The 65+ population is projected to triple by 2050 and the World Health Organisation considers this to be one of the biggest global societal challenges. This is the outcome of the inevitable consequence of attaining desired smaller family sizes, lower mortality rates and longer lives, with many living beyond 100 years. This increase in the older population is a triumph of civilisation, a phenomenon to be celebrated.

However, this increase in the ageing population may also lead society to consider ageing as a social problem. This is the result of the rising prejudices that have spread concerning older persons, who are seen as hindering productivity and social dynamism, hence are seen as the ‘dependents’ on society.

This social construct of old age that portrays ageing and older persons in a stereotypical, often negative, way is called ‘ageism’.

It is a form of age discrimination against older persons which is shown in the practices of humiliation, lack of dignity, violation of basic human rights, and also in the exhibit of negative stereotypes.

The rise of ‘ageism’

The word ‘ageism’ was first coined and introduced by gerontologist Robert N. Butler, the founding director of the National Institute on Ageing in the United States, way back in 1969. Butler identified three distinct but related aspects of ageism, namely attitudes and beliefs, behavioural discrimination, and formalised policies and practices.

When Butler introduced the concept of ageism, its main focus was to highlight the forms of marginalisation and discrimination that older persons are exposed to: “…a process of systematic stereotyping and discrimination against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish this for skin colour and gender. Older people are characterised as senile, rigid in thought and manner, and old-fashioned in mortality and skills,” (Butler 1975:35).

In essence, attitudes determine behaviour, which then influence policy development and implementation which, in turn, influence practice.

Ageism is everywhere

Ageism is all around us. It is found in the media, popular culture, day-to-day conversations, and also in professional discourse. It is not easy for an older person to find a job since they are perceived as costly and less productive − at a time when ‘active ageing’ is promoted as the way forward.

Ageism can also be a barrier to digital technology adoption and use. Stereotypes and prejudice about older persons’ ability and willingness to use digital technologies are widespread, which disregards their diversity of skills and experiences.  The literature speaks also about benevolent ageism. This is belief that older people are warm, frail and need to be cared for gently. This is often accompanied by infantilisation and baby talk, most especially experienced by older persons residing in long-term care homes.

Ageism is also more pronounced when it comes to older women. For women, ageism and sexism work in combination to provide ‘a double standard of ageing’. Ageing in women is unaccepted. This is communicated through the array of beauty products presented on the market which are mainly for older women, with the aim of concealing the ageing markers being white hair, wrinkles, etc… which are associated with ‘old age’ rather than associated with ‘experience’ and ‘wisdom’.

Age and ageing are related to biological phenomena, but their meanings are socially and culturally determined

Older men are valued for their accomplishments; older women are valued for their appearance. This gives them different experiences of ageing. While older men can receive advantages such as prestige, power and professional positions, older women are more likely to feel aversion to and shame with the onset of old age.  This gendered ageism is also visibly seen in employment, where lifelong differences in pay and working time result in different pension bands, at a time when older women live longer than men.

The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply affected the exclusion of and prejudice against older persons. Ageist discourses carried out by different stakeholders result in the devaluing of older persons and contributes to their feelings of worthlessness and sense of being burdensome. This pandemic has created a clear age divide between the young and the old, calling the latter as ‘the vulnerable’, thus considering all older persons as heterogenic. Such discourses disregard older persons’ resilience and contributions to society.

United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, in a powerful statement that was largely supported by UN’s 146 member states, including European countries and the EU itself, and welcomed by more than 100 civil society organisations worldwide, said: “Our response to COVID-19 must respect the rights and dignity of older people.”


Robert Butler coined the term ageism almost 50 years ago to describe symptoms and roots of unequal and degrading treatment of older persons. Societies today are still not recognising the wisdom that comes with later life; are still looking at older persons as a homogeneous group.

Ageism is a rampant and widespread phenomenon; it often goes unnoticed because it is so ingrained in our lives. The ageing process is still being devalued and not accepted as a natural part of the life course. Age and ageing are related to biological phenomena, but their meanings are socially and culturally determined.

The rights of older persons and their protection from ageism is increasingly becoming a subject of international interest. Recently, the WHO has endorsed The Decade of Healthy Ageing 2020–2030 which is a positive approach forward. Older persons themselves will be at the centre of this plan, which will bring together all stakeholders working in the field of ageing to improve the lives of older persons, their families and their communities. The Decade will address four areas for action, one of which is precisely “to change how we think, feel and act towards age and ageing”.

However, declarations without implementation at grassroot level will not make any difference. Action to stop ageism needs to be taken now. As people get older, ageism affects their well-being and quality of life. Older persons are important pillars of our societies − they are the leaders, the teachers, mentors, carers, volunteers, and storytellers. Nurturing these contributions and making sure that older person’s rights and dignity are respected at all times is a must. Ageing is a privilege and everyone has a right to experience this phenomenon without being discriminated against. We should remember that ageism is that prejudice against our own future selves – so let’s commit to work together and strive to make ageism a reality of the past.

Rosette Farrugia-Bonello is deputy director at the International Institute on Ageing United Nations-Malta (INIA), visiting lecturer at the Department of Gerontology and Dementia Studies, Faculty for Social Well-being, University of Malta, and international secretary of the Maltese Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics (MAGG).

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