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Why ageism is such a hard ‘ism’ to fight

22 minutes


Nancy Pachana

The University of Queensland

Episode Notes

Feeling old? good news: you’re trending. Globally, there are now more people over the age of 65 than five and under. By 2050, there’ll be more over 65s than under 21s. But in Australia, where 1 in 10 Australian companies will not hire people over 50, ageism is rife.  So what’s the cost of excluding older people, and what are some solutions to our ageist society?


00:02 – ALLIRA:

To me, elders are our knowledge keepers. They are the cultural authority. They teach, uphold and keep our culture strong.

00:11 – GINGER:

That’s the Allira Davis youth manager for the Uluru Youth Dialogue. As a proud Cobble Cobble woman revering her elders is ingrained in her culture.

00:21 – ALLIRA:

You know, you respect your elders, you don’t talk back to them, which is also some form of our kinship system. You know, my auntie is my mom…[there are] father figures, my first cousins and little brothers, and so on. So it’s a lot of respect within our culture, which makes up Aboriginal culture.


Allira also grew out within a gerontocracy,


We live in a community governed by our own people, you know, they have the power and the authority and our stories, dance laws, you know, it’s all passed down through our elders, and from their elders, you know. I think we need to respect that and uphold them and hold them high up on a pedestal. We wouldn’t discriminate or hold against something our elders. We have a cultural critical and a cultural lore, to respect them and listen to them. So I think that’s the definitely the difference between mainstream society and us.

01:15 – GINGER:

I think this is an idea that rings true for most people. But in western cultures, this admiration of our elders is rarely given more than lip service. I’m not saying you don’t care for your elderly parents, or grandparents just as lovingly as Allira cares for hers. But structurally, western societies aren’t set up to learn from elders or be guided by them. In fact, we don’t really seem to want the benefits of their lived experience.


There have been a lot of studies that have shown that whether it’s face to face, or you’re just looking at a resume or an application for something, the minute that somebody sees that someone’s an older person, then a set of stereotypes or assumptions come into play. Can this person really do the job? They’re not really flexible. I don’t think they understand computers, you know. And so it’s this bringing up of stereotypes in the individual reactions with older people. And this is really bad, because it’s discouraging. And then over time, if you’re just fed these messages, some of those messages become internalised.

02:24 – GINGER

That’s Nancy Pachana. She’s co-director of the University of Queensland’s Ageing Mind Initiative, and also a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. She’s concerned that in Australia, and all over the world, really, ageism prevents older people from accessing employment and also educational opportunities. And as the worldwide population ages, the cost of excluding older people is going to be felt by all of us.


The technical definition of aging is five years older than me? I am 56. Usually 65 is considered old, older. So in the world we are already at the point where globally, there are more people over the age of 65 than five and under. And by 2050, there’s going to be more people over 65 than 21 and under. So this is a demographic landscape that is not a blip on the graph. It is something that’s ongoing that we’re going to have to come to grips with.

03:32 – GINGER

This is Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman. Did you know that 2021 to 2030 is the United Nations decade of healthy aging? Today we’ll look at how ageism impacts aspects of healthy aging for individuals, communities and economies. And we’ll check out some of the initiatives aimed at breaking down ageist barriers.

04:12 – GINGER

Let’s start with employment. Many older adults want to stay in the workforce much longer than Australian employers seem willing to welcome them. I find this totally outrageous, but a staggering one in 10 Australian companies will not hire people over 50.


Despite there being so many older adults in the world, our attitudes are really not keeping up with changing demographics. They’re not keeping up with the roles that older adults want to play in society. I would still say we live in an ageist world.

04:49 – GINGER

Nancy, you’re actually bringing to mind something that an older friend of mine said to me and she’s a very great writer, she’s got a very accomplished career, but she said to me in terms of going out in public, she remembers the day that she became invisible.


Well, I think that that’s a great example of what’s the current buzzword now is intersectionality. So it’s the intersection of gender, where women are held to these impossible standards and youth is venerated, and then ageism, where there’s a lot of assumptions about people’s worth in society. And, and actually, throughout history, I think women have gotten the short end of the stick in terms of being acknowledged for their accomplishments or what they bring. Instead, there tends to be a lot of emphasis on the superficial. So women in a lot of societies have felt invisible, and not acknowledged, as they get older.

05:46 – GINGER

So other than the obvious problems with prejudice, what does ageism cost us as a society?


Older people contribute enormous amounts to the community. If you took what people give back to the community as dollar figure, after they’re no longer in paid employment, in terms of say, caregiving and put dollar figure on that. In many countries including Australia it comes up almost the same as if those people were given a wage. And so if everyone who is caregiving stopped doing it today the entire economy would fall over.

