Age, ageing and ageism: how ageist is Scotland?

Bill Johnston argues the left needs to start taking ageism seriously and act accordingly

Part one (Scottish Left Review issue 108, November/December 2018) of this series of three articles discussed demographic ageing in terms of neo-liberalism and current developments in Scottish Government policy. That article also urged the left to incorporate an analysis of ageing as part of the challenge to neo-liberalism and support for human rights and equalities. This second article discusses the threat from ageism as a powerful focus for the left in Scotland.

Age is a protected characteