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Is ageism an issue worth talking about?

Working with Diverse History UK helping to build the website set me wondering whether there might be anything of interest to teach about the history of ageism. I am not a teacher, but I do have an interest in how we teach our young people in this diverse and complex society of ours.

As a person of a certain age myself, I have witnessed during my life an apparent shift from respect for older people in society as a cultural norm to a much more dismissive attitude.

Is this just an individual perception, or is there something to it? And does it work both ways? Anecdotally, we are now being told that there is an increasing divide between the ‘baby boomer’ generation and the ‘millennials’. Is this actually the case, or is it largely media dramatics?

If any of these thoughts about ageism stand up to inspection, what value might there be in teaching today’s schoolchildren some of this history?

Our experience during the first 18 months of the coronavirus pandemic sheds some immediate light. Older people in care homes in the UK died in excessive numbers from the virus in both the first and second waves during 2020.[1] The causes of this are many and varied, but nearly all appear to relate in some ways to long-standing negativism, stereotyping and subsequent societal lack of concern about older people in the UK today. It seems relevant, therefore, for younger people to learn about the consequences, real or potential, of negative stereotyping of any age group.

The term ‘ageism’ was coined in the USA in 1969 by gerontologist and psychiatrist Robert Butler, who described ‘age discrimination or ageism’ as ‘prejudice by one age group toward other age groups’.[2] His observations were initially sparked by his experiences at medical school, where he was shocked to hear tutors expressing dismissive attitudes to the diseases and treatment of older people.

Ageism is now enshrined in UK anti-discriminatory law under the Equality Act 2010. In general, this protects people from being discriminated against because of their age, but there are some exceptions, many of which might be controversial and of interest to youngsters growing up in society today. For example, while it is illegal for a doctor to refuse to refer you to a consultant because you are ‘too old’, there are very strict (for women!) age limits around provision of IVF treatment. These limits would fall under the ‘objectively justified’ exceptions clause, even though they are increasingly arguable under modern medicine.[3]

Although my research has not revealed a iconic campaigning moment in the history of the fight against ageism (I might be very wrong here, of course), there are a number of campaigning organisations where stories can be found to enhance any teaching. For example, Stop Ageism, where there is a great collection of both policy, news and people’s stories.

Julia Bell


[1] Covid-19 and the Deaths of Care Home Residents, Sarah Scobie, The Nuffield Trust, accessed 22 October 2021. [2] Butler, Robert N. 1969. Age-ism: Another Form of Bigotry. The Gerontologist 9 (4): 243–46. doi: 10.1093/geront/9.4_Part_1.243. [3] The Equality Act, Age UK, accessed 21 October, 2021

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