Older adults have accumulated experience. And through research, for example, on who copes well in a disaster, actually, older people cope pretty well, because they sort of been there done that. They often have a better response. They also have a better response to things, emotional responses to say bereavement because they know how to activate networks of support. But in the corporate world I think somehow that knowledge or these assumptions go out the window, and it’s just “oh, I must hire the next bright young thing”. And there you’re missing the opportunity to have someone with experience networks, “been there done that” handling a crisis. You want a safe pair of hands.

07:08 – GINGER

But it’s not just a monetary thing is it either like I’m thinking of my own mother and the way that she gives to all her eight grandchildren the skills, she teaches them the life skills, she’s teaching them the historical knowledge she’s passing on to. There are so many things that she’s able to give them that you can’t actually pinpoint in a monetary sense.


No, but you can pinpoint it through science. So scientists have looked across species and have examined this phenomenon called the “Grandmother advantage”. Why do non-breeding grandparents stick around and help raise young? There is a cost benefit. The benefit is that those whatever species it is, and we could include our species, those kids have a better chance in life. That’s the science but as you know, what you’re saying is the emotional transfer of culture important values? All of this is key to society.

08:19 – GINGER

I asked Nancy to give me an example of an employer who bucks this trend when it comes to age discrimination. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by her answer. But a big box retailer owned by one of Australia’s biggest conglomerates was not what I expected.


Okay, I want to preface this by saying I am not paid by Bunnings. But I have to say that Bunnings is one of my favorite places to spend a Saturday. Partly because of how they have envisioned their workforce of hiring tradesmen, semi-retired, retired to be there in the shops offering advice. Because if you want to do some home renovation you do not want to speak to someone 17. You want to speak someone with more experience. My understanding is that Bunnings also offers you know, flexible work hours and a good compensation package. This is a real advantage then for keeping older people engaged in the workforce.

09:21 – GINGER

Nancy got me thinking more about ageism. And the more I thought about it, the more obvious it is that it’s not just our workplaces where change needs to happen if we really want to create an Age Friendly society. I looked into what’s happening across the world and happily, there was some really great examples. I found intergenerational choirs in Ireland, Age Friendly cities (check out Lexington in the US if you can) and the Swedes, of course, no surprise that there is a great project there. One municipality had free accessible transport for older people to and from its activity centers, and pensioners gyms as well.

I also couldn’t get out of my head an example from London where a campaign to slow down the lights of pedestrian crossings finally got some traction. But all these issues that need fixing makes it really clear ageism truly is everywhere. Why?


Ages is of all those isms, you know, it’s the one sphere where you move from being the purported “in group”, a young person to the “out group”, an old person without having done anything. Everyone makes that transition. And it does cause some anxiety for people. This is why that the field of gerontology got a much later start than studying younger people: because people don’t want to introspect and think about what that looks like.

So then, in a way, it may be the hardest ism to fight, because all of us have some anxiety around this issue of our own aging. And yet, it’s a fact of life.

There’s a quote, you know, “all men would live long, yet none would grow old”. So as a society, I think what we need to do is in the outward dealings with each other, to perhaps gently, try not to be ageist, and perhaps to call out others when appropriate, in a soft way, as the preferred, maybe not a soft way when this is happening, because that’s the only way we’re going to make some change. But I do think that part of grappling with ageism, is for people to introspect about what their values are, and what they want to contribute as they grow older.


Beyond all of the fun travel, and being active physically, I’m also really keen on ramping up the volunteering that I do already so I can stay active in my community and keep using the skills I gained during my career, keep the brain active, a lot of people say.

I don’t see why I should stop anyone from being romantic or having fun. Retirement should be a new chapter of life, not just the end of an old one. And I look forward to being a racy older lady who dates lots of men and has a very full dance card.

The one thing that’s really stuck out for me with my own parents is how engaged they’ve become with a thing called the University of the Third Age. It’s this opportunity to take classes and to learn about things and participate in things that you might not have done during your working life. I work at a university at the moment, but when I look at what they do, everything from French classes to Scottish dancing, it reminds me of all the stuff that when you’re working you kind of put to the side and don’t really invest in.


Nancy Pachana is a big supporter of this idea of older people seeking further education.

13:16 – GINGER

People should – in the students’ case – looking to universities to come back to universities at regular stages in their lifespan to upskill, to take courses, and mentor people.

I’m so pleased that UQ has become the first Age Friendly University in the Southern Hemisphere. The Age Friendly University movement was started by City University Dublin a little over 10 years ago, and it’s part of the World Health Organization, ecosystem of Age Friendly institutions: universities, communities, cities, healthcare systems.

14:00 – GINGER

What does it actually mean? Like if I roll up to an Age Friendly University, what am I expecting to see and hear there?


There are principles that you have to aspire to as part of an Age Friendly University as such as including older people in basic governance and the workings of the university and offering courses online so people can be part of the university. But the overarching principle is that in all aspects of the university’s functioning, there is recognition that aging brings dividends and benefits, not just cost and decline  – that’s central.

14:40 – GINGER

What are the barriers to creating an Age Friendly University versus the benefits?


