Ageism – How Ageist Are We? Positive Ageing in London’s Annual Conference

By | June 24, 2016

Below is a report from our 2016 annual conference.

On the day we also asked participants to give us examples of when they had been ageist. You can read a selection of the best here.


On 17 May PAIL’s annual conference discussed how ageism permeates society and how all of us can be ageist in our own lives. The (66) participants from older people’s groups, the voluntary sector, Healthwatch and others went on to make commitments to challenge ageism individually and within their organisations. We hope that actions people take as a result of our conference will be stepping stones on the way to making London a less ageist and more age friendly city.

Chair for the Conference, Meena Patel

Chair for the Conference, Meena Patel

Guest Chair for the day was Meena Patel of the National Development Team for Inclusion. Key contributions came from PAIL’s Chair Mervyn Eastman, Dr Hannah Swift of the University of Canterbury,  Amanda Coyle of the Greater London Authority and David Brindle of The Guardian (who is also Chair of NDTi)

Mervyn Eastman set the scene for the day, including the distinction between ageism and age discrimination and looking at accepted academic definitions of ageism. He went on to look at the new “kindly” ageism which he saw for example in “the loneliness and dementia industries”, and asked whether it is ageist to say that one is “eighty years young”.

In a Chair’s Introduction, Meena Patel set ageism within the context of diversity, which she defined as understanding and appreciating each individual’s  uniqueness –  this can be due to their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, disability, religion and other circumstances/situations people find themselves in. Diversity is becoming ever more important as the older population becomes increasingly diverse.

Dr Hannah Swift drew on her work with the European Research Group on Attitudes to Age to describe how ageism manifests itself and is experienced by people of different ages in the UK. Ageism is the most commonly experienced form of prejudice and affects both older and younger people. Hannah described the processes which lead to ageism: age categorisation and stereotyping, perceived threat to others, lack of intergenerational contact. Ageism is experienced across all population groups but differently by women and men, and by minority ethnic groups. It can be demonstrated to harm the wellbeing of people who experience it.

The presentations by Meena Patel and Dr Hannah Swift can be seen here (link).

Amanda Coyle started by underlining the huge economic  contribution made by older Londoners, as evidenced by the GLA’s 2013 report. She pointed to steps the GLA was taking to support older Londoners to contribute as workers and volunteers, such as through the ESF employment programme, the work of Team London on volunteering and developing accessible public transport. Sadiq Khan, Amanda said, intends to be a Mayor for all Londoners and plans to promote age friendly approaches to housing, health and social care, policing and crime and digital inclusion: part of the role of the new Chief Digital Officer will be to help older people to get online.

David Brindle of The Guardian discussed ageism in the public sector and in public policy. The public sector, he said, is not ready for ageing or sufficiently adapting itself to it, and its inadequate response can be seen as implicitly ageist in itself. Ageism can be unconscious, as with the frequent comments such as “what do you expect at your age” encountered in health services, or arguably the under-provision of local services for older people may result from an ageist mindset. The public sector’s failure so far to benefit from the positive contribution of older people can be linked to a global failure of business to capitalise on the potential of older consumers. David talked about the widespread perception encouraged by some politicians and think tanks that the baby boomers have done well at the expense of younger generations: this was contradicted by widespread inequality and poverty among older as well as younger people.

Participants put questions and comments to Hannah, Amanda and David in two sessions. Subjects discussed included:

How important is digital inclusion and what can be done to encourage it? Amanda stressed the importance of getting businesses to reach out to older people, Amanda pointed out that while important it’s not a panacea – you can’t end loneliness with an app.

What should we think of celebrities being used as role models for ageing? While they may well show positive images, it is nevertheless problematic to have privileged celebrities appearing to lecture people. Saying it is wonderful that someone can “still” do something may show an implicit ageist assumption that they should no longer be able to do so.

Transport: poor provision can be an obstacle to people ageing successfully and to people of all ages contributing to society. Examples given were hospitals being poorly served by bus routes, and lack of disability awareness in some London boroughs.

Amanda was asked by one participant to ensure that the GLA publishes annual figures on the age breakdown of GLA staff and of those laid off or leaving the GLA.

What (more) could the media do to oppose ageism? A participant thought that “the media is more ageist now than when I was young”. One related suggestion was to push for a universal person-centred approach to health services.

What would a human rights-based approach to the life course look like and how can we encourage active approaches as part of public sector devolution?

Perceptions of the “baby boomers” and inequality: David agreed with a comment from the floor that inequality is driven by the labour market and differences in educational opportunity. It was also important to see the major differences in the position of people currently in their 50s and 60s and those aged 90+, and to avoid lumping all older people together.


The day had started with participants putting up on a wall ways in which they themselves had been ageist, to make the point that ageism is everyone’s responsibility.

After the speakers and question and answer sessions, the conference broke into table discussions where participants were asked to come up with one personal action for themselves and one for their organisation if part of one, and each table then had to agree on one priority action.

These were the agreed priority actions from the table groups:

Organisations must make themselves welcoming to all (individuals too)!

Challenge those who say the young are the future and the old should step aside

Challenge age stereotypes, especially in the NHS (for example the importance of your date of birth)

Campaign to End Loneliness: the solution lies with older people themselves using and passing on their skills

Monitoring to allow organisations to challenge age discrimination

Challenge ageism in conversations with our friends.  Organisations should encourage more intergenerational work.

Ask your local Council to be able to address a meeting on ageism

Challenge ageism when you see it, and challenge your own ageist attitudes!

After Meena Patel and Mervyn Eastman had thanked the speakers and participants, Mervyn closed the day by calling for a campaign against ageism in the government, the age sector, the media and ourselves.

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