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Health | Ageing

Experience is an asset, not a liability: Ashton Applewhite, anti-ageism activist

“Longer lives require us to work longer, to save more and yet age discrimination in the workforce is rampant,” anti-ageism activist and writer Ashton Applewhite has told a CEDA audience at an event in Adelaide.

“We elder may or may not be wise, but we have more experience. Most of us have managed to learn something from it…and that experience is invaluable,” she said.

“In Australia, 30 per cent of employers admitted to a reluctance to hiring people over the age of 50 – think of all the ones who didn’t admit to it. 

“A Eurobarometer survey found age bias more prevalent in the workforce than anywhere else. Interestingly, it is the first form of bias that many white men encounter.

“Not one negative stereotype about older workers holds up under scrutiny – (for example) less creative, less teachable, less loyal.

“The persistence of these stereotypes makes it harder for older people to stay employed, much harder to find a job if we’re laid off. It’s worse for women because we earn less, we’re penalised for time spent out of the workforce…and we live longer.

“Women face a double whammy with ageism and sexism, so we experience ageing differently.

“Employers stop investing in women’s careers a decade earlier than men’s…and we’re judged more harshly for our appearance.”

This is known as the attractiveness penalty, Ms Applewhite said.

“There’s a double standard at work here, with the notion that ageing enhances men and devalues women. We women reinforce this double standard when we compete to stay young,” she said.

“Age discrimination enables employers to exploit workers at both ends of the spectrum.

“In China, some tech companies are reluctant to hire anyone over the age of 30, because they are more likely to baulk at the 9-9-6 work schedule – 12 hours a day, 6 days a week for low wages.

“A future of work for all ages means enforcing the law, recognise there are many forms of labour both paid and unpaid, and providing flexible and accessible work arrangements that benefit everyone.

“These are not expensive things we are doing for just old people or people with disabilities, they make the workplace more humane and accessible for everyone.

“We know that diverse groups make better decisions, diverse companies are more productive and profitable, that being around people who are different from us in every way foster open-mindedness, creativity.”

Ms Applewhite also discussed the harm of ageism on health as well as the abuse the elderly can suffer.
Referring to a study from Yale, Ms Applewhite said “in the US, ageism is responsible for $63 billion in excess health costs per year.”

“That’s institutional ageism at work. Internalised ageism matters too.

“Attitudes towards ageing reflect how our minds and bodies function at the cellular level.

“People with more positive attitudes that is to say more realistic attitudes, walk faster, heal quicker, live longer.

“That’s why the World Health Organisation is developing a global anti-ageism campaign to extend not just lifespan, but health span, the percentage of those years that we spend in good health.”

Quoting Dr Robert Butler who coined the term ageism in the 1960’s, Ms Applewhite said “ageism allows younger generations to see older people as different from themselves and thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings.”

“When we see a group as other…their welfare seems less of a human right and that’s why in the US it is at least five out of six cases of elder abuse go unreported.

“At its ugly heart, ageism is this idea that you lose value as a human being.

“The Every Age Counts campaign…did a report on ageism and aged care which I have to believe informed the Royal Commissions interim report.

“It documents the harm that ageism inflicts on people in residential care. From practices that perpetuate stereotypes and undermine dignity to attitudes that see elder abuse and neglect as normal, unavoidable parts of caregiving instead of what they actually are: human rights violations.”

Ms Applewhite said that there is opportunity for change with longevity that now exists.

“This longevity is new and the roles and institutions around us were created when life was shorter and they haven’t had time to catch up,” she said. 

This is referred to as structural lag, she said.

“It takes time, culture changes are slow. We have an astonishing opportunity to take advantage of this so-called longevity dividend,” she said.

“Many people seem to think that while racism and sexism are inherently wrong, ageism is somehow more excusable, less problematic. Life of course is hardest for people who face multiple oppressions like homophobia, ableism, racism but arguing about which prejudice is worse is counterproductive and divisive.

“All discrimination is wrong.

“Nor of course is ageism benign. It is a key driver of social and economic opportunity around the world. Whether we are talking about privileged older people in retirement homes or people in the bottom socio-economic ladder in refugee camps, millions and millions of older people lack voice, access and equal rights.

“What is really exciting is to see it identified as an overarching priority in every domain – education, health, employment…because we older people who are the fruit of the new longevity represent a vast and unprecedented untapped resource.

“But we’re not going to make the most of it unless we tackle it on an underlying, fundamental level of social change.”

SA Ambulance Service CEO David Place and Global Centre for Modern Ageing CEO Julianne Parkinson joined the event for the moderated discussion.

Event presentations

Ashton Applewhite, writer and anti-ageing activist MP3

David Place, SA Ambulance Service MP3

Julianne Parkinson, Global Centre for Modern Ageing MP3

Moderated discussion MP3

Delegate handout PDF

Published 15 November 2019.