One of the barriers is being flexible, because if you’re just leaving school, and you may not have a partner or family or stuff you have maybe perhaps less constraints, I’d say.

But odds are that as you get older, you do have more constraints. So I think the university has to be flexible and responsive. And this is a key thing that we’re trying to do at UQ.  

If you’ve been away from university for any amount of time or perhaps never went to university in the first place, it can seem really daunting, especially now, when so much is online. It’s kind of cryptic and all universities are difficult to navigate, so you can feel like the other. Even if you’re just 30 you can feel like the oldest person in the room by a wide margin. It’s because we have these ageist stereotypes circulating in society that tends to creep up, “Can I really do this work? Am I really going to be able to contribute?” And in my conversations, they say that when it is conversations like “Yes, of course, we all know that from last year high school” when these kinds of statements are made older students feel at sea. But then if somebody says, “Well, let’s talk about how we can apply this, let’s talk about how these different things fit together”. Suddenly, the more mature age student with some life experience they think “I know about that, I can contribute to that”. And I think that makes for a vibrant classroom. The benefit is, then you get a broader range of people taking up University places. And just like the research in boardrooms says that diversity adds to the institution. Diversity, inclusion is key to how UQ wants to present itself and go forward.

16:40 – GINGER

As they get stuck into making change. Nancy and her colleagues have found this great enthusiasm across the university and the sector to be more Age Friendly.


I had to present this at academic board at UQ. And I gave my little spiel talking much as I’m talking now. And people just took it on board and could apply it to their own experience. While this is what we’re doing in in ag sciences. And this is what we’re doing in this other place. And they were really captured by the idea the student representatives on that committee were captured. So it’s really it’s ripples. And that’s the best kind of influence you want to have.

17:24 – GINGER

One of the aspects of aging that really weighs on me is the prospect of where I’ll live and also who I’ll live with when I’m older. And maybe that’s because I saw what happened to my parents when they retired and moved from Canberra to a small coastal town.

17:40 – GINGER’S MUM

I was only in my mid 50s. And Brian was a couple of years older. We decided to retire down the rumor where we bought 100 acres.

GINGER: That’s my mom, of course.


We met a lot of lovely people similar age, and for a number of years, it was wonderful. We were all healthy. We owned our own homes. But by the time you’re in your 70s people became seriously ill my husband died, he was only just 70. And I was left with this huge property. Over the next few years, things changed fairly dramatically. Because all my children were in Canberra and my 8 grandchildren, and I got rather tired on my own of driving up and down the highway practically every week. I decided fortuitously to move back to Canberra where the family was, and I still had a lot of friends and friends were moving back because they needed there’s no medical services in Narooma. You’ve got to travel for anything, really.

18:46 – GINGER

As someone now who’s heading towards 50 myself it’s really interesting listening to you speak and I’m wondering how you think people should plan for good a retirement.

18:51 – GINGER’S MUM

When you’re in your 50s you still think you’re going to live forever. Fortunately, we were both very healthy, very fit. To be quite truthful. I didn’t really think about what I’d be like in my 70s. It’s a gradual deterioration, unless you get seriously ill, of course. So you have to rethink your situation. And this happens all through your life. You know, you go to university or you do some apprenticeship and that’s another period of your life. And then you may be young and single, young and partnered, and children. So you know, your expectations are different.

19:26 – GINGER

So what is Nancy Pachana’s is number one lifestyle tip for older people?


If I could give one piece of advice to people as they’re aging, it would be accept home help. I have a lot of help at home. I certainly don’t mow my own acre and a half here in the countryside. And I think my husband is a little bit past the clamoring all over our very steep roof right. And it’s a fine line between being independent and not accepting any help. And I think it’s a way to strengthen our society anyway: accept some help.


We know in Australia, we have something called Home Care Packages for older Australians with complex needs, although there are long waitlists for this and not everyone qualifies. But what about self-directed solutions from people for whom that’s not an option?


One of the most interesting and creative solutions I’ve seen for older people is this idea that started in Boston in the United States. And it’s called the village model. And it’s designed for people were living all over Boston, in brownstones or townhouses and they didn’t want to go to aged care. They didn’t want to downsize, but they wanted some help, like, from my previous comments. So they decided to club together and put together some resources that would help people with transport if they couldn’t drive anymore, or the handyman or whatever. But they didn’t have to leave their own home right. And that organisation has spanned the village model. It’s now global. There’s some of them here in Australia, they have a website that tells you how to set up things financially, set up a body corporate and things like that. And this is a solution coming from older people to solve their own needs. I think it’s so inspiring.


Thanks for listening to Seriously Social, I’m Ginger Gorman. And if you know of other innovations in the aging sector, please tag us on our socials. We would love to share them. Make sure you check out our website for more content, like articles and videos on the amazing work of Australia’s leaders in the social sciences.

Next time we’ll take a trip down memory lane to learn how memories are formed, how memory works, and how it changes at various stages throughout our life. See you next time.

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