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The Threat from Ageism

Bill Johnston – 18th August 2022

The Threat from Ageism to Social Solidarity: Bias, stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination


Countering racism, sexism, and homophobia, are well established pillars of progressive politics in Scotland underpinned by the UK’s 2010 Equality Act, which offers legal protection to citizens sharing these and other “protected characteristics”.  Whilst gender and race are high profile protected characteristics in political debate, age is much less acknowledged, and the term ‘ageism’ is much less prominent.  However, that does not mean that ageism is less of a threat or a lesser priority for progressives.

The aim of this article is to raise awareness of ageism in progressive politics in Scotland and suggest some actions to counter ageism.  The following points are drawn from the work Craig Dalzell and I developed in our book All of Our Futures and is amplified in Chapter 4.

What is it?

In essence, ageism consists of bias, stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on grounds of age, particularly in relation to older age groups, to the detriment of their human rights, economic and social interests.  Ageism is detrimental not only to older people but to society by facilitating inequality and obfuscating our understanding of the ageing process and the meaning of demographic trends. Also, ageism is typically deployed to drive wedges between younger people and their older fellow citizens. 

Crucially, it is important from the outset to see those manifestations of ageism as consequences of the neoliberal scheme of political economy and therefore systemic and structural as well as being embedded in social attitudes and behaviour.

Effects of Ageism in Society: Indicators and implications

Prominent social indicators of ageism include:

  • Conflict narratives blaming older people for the woes of the young.
  • Threats to older people’s income such as attacks on the pension triple lock.
  • Long-term run-down of health and social care exposed by Covid-19.

Whilst these aspects can be observed casually in popular discourse belittling ‘baby boomers’ and ‘oldies’, they have serious implications when translated into institutional ageism in organisational life. In effect the move from stereotyping and prejudice to discrimination and detriment is insidious and is cultivated by ageist media narratives.

What the Papers Say

Examples of negative framings of ageing and older people are common across media forms. Old people are characterised as a homogenous group personified as:

  • Needy, vulnerable, lonely, and weak.
  • A fiscal burden.
  • Unable to change at work.
  • Reactionary in their political and social attitudes. 

Expressions such as demographic ‘time bomb’ or ‘tsunami’ and pejorative terms like ‘bed blocking’ are common features of news reports about periodic policy proposals to solve the ‘problem’ of rising pension and health care costs.  Such phraseology typically substitutes for any detailed presentation and scrutiny of the actual population data involved or consideration of reasonable alternative policy proposals.

This narrative structuring is mainly negative and needs to be countered by progressive politics.

Democracy, Society and Ageing: The old are not the enemy

In a democratic nation people are defined as citizens with voting and other rights guaranteed by law and upheld by common consent.  These rights do not diminish with age! 

At present British policy makers are fixated with ‘old age’ and tend to have short-term perspectives driven by election cycles. This leads to narrow and short-term measures to mitigate current problems. We need a paradigm shift in thinking to foreground demographic ageing in policy thinking and revise outmoded assumptions about older people. Making that shift will involve greater inclusion of older people’s voices in policy-making and critical commentary of practice.

Ageism in Scotland

The relatively recent (2018) creation of a Minister for Older People and Equalities is encouraging, and the report Fairer Scotland for Older People (2019) is a positive achievement for the new Minister but needs to be followed up and impacts tracked. 

In the meantime, the example of workplace action on ageism is illuminating.  Discrimination in the workplace and in recruitment based on age was made illegal in 2006. Despite this and several studies calling for an end to ageism, any real evidence of how ‘ageist’ Scotland is, is remarkably rare. It does not appear to be known how prevalent workplace discrimination is or if the 2006 ban had a tangible impact on reducing discrimination.

Even the Scottish Government’s 2019 Framework for Action in A Fairer Scotland for Older People, which covered many aspects of types of ageism and responses to them, does not spend a lot of time discussing how prevalent each of them is. There almost appears to be an attitude of ‘we know it when we see it’ without spending too much effort to actively go looking for it when it happens. The danger of this approach is that it makes it far too easy not just to fail to see ageism when it does happen but to presume that because we’ve already ‘fixed’ the issues we can see, we simply stop looking for ones we cannot.

The best conclusion to draw is that there is an ongoing need to investigate and expose ageism in Scotland so that it can be eradicated.  This list of fields to include in an investigation of ageism is not exhaustive.

  • Media representations, including examples of negative language and imagery treating older as a homogeneous group, portraying older people in a negative light, and promoting intergenerational conflict. Advertising should be a particular focus, as should government publications.
  • Degree and impact of government action/inaction in relation to planning for an ageing population.
  • Response of specific sectors such as health care and medical decision-making (Covid-19 exposed the danger of medical decisions disproportionally influenced by chronological age).
  • Experience of local authority provision – inequity of post-code lotteries for example.
  • Behaviour of the for-profit sector in relation to older markets (it may be that some for-profit organisations are recognising the ‘grey pound’ and tailoring provision accordingly).
  • The role and impact of the charity sector in both challenging negative stereotypes and providing anti-ageist leadership.

Implications for the Independence Movement

A ‘blame the old folks’ approach was used to partially explain why IndyRef1 failed and is still present in some YES movement thinking.  If YES thinking remains rooted in an ageist denial of older people’s issues and rights, coupled with a reliance on ‘the young’ to prevail, then it is simply encouraging a higher NO vote in IndyRef2. 

Equally a post-independence scenario of another 10 years of ‘austerity’ as the economy adjusts to independence holds little incentive for voters in their 50/60s – particularly if austerity affects those parts of the Welfare State they may have to rely on in later life.  This seems to be a prospect from the Sustainable Growth Commission report in 2018.

Independence campaigning needs to produce a better narrative of ageing than in 2014 or since.  For example, by:

  • Embracing the human rights perspective on ageing.
  • Articulating a progressive agenda for healthy ageing.
  • Rethinking how to engage older voters. 

This approach should include a review of campaign narratives and materials to eliminate ageist stereotypes and replace them with positive messages.


Our approach to countering ageism is to retake the political and cultural territory for progressive values and reshape the future of Scotland accordingly.  There is much to be done but perhaps a good focal point would be a debate on ageism in the Scottish Parliament.

If you want to read more about how Scotland can reform to become a country that we can be proud to grow older in then please consider buying our book All of Our Futures in the Common Weal shop.

5 thoughts on “The Threat from Ageism”

  1. Alasdair Macdonald

    As an old person (74 years), I agree with the thrust of this article. Older people are as diverse a group as any other in the community. Sharing a defining criterion – in this case age, for other groups it is skin colour, disability, sexuality, sex, gender, etc – does not imply that all members of that group share a wide range of other criteria.

    The two key points of your piece are:
    “Crucially, it is important from the outset to see those manifestations of ageism as consequences of the neoliberal scheme of political economy and therefore systemic and structural as well as being embedded in social attitudes and behaviour.”
    “Media representations, including examples of negative language and imagery treating older as a homogeneous group, portraying older people in a negative light, and promoting intergenerational conflict”.

    Essentially, it is another aspect of the divide and rule strategy which ruling cliques have always deployed and in this the media are active and willing participants.

    In reality, with people living considerably longer than they did, say, 50 years ago and, generally, in better health, families often comprise three and four generations with very loving and helpful relationships amongst them. For example look at the amount of childcare grandparents happily undertake.

    The range of views on socioeconomic issues is as diverse amongst older people as it is amongst other sections. There are different proportions amongst age groups, but it is not polarised in the way the media present.

    For the record, my wife (72 years) and I both support independence!

    1. florian albert

      One of the most important divisions in Scottish society is between those with wealth and those without. Those with wealth, particularly property and pension wealth, tend to be – like you and me – elderly.
      This wealth has been accumulated over the past 40-50 years. This has happened because middle class professionals have been granted salary increases vastly bigger than those given to unskilled workers.
      As I pointed out to you some months back, in 2001 teachers got a 23% pay rise. Teachers made no effort to get an equivalent rise for dinner ladies or for cleaners.
      One of the most deprssing things about contemporary Scotland is the unwillingness of those, mainly middle class people, who have done very well economically to admit that this is so.

  2. Bill Johnston

    Thanks Alasdair,

    Your point about supporting independence at age 74 is well made. Too often ‘the old’ are written off as incorrigibly anti independence and very often presented as affluent Tories, typically with quite an ageist slant on the story – there are plenty of reasons to criticise Tories, age is probably not the most relevant. I suspect the bulk of older Tory supporters have always been Tory supporters based on ideology and didn’t suddenly join up when they turned 70 or whenever (I’m 72 and so far haven’t had any stirrings in the direction of Toryism).

    Pensioners for Indy is one example of organised support amongst older people and shows that the case for independence can be framed by and for older people.

    As to the dynamics of the protected characteristics I think age/ageing is the common characteristic we all share and this impacts not only individuals but the whole population, which might point to a unifying theme for folk committed to equality.

    All the best,


  3. Christina Milarvie Quarrell

    Agree Agism is divide and conquer.
    The unpaid labour of grand parents and great grand parents . Crunch the numbers and lets see what that labour amounts to. Invisible unpaid work force . Retirement can mean for many folk working harder and longer and unpaid. Agism is the invisible not very known or accepted prejudice in our society.
    Good to see Common Weal raising awareness.

  4. Bill Johnston

    Thanks for the comment Christina,

    I agree we need more awareness of ageism hence the suggestion that the Yes Movement has a role and the Parliament could focus attention through debate and Ministerial actions.

    Any more ideas on how Common Weal can keep up the momentum very welcome.

    All the best,


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