Pushing back on ageist rhetoric

The popular narrative that getting old is not just bad news on a personal level but also putting the economy at risk is doing us all a great disservice, leading thinkers told a recent forum.


The popular narrative that getting old is not just bad news on a personal level but also putting the economy at risk is doing us all a great disservice, leading thinkers told a recent forum. Marie McInerney reports.

‘Ageing time bomb will change the way we live.’

‘Ageing tsunami warning.’

‘Ageing seniors risk budget crisis.’

They’re the sorts of headlines we see all the time, spreading the word that getting old is not only bad news at a personal level but that the growing number of older Australians is putting our economy and community at risk.

But, in fact, it is this kind of narrative that’s the real risk, according to experts at the recent Wicking Symposium on Ageing and Alzheimer’s. 

More than 130 delegates from across ageing research, policy and practice attended the forum last week hosted by the JO and JR Wicking Trust, which provides around $5 million each year in grants for ageing and Alzheimer’s Disease.

David Hetherington, executive director of think tank Per Capita, told the forum that the way we currently set the scene for ageing is negative, adversarial and places a big unnecessary cost on all of us.

Mr Hetherington said language shaped the way we frame public policy and debate and, in ageing, we use metaphors of disaster rather than of opportunity. Ageing is seen as a ‘timebomb’, a ‘tsunami’, an emerging ‘crisis’, a ‘threat’ to our public finances, to aged and health care, and to the workforce.

He said:

 “Businesses are given the message that older workers are a drag on profitability; younger people hear that they are shouldering the burden of an ageing nation, older people are told they are no longer of value to society, that they don’t have much to look forward to.”

Seeking to address those issues, Per Capita will next month help launch a Blueprint for Ageing from the Advisory Panel on Positive Ageing. The panel was set up under the former Labor Government but scrapped last year before it could finish its work. (The forthcoming Sept-Oct issue of AAA magazine carries a sneak peek of the Blueprint). 

“Our view is we need to consider ageing as a natural and lifelong process….not a cliff we fall off when society puts us out to pasture,” Mr Hetherington said.

It was a consistent warning at the symposium.

In her keynote, Dr Patricia Edgar, author of In Praise of Ageing and an ambassador for the National Ageing Research Institute, said the way government and media talk about ‘the problem of old age’ leads to very misleading perceptions of ageing and results in discrimination, particularly in the workforce. It was time, she said, to dispel some myths:

  • Myth 1: If you are not in paid work you are dependent: “The GDP fails to measure the significant dollar-value of caring work, voluntary work, community work and creative work, without which our economy could not function.”
  • Myth 2: The ageing population will “break” the health system: Improvements in care are the main cause of rising health care costs, which could be reduced if health care moved to a more preventive approach, if governments cracked down on “extortionate” specialist fees, and through a greater focus on advanced care planning to cut the waste on “futile aggressive medical interventions for patients unable to speak for themselves”.
  • Myth 3: We can keep age at bay with plastic surgery:  She said we need to see the natural character, diversity and beauty of people as they age, in the media “rather than startled clones peering at us with their eyebrows half way up their foreheads”.
  • Myth 4: 50 is the beginning of old age: “We are defined as old much too young. When my father was born 1905 the age expectancy for men was 55 years. He lived to be 95.”

Dr Edgar said ageing Australians were being ignored as a social and political force, just as women once were. “We don’t have a Minister for Ageing… We barely got a mention in the election campaign or since – except to be told we must work longer,” she said.

She told the forum:

“We don’t see ourselves on television or in the media generally unless we are living in a derelict old age home or we do something extraordinary like jumping out of a plane at 90, or growing the biggest pumpkin that has ever been seen.”

Dr Edgar said this neglect tells older people they are not important in society. “We can and must change this. We have buying power and voting power. The Women’s Electoral Lobby made a difference to the status of women 40 years ago. Now it’s time for EEL, the Elder Electoral Lobby.” (Read AAA’s recent profile of Patricia Edgar).

Another speaker at the symposium, Professor Simon Biggs, agreed there was precedent from the women’s movement and other major social adaptations to show us the way on ageing.

As Brotherhood of St Laurence Professor of Social Policy at Melbourne University and a member of the World Economic Forum Council on Ageing Societies, his keynote brought international perspectives on an ageing society to the symposium.

Professor Biggs said the panic approach to ageing has been particularly evident across nations in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, sparking policy changes to pensions and other benefits to ensure that older people work more and longer, but “very little consideration of availability and quality of that work and how easy it is to access that as an older worker.”

This approach, he said, also has unintended consequences: older people concerned for their future financial security are unlikely to help younger generations as they may have in the past, and will make them resist policies, for example, that might affect the value of their homes, which will only fuel housing unaffordability.

In fact, Professor Biggs said evidence showed that intergenerational agendas can overlap and that younger generations do not necessarily see older generations as a burden. They don’t resent caring for older relatives, rather they want the right work-life balance that allows it, he said. And they don’t resent paying for other’s pensions and health, they just want the same commitment for themselves when their time comes.

“We have adapted to changing gender roles, we have adapted to a multicultural society reasonably successfully. This is another form of adaptation and if we put it in that frame it’s much less a tsunami, much less an apocalypse than some commentators would like to think,” he said.

Marie McInerney is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist who reported on the event on behalf of the Wicking Trust.

Tags: advisory panel on positive ageing, David Hetherington, elder electoral lobby, Marie McInerney, melbourne-university, national-ageing-research-institute, patricia-edgar, per capita, simon biggs, wicking-trust, World Economic Forum Council on Ageing Societies,

2 thoughts on “Pushing back on ageist rhetoric

  1. Our government and economists are the prime ageist, saying that the “ageing population” is an economic burden, and that we need more and more people to support us! Actually, many people over 65 are income dependent, and also contribute to the community in many ways, upholding the working and their families. Not all income comes from income taxes, so our GDP is not directly linked to the number of people working. The real burden to society is our growing population that’s putting stresses on services and infrastructure. We can’t avoid the fact that it’s obvious we must age as a nation – and it’s a step towards a level, balanced and stable population.

  2. Two distinct issues that you are lumping into one.

    1. The baby boomers (5.2 million) will die. The baby boomer turns into the death bust 80 years on… Note, our actual deaths double over the next 2.5 decades.
    The boomer bulge is temporary, not permanent. This bulge is the fiscal challenge as 80% of boomers will require part or full pensions.

    2. Increasing longevity which is here to stay.

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