Last Sunday marked the International Day of Older Persons here in the UK “… to raise awareness of opportunities and challenges faced by ageing populations”. In the United States on Saturday it will be Ageism Awareness Day “… to draw attention to the existence and impact of ageism in our society and how we can reframe ageing in our communities.”
That we are still talking about ageism, with the need for these marked calendar days and global campaigns to highlight this discrimination, is depressing. It’s also bewildering to me that we still have to battle this narrow-minded bias, but clearly we do when, according to the American Society on Ageing, “ageism is the most widespread and socially accepted form of prejudice”. Even more depressing.
The World Health Organisation states: “Ageism refers to the stereotypes (how we think), prejudices (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age”. When you consider the stereotypical thinking still prevalent (including our own unconscious bias), together with this form of discrimination across so many aspects of society – and particularly in the workplace – it’s clear that ageism is accepted; that as people age, society tends towards shifting its perception of what an older person can or cannot do.
“Why do we have this expectation for women to not age? Why have men been glorified as they age?” — Andie MacDowell, 65
What baffles me is why this is still an accepted ‘ism’ in a society that speaks out so loudly against many others. We rage against sexism, racism, gender inequality, homophobia, anti-Semitism – and yet ageism takes a worryingly small and quiet backseat when it comes to bringing out the placards and calling for rights. When you add sexism and gender inequality into the mix for ageing women, it’s hardly surprising that many begin to feel undervalued, invisible and weary of the connotations and social labels that are so negative.
What’s even more baffling is that today’s midlife and older women are more independent, often more financially secure, opinionated, unafraid to speak out, and with high expectations and a sense of agency than we have ever been. We fundamentally feel that we do matter. Yet we still face barriers to our success every single day, and so much of that is reflected in the opinion of us in society.
Of course, ageism can affect men and women alike – particularly in the workplace – but even there, it’s a statistical fact that as men reach midlife they are rewarded with promotions to executive roles, corporate boards, senior partnerships and increased salaries, while women are overlooked for promotion, fighting for equal pay and often side-lined to accommodate a younger, less expensive generation climbing the employment ladder. And while there will always be female exceptions to the rule in any industry, many midlife and beyond women find themselves either in early retirement or forging secondary careers in an entrepreneurial capacity.
Anyone who follows Studio10 will know that this is an issue I return to time and time again. Certainly, looking at the cosmetics and beauty industry, I see that things have and are changing. We are beginning to identify and retain the experience of a senior workforce. We are recognising a mature audience. We see older models in beauty ad campaigns. Expressions like anti-ageing and age-defying are no longer acceptable and PROAGE is littered throughout our narrative. We are doing our best to stamp out a universal perception – and sometimes our own traditional conditioning – of what ageing should look like. But, clearly, it’s not enough.
Ultimately, it is important that marked calendar days like this exist, to educate and highlight the prevalence of this discrimination and to map out the path of change – but while they do still exist, it means there’s a long way to go. Ageism is insidious in how quietly acceptable it appears to be. In an age when diversity and inclusion in all areas of society should sit at the core of success, ageism is still holding women back – and we have to address what is perpetuating this as a priority. After all, we know our worth as women in midlife and beyond. It’s time society did.