Elderly men sit behind barricades with a “no entry” sigh in Tsim Sha Tsui, on September 4, 2020. The WHO is calling for a convention on the rights of older persons. Photo: K.Y. Cheng
Outside In
by David Dodwell
Outside In
by David Dodwell

How ageist stereotypes and prejudices harm the world and its economies, not just the elderly

  • Ageism is costing societies billions, not just because negative stereotyping leads to increased health care costs but also because older people are being prematurely pushed out of the workforce into dependency

Many decades ago, with my three-year-old daughter in hand, I travelled to Cornwall to introduce her to a friend. As we arrived, my friend’s fragile octogenarian mother opened the door to welcome us. My daughter paused and, without a blink, asked: “Why are you so old?”

There is something deeply hard-wired about ageism. But, at the same time, the idea is complex, confusing and very relative.

I remember visiting my parents in Britain a few years ago. They were then in their 80s. Over breakfast, they apologised that they would be out that afternoon. I asked where they were going. “Oh, just down to church to make tea and cakes for the old people,” mum said, without an iota of irony. For many of the world’s elderly, age is how you feel, not a number.

But ageism is apparently one of life’s most damaging prejudices, and one of its least visible, according to a new global report on ageism, published jointly by the World Health Organization, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and the UN Population Fund. It has launched a new initiative, the 2021-2030 Decade of Healthy Ageing, and is working towards a UN convention on the rights of older persons.

As I edge into my eighth decade, these ageist dangers are something I have to take personally – and very seriously – not least in the wake of a Covid-19 pandemic that has dangerously aggravated global ageist stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination. People in elderly care homes have been incarcerated, inaccessible even to their closest family members.


192 died in Vancouver care homes under policy that delayed Covid-19 outbreak declarations

192 died in Vancouver care homes under policy that delayed Covid-19 outbreak declarations
They have been kept away from the young, for fear of each infecting the other. In Manila, over-60s have been barred from the metro. In the cities of the United Arab Emirates, they have been barred from shopping malls and restaurants.

In a survey of 83,000 people across 57 countries, the WHO found that one in two people held moderately or highly ageist attitudes, worst among poorly educated young men in developing countries like India, Nigeria and Yemen. They found ageist discrimination significantly more severe than even racism or sexism.

They found that ageism costs our societies billions of dollars, referencing a 2018 US study which concluded that negative age stereotyping and negative self-perceptions led to excess costs of US$63 billion in health treatments for the elderly. They reported an Australian government estimate that if 5 per cent more people aged 55 or older were employed, this would add A$48 billion (US$36 billion) to the national economy.

When the elderly accounted for a tiny proportion of the population, ageism carried comparatively lower costs, but as more people worldwide live longer, these costs cannot be ignored. The UN World Population Ageing report noted that the world was home in 2020 to 727 million people over 65, and heading towards 1.5 billion people in 2050 – which would be 16 per cent of the world’s population. There are now more people aged over 60 than under five.

As Joe Coughlin at the MIT AgeLab wrote in his 2017 book The Longevity Economy, “when nations turn grey, they stay that way indefinitely”. He noted that, in Japan, the over-65s already account for more than a quarter of the population, and that countries like Portugal, Sweden, Germany and Greece were already passing 20 per cent. “It’s no exaggeration to say that the world’s most advanced economies will soon revolve around the needs, wants and whims of grandparents.”

He talks of an “age-fearing literature” that reflects deeply embedded prejudices, such that “the growing older population is up there with planet-killing asteroids and nuclear war as one of the great threats to the human race”.


Japanese electronics retailer to let employees keep working until age 80 as labour force shrinks

Japanese electronics retailer to let employees keep working until age 80 as labour force shrinks

The WHO report confirms this prejudice, noting that companies are reluctant to hire older people and provide less training. An analysis of 2,000 Hollywood films revealed that actors over 65 accounted for just 3 per cent of dialogue for women and 5 per cent for men, while just 1.5 per cent of characters on US TV shows were older people.

This ageism tends to force people into limbo as they await death, pushing them prematurely out of the workforce into dependency when many are in sufficiently good health to want to – and be able to – continue working. 

At its most extreme, this prejudice sits in Silicon Valley (the median age of a Google employee is 30, and 29 at Facebook), but concentrates in numerous other occupations – computer programming, online marketing, hospitality, and start-ups, for example.

Coughlin reminds us of Thomas Midgley, president of the American Chemical Association, who said in 1944: “Youth is original and creative, while age is simply experience. Every executive who has lived beyond 40 is guilty, to some extent, of not getting out of the way of younger men.”

Midgely, who was crippled by polio, macabrely did his bit for his prejudiced cause when later that year, at the age of 55, he died by strangulation in a hoist mechanism he had invented to help him in and out of bed.

While the views of those like Midgley are less common today, the WHO would not be calling for a convention on the rights of older persons if ageism were not still endemic and a significant problem worldwide. So what does it recommend? Foremost, it calls for “intergenerational contact interventions” – which I think is UN gobbledegook for getting young and old to mix.

From a personal point of view, with increasingly-wrinkled skin in the game, I request little more than encouragement to be able to continue working as long as possible. Coughlin at the MIT AgeLab summarises it well: to succeed in the longevity economy, “treat older consumers not as crises to be triaged or puzzles to be solved but as full-fledged members of society with recognisable wants, needs and ambitions.” I can drink to that.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view