Ageism, is that a new word?

| October 12, 2021

The Australian Human Rights Commission undertook research in 2020 and 2021 that culminated in the ‘What’s age got to do with it?’ report, released in September. We surveyed 2,440 Australians and then conducted 11 focus groups to further explore what we found.

A key finding was that 83% of Australians think ageism is a problem, and 63% say they have experienced ageism in the last 5 years, but many are unclear about exactly what constitutes ‘ageism’.

As the 2021 World Health Organization (WHO) Global Report on Ageism notes, ageism arises when people are categorised and divided based on age in ways that cause disadvantage and injustice and affect solidarity across generations.

Definitions are easy, but it’s not surprising that people are not clear about ageism as it affects Australians – our research and that of many others has shown that ageism is the least understood form of discriminatory prejudice, but more pervasive and normalised than either racism or sexism. Ageism often goes unrecognised and unchallenged, with over half of our respondents thinking it is more socially acceptable to make jokes about age than about race or gender, for example.

Participants in our study initially expressed confusion about the nature of ageism, making comments like:

  • ‘Ageism, is that a new word?’
  • ‘I haven’t really heard about [ageism] to be honest. It’s not something I come across very often.’
  • ‘I don’t think about ageism.’

At the same time, when we asked about specific attributes of ageism, people were more definite. For example, two-thirds of our participants were clear that ageism affects people across the adult lifespan. (While there is a strong body of research about ageism and older people, far less is known about its effects on middle-aged and younger adults. This was a key motivation in structuring our research to cover all three age groups.)


We found that age-based stereotypes are held by each of the age groups about each of the age groups across the adult lifespan, including their own age group. As a broad finding, Australians see young people as attractive but still finding their way, middle-aged people as being in the prime of their lives and older people as nice (if frail) onlookers to life.

These stereotypes (and others discussed in our report) are pervasive. Although expressing age-based assumptions was relatively widespread, participants did not necessarily regard this as ageism. Instead, many participants saw the making of generalisations based on age as at least somewhat acceptable, even normalised.

It was clear, though, that there are differences in how each group experiences ageism:

  • For young adults (in our study, those 18-39), it was most likely to take the form of being ignored or talked down to in a workplace environment
  • For the middle-aged (40-61) it was most likely to be experienced as being turned down for a job
  • For older adults (62+) the most common expression of ageism was being ‘helped’ without being asked

Given findings such as these, it would be easy to endorse the common narrative about antagonism, even overt conflict, between the generations. But in fact, all the research team were struck by the warmth expressed by focus group participants towards members of age cohorts other than their own. While there was some evidence of tensions between generations, the findings revealed a real understanding of the life issues faced by those of other age groups, coupled with a desire to support them.

Participants rejected the suggestion that any one age group had more than its fair share of assets or resources. Most Australians (70%) did not agree that today’s older generation is leaving the world in a worse state than it was before and fewer than 20% agreed that any age group was a burden on their family or a burden on society. There were clear signs in focus groups that for many, access to such things as public health, assets or government benefits were about factors other than age.

Our findings have implications for the study of ageism and for developing strategies to combat it. It is often said that the stage of progress on eliminating ageism is where sexism or racism were 30 years ago, and our study certainly found a lack of awareness of what constitutes ageism and how serious it can be. More needs to be done to increase awareness of this pervasive problem and to explore solutions.

One thing is already clear, however: Age is not the problem, ageism is.

The ‘What’s age got to do with it?’ report can be downloaded here.