There are two main forms of age discrimination, social and employment. The former leads to the latter.
Women seem to suffer most from discrimination at work due to age. In a recent case Miriam O’Reilly, the presenter of Countryfile, took the BBC to an employment tribunal after she was dropped at 53 when the programme moved to a primetime slot. The main presenter, John Craven (70), was instead joined by two new female presenters in their thirties. O’Reilly won six-figure damages.
Pay tops out for women in their mid-thirties and for men ten years later. Plenty of men are still in top positions in their sixties. This may be due to women’s family commitments at a time when men are reaching the top. Older men achieve ‘elder statesman’ status. Women are simply past it. The famous ‘squeezed middle’ – that’s middle-aged women – are dealing with ageing parents and school-aged children, and it’s not a good time to be trying to increase one’s earning power. No man feels guilty about spending too much time developing his career.
However, it is true that if a man loses his job in his fifties, finding a new one can be just as hard as for a woman. Some employers believe older workers aren’t adaptable, and may even be overqualified and likely to bolt if something better is offered to them (though this is just as likely to happen with someone younger of course). Older job-seekers are therefore often encouraged to stress their problem-solving skills based on a lifetime of experience, but this is frequently not enough to overcome the stereotype of the older worker who is seen as technophobic, intimidating to manage, less open to creativity and change and just biding their time till they can start drawing a pension. However as pension age edges further and further towards 70, someone at 50 these days is more than aware that not investing in a career could put them at a serious financial disadvantage. Employing someone over 55 is no longer likely to offer a poor return. In any case, research has found no correlation between age and performance on the job.
Do we then insist on being open about our age, in an attempt to overturn these stereotypes and redefine what society thinks an older person should work like, dress like and look like? In a 2010 interview for Kougar magazine, Marina Sirtis, who played Deanna Troy in Star Trek, made a plea in favour of honesty :
I’m not ashamed of my age. And this is something that I really hate – the fact that women lie about their age. They feel they have to because, when you’re over 40, it’s like you suddenly don’t exist….. I am 55 years old and I’m not ashamed of it ….
However, the flip side of this is, are we capable of overcoming our conditioning? Do we avoid associating ourselves mentally if not actually in practice with, say, the over-sixties, by being elusive about our age, in order to avoid not only being categorised by others but to undermine the subtle power of stereotype embodiment in ourselves?
Socially, we hardly notice age discrimination until it is used against us, and this can happen suddenly when a younger person says, “You’re amazing,” and means, “for your age.” Or, “Gosh, you’re so agile!” or describes us as feisty, sweet or “still sharp as a knife”. It is well meant, and yet makes us feel like we have been punched in the stomach. Such an experience immediately puts us at risk of stereotype embodiment. This theory states that we are brainwashed into attitudes about older people at a time when these beliefs are not self-relevant. Once internalised, these attitudes become part of a subconscious set of beliefs about older people. We therefore do not question them, and when we reach later life we unwittingly embody them, since we have always held them to be true. Behaviours, perceptions and physiological responses are therefore triggered that fulfil the self-concept of being ‘old’.
Women in particular may face a crisis after the menopause and a sense that having outlived their reproductive usefulness they really ought to be dead. Some may find it surprising that mentally and emotionally, nothing has changed. Then when the men their age drool over younger women, feelings of contempt may arise.
If we have spent our entire lives feeling separate from the elderly, finding ourselves suddenly perceived as one of them comes as a terrible shock. But as human lifespan extends beyond 100 for an increasingly large minority, inevitably perceptions of what 50, 60 and 70 means socially and professionally will change. The 60 year-olds of today bear little relation to those of our grandparents’ generation. Let us do whatever we can to overturn society’s ageism by remaining forever ageless ourselves.