2013_WebVersion_FINAL_0.pdf
(vi) https://humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/document/publication/Fact%20or%20Fiction_2013_WebVersion_FINAL_0.pdf
(vii) https://agedcare.royalcommission.gov.au/system/files/2021-02/AWF.001.03798.01.pdf
(viii) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7741962/