The insidious nature of ageism

I was born with white privilege, even though my background was Birmingham working class, on or below the breadline (hiding behind the sofa when the rent man turned up was routine), eating beans on toast regularly was a treat, as was Sunblest cheap white bread and jam. And the beans weren’t always Heinz (HP baked beans were cheaper).

But despite the poverty, I never experienced the misery of prejudice and discrimination that my school friends with Pakistani and Jamaican heritage experienced. I did get name-called for wearing glasses (‘four-eyes’) and for being a ‘girly swot’. But I didn’t get the physical attacks that my non-White friends received, the different attitudes from teachers, the horror from my parents when my friend accompanied me home from school one evening (‘don’t bring that n…… here again’). The only time a friend with Pakistani heritage gained acceptance from my parents is when he gave them a poem that was offensively derogatory about his own ethnic group from beginning to end. By denigrating his own race, he won some approval from my white racist parents (‘he’s different from the rest’).

So, I didn’t experience the ‘ism’ that my friends experienced, and I went through life blissfully unaware of how prejudice can impact on self-esteem, security and well-being. Until I started to get old. Now I have some small insight (and it really is a fraction of what others endure every day) into what it feels like when parts of society treat you with contempt.

Getting old is strange. Your mind is still young, in a sense, and it comes as a surprise when your body doesn’t quite do what it used to. For example, getting stuck in the loft because of the seizing up of muscles and joints when you’ve accessed the space a hundred times before is a shock. Not being able to ‘take a knee’ unless there is something nearby to help to lever yourself back up (well done, Nancy Pelosi, full of admiration). And the creeping issues with things that don’t quite work as they used to (don’t get me started on menopausal or age-related incontinence!).

I started to realise I was getting old when people (men and women) offered me their seat on the tube. The first response is ‘how dare you insinuate that I need your seat!’ and when you decline with a smile, behind that is resentment and a sinking feeling (‘do I really look like I need your seat?’). Being ignored by chuggers on the high street (maybe no bad thing), and by earnest young people trying to give you a leaflet about the nearby gym or club. It’s all part of being old. As you get old, it’s as if you’re slowly disappearing, dissolving into a space between important and unimportant, valuable and worthless. Paul Stenner, one of my academic heroes (not least because he can write songs, play guitar and sing as well as being a Professor), writes about liminality, and the in-between nature of being, and it’s clear that getting old is a state of liminality – an in-between state that is entirely dependent on society’s judgement of you as of worth or value, or not.

I have written in a previous post about how older people have been treated despicably by our government, particularly those in care homes who were essentially treated as worthless and disposable, compared with the younger who needed their hospital beds and ventilators, because their lives were likely to be longer and more productive. This is ageism, albeit a more extreme version of it, and is typical of the attitudes that the older citizen faces. Once society deems you as being of less value, everything changes. Customer service becomes less important for the older person (unless of course they are terribly wealthy and can afford to go on expensive cruises). Your opinion isn’t valued anymore, as evidenced by the 65+ categories on polling and surveys. It doesn’t matter any more if you have a different opinion at age 75 – you’re just lumped together with people ten years younger and ten years older as if you’re a homogeneous group. Yet we’re all terribly interested in what a 25-year-old thinks compared with a 30-year-old.

Being the target of racism across the world, but particularly in the US, can lead to violence and death. Being the target of sexism can lead to huge unfairness in term of employment opportunities, division of labour in the home, and a higher likelihood of sexual violence. Whilst compared to the negative consequences of other ‘isms’, ageism seems much less serious. However, ageism can lead to shortened lives, negative attitudes from wider society and, in the current Covid-19 crisis, higher likelihood of infection and death.

Being the target of ageism isn’t just about changing customer service or ignored political opinions. Stereotype threat has long been recognised as ‘a threat in the air’ and has a negative impact on anyone within the stereotyped category particularly in contexts of testing or competition (Steele and Aronson, 1995). A meta-analysis of older participants’ performance in cognitive tests showed that the presence of stereotype threat in the testing environment significantly impacted on performance, with older people performing less well. This is particularly an issue when the older participants are competing directly with younger participants (Lamont, Swift and Abrams, 2015). In other words, just the unsaid implied ageism within the testing context can lead to older participants under-performing. If the stereotype exists of the failing older person, the older person is more likely to fail.

One of the issues with ageism, though, is its insidious nature and how it can be inadvertently drawn upon by younger people who are trying to do the right thing – in a form of ‘paternalistic prejudice’ often accompanied by pity (Lamont et al, 2015). There is nothing malicious in this, in comparison with racism and sexism, but it still has an impact. Increasing age in years is often associated with perceived decreasing age in mental capacity – the older you get, the more likely it is that those around you treat you as a child. Older adults in clinical settings with cognitive impairments such as delirium and dementia are seen as ‘childlike and worthless’, ageist attitudes that can impact negatively on the chances of recovery (Neville, 2008).

It isn’t all bad news, though. Whilst trying to find participants for my research, I came across wonderful organisations such as the Veterans’ Athletics Club, and clubs for older runners of both marathons and the ‘couch to 5k’ and everything in between. Gransnet is an amazing community, full of energetic, interested older people who value each other’s opinion. We admire those who keep going at 100+ to the point of raising millions of pounds by walking for the NHS. Grandchildren love their grandparents, our nostalgic nation loves our World War II heroes and heroines. But perhaps the value these older people have for us is only situated, rather than being pervasive. You might love your grandma, but being held up in a queue by an elderly citizen who is taking time to complete a transaction can easily lead to the ‘threat in the air’.


Lamont, R.A., Swift, H.J., & Abrams, D. (2015) A Review and Meta-Analysis of Age-Based Stereotype Threat: Negative Stereotypes, Not Facts, Do the Damage, Psychology and Aging, 30, 1, pp. 180-193.

Neville, S. (2008) Older people with delirium: Worthless and childlike, International Journal of Nursing Practice, 14, 6, pp. 463 – 469.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797–811.