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Policy Insights

The Policy Pitfalls of Ageism

What population ageing does and does not mean for society
Copyright: Ljupco

by Patrick I. Dick

Ageism is, unfortunately, alive and well. In fact, it continues to be so pervasive that even its victims can be caught in the cycles that perpetuate it.

It is mostly imposed, however. For example, the tech sector has been in the hot seat lately, with high profile firms standing accused of flagrant hiring biases punishing any applicant over 40.

But ageism in tech is a symptom. It is a product of society-wide stereotypes of ourselves in middle-age and older. As we age, the story goes, we become bitterly stuck in our old ways. We care more about our increasingly fragile health and the wellbeing of our growing families than breaking the mould. We are coasting toward retirement. Consequently, we resent reckless young colleagues. Sound familiar?


Who’s stuck?

The many prejudices that cumulatively result in discrimination against us as we age are so widespread that, according to the WHO, they pose a genuine risk of affecting policy by "steering policy options in limited directions." To prevent the so-called last acceptable form of discrimination from contaminating future policies as our populations age, policymakers should bear in mind that an ageing society does not necessarily mean:

  1. A society on life support. A median age of 45 does not mean everyone is 70 or 20. Even if it did, most of us at 70 will be capable of contributing to society.
  2. Irreversible decline. In fact, recent studies suggest that falling fertility levels may have stabilised and possibly begun to recover in some groups after a half-century slide.
  3. A smaller society. Many European populations consistently aged while they consistently grew over the course of the past century.
  4. An unhappy society. Data shows that e.g. in Eastern European countries, which are among those that age relatively fast, wellbeing has been on the rise.
  5. A less innovative economy. Studies for the U.S. have shown that successful startups are more likely to be run by entrepreneurs over 50 than in their 20s or 30s.


A real problem

Population aging is certainly a policy challenge—there’s no denying it. Ageing has already begun to strain contribution-based social security systems, and it doesn’t look like the pressure will be relieved any time soon. Policymakers are right to prepare for this eventuality, and even to act to slow its advance. When designing such interventions, however, politicians, civil servants, scientists, and stakeholders should be careful to avoid ageist traps.

Ageism leads to tangible labour market distortions, social exclusion, and poorer mental health for its victims. It can also cloud the judgement of those meant to protect those victims. Overcoming negative stereotypes will therefore be one of the principal challenges for an ageing society.

And if we care about our own wellbeing, we’ll take it seriously.


About the author:

Patrick I. Dick, Consulting Editor for Population Europe.