Opinion: Unlike other ‘isms’, ageism can have detrimental, favourable, or neutral outcomes. Stephen Buetow explains the nuances.

Profile of older women smiling with beach and sky background

Plastered across every online student course site at the University of Auckland is a striking graphic: ‘ZERO tolerance for discrimination.’ A red cross overlays words including racism, sexism, and ageism. Who, in their right mind, would question this prohibition of bias? Well, me, for one.

Of course, I’d denounce all forms of racism and sexism, but I’d also question whether ageism is always a problem that people must never tolerate. I say that as a man of a certain generation, who has felt ageism’s impacts.

Ageism presents relevant differences distinct from other social biases. It involves people discriminating against their current and future selves, both to hinder and support healthy ageing.

As an associate professor of general practice and primary health care, this perspective sits close to my heart. I’ve recently written a book about it, Ageism and person-centred care: Rehabilitating bias for age-friendly practice.

Now, there’s no disputing that ageism can have detrimental effects. The Covid‑19 pandemic demonstrated that. It framed older people as expendable, denting their right to health. This overt ageism contrasted with ageism’s less obvious, accumulating negative effects, which include treating children and older people as though they are invisible.

Nevertheless, ageism has a history of being recognised as profoundly damaging. Widely credited with coining the term 55 years ago, Robert Butler – an American gerontologist and psychiatrist – defined it as a form of “bigotry”.

This argument isn’t a semantic exercise in navel-gazing – the ethical implications (and potential harms) of ageism are rarely clear‑cut, and their consequences can be significant. 

More recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) identified ageism as “stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age.”

That definition might appear neutral, but WHO’s definition employs terms loaded with negative connotations, not necessarily with justification. Stereotypes are sometimes accurate, and bias, prejudice and discrimination can yield positive results. Historically, these terms were less negatively understood.

I recommend the Māori approach of looking through the past into the future. It reveals that focusing solely on ageism that hurts people obscures the possibility of distinguishing between age groups in meaningful ways.

This argument isn’t a semantic exercise in navel-gazing – the ethical implications (and potential harms) of ageism are rarely clear‑cut, and their consequences can be significant. For example, the upcoming US presidential election has sparked debate about ‘mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75’ before they can stand for office.

While some readers may welcome this proposal, their reasons probably extend beyond age alone. Meanwhile, many democratic societies endorse ageism through positive action rather than outright positive discrimination.

Positive action deliberately and legally targets and safeguards the age interests of protected groups without directly and unfairly disadvantaging other age groups. An example is mentorship programmes where older individuals share their knowledge and experience with younger generations.

These examples include age‑targeted health and social care services, as well as age‑appropriate restrictions such as minimum ages for activities like driving and access to adult goods including alcohol and other drugs. The minimum driving age, for instance, may save lives, promote physical activity among younger people, provide extra time to mature and gain experience behind the wheel, and reduce automotive insurance costs for families.

And modern society endorses welfare benefits, such as age‑based state payments, including superannuation for older individuals. Younger people, too, may benefit from programmes like subsidies for free or low-cost health care.

Consider, also, the realm of dating and mating. When choosing a romantic or sexual partner, most people prefer someone close to their own age, especially in their younger adult years, which makes them more likely to enjoy shared interests and is socially acceptable.

Adult-child sexual relationships are almost universally thought to be inappropriate, although determining who qualifies as a child isn’t always straightforward. Cultural and social norms differ, as do biological and development factors.

The legal age of consent varies globally and is trending downward. Regardless, it’s important not to extend the notion of gender fluidity to age fluidity. People aren’t always the age they subjectively perceive themselves to be.

Another example of positive ageism is offering an older person a seat on crowded public transport. This may seem paternalistic, or as considerate of a passenger at risk of falling when the vehicle moves and when getting off the bus or train. Or you could argue (and some research supports this) that standing can promote independence and health.

As I have investigated in my upcoming book, ageism is complicated and doesn’t always merit condemnation.

Unlike other ‘isms’ mentioned above, ageism can have detrimental, favourable, or neutral outcomes. Current approaches to understanding and managing ageism often overlook or briefly mention this variation, the pros, the cons, and the in-betweens, concentrating instead on combatting and eliminating ageism through collective action for social justice. I’d argue that failing to present ageism in a more nuanced manner misses opportunities to discern its moral implications, advance those aligning with ethical objectives, and mitigate unjust outcomes of age equality.

True justice respects individuals’ freedom to optimise and access differential treatment based on relevant age differences. These conditions necessitate what might be termed ‘prudent ageism’ to level the playing field, equalising opportunities when age‑neutral care isn’t feasible or even a good idea.

Stephen Buetow is an associate professor of general practice and primary healthcare at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Auckland.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, Ageism is not always a bad thing, 8 June, 2024 

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