Age discrimination in the UK

Posted on April 14, 2015 by Eleanor McKenzie
A group of older adults sitting on park bench

Personally, I have never had a problem with telling the truth about my age, but recent studies have made me aware that there are times when being more economical with my years might serve me better. Indeed, your age can be a health hazard in ways you may not have thought of.

Youth worship

Female celebrities are often less than honest about their age, and it’s not hard to understand why. They work in an industry where ‘youth’ is worshipped and in the past, older actresses have been quite vocal about the lack of roles for them. Although, my perception of recent film and television productions suggests that’s changing. Indeed an interview with Jenny Agutter – now 62 and star of “Call the Midwife”— in a recent issue of the Irish Independent reveals that more roles are being written now for actresses who are over 50.  On the silver screen, the pressure that women face is to always look young; men are still considered attractive regardless of age.

Age-shaming in the media

With that pressure you can understand why some women working in media may chop a few years off. Of course, what happens when this ‘error’ is discovered is that they are ‘age-shamed’ in the media. TV presenter Kate Garraway once ‘lost’ a year of her life and never corrected reports that made her a year younger than she actually is. And, journalist Liz Jones admitted in a High50 article on age discrimination that she’d altered her age so many times before she hit 50 that she lost track of what age she actually is. Actually, I did the opposite and added a year to my age due to poor maths and a momentary memory lapse!

Age discrimination shows lack of respect

However, there is a more serious side to revealing the real year you were born than missing out on a Hollywood career later in life: age discrimination is an issue that we all face and a study by researchers at University College London shows what it means. The most recently published results are from the fifth stage of a longitudinal study of 7,500 adults over age 52, called the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, or ELSA. The participants were asked about the frequency with which they experienced five everyday discriminatory situations as follows:

  1. You are treated with less respect or courtesy
  2. You receive poorer service than other people in restaurants and stores
  3. People act as if they think you are not clever
  4. You are threatened or harassed
  5. You receive poorer service or treatment than other people from doctors or hospitals

The response options range from 1 (almost every day) to 6 (never).  What would your response be to any of these?

The study revealed that around 30 per cent of people in the study had experienced some age discrimination. This increased to almost 40 per cent for those aged 65 plus. Significantly, the situation that respondents experienced most frequently was “You are treated with less respect or courtesy,” with 17.7 per cent ticking that box. How perverse is this when we have been told to treat our elders with respect? Clearly, that ‘instruction’ hasn’t been taken to heart in our society.

Even doctors discriminate

Significantly, the one place where age discrimination is most prevalent is in healthcare. And there’s no room to hide your age when you register for medical treatment. A study by The Centre for Policy on Ageing on ageism in healthcare shows that as an older person your GP is less likely to refer you to a specialist, you stand less chance of admittance to a specialist stroke unit and you may struggle to be given an intensive care bed. All things we need more as we age!

So, while there’s a light-hearted side to age discrimination, which makes us leave a few candles off the birthday cake, there’s a serious aspect to it that impacts on our daily life and our health. It is a shame and disgrace that age discrimination is a regular experience for many UK citizens. We should demand respect for our age when we encounter discrimination and fight to stem the tide of contempt for elders, rather than hide our own years.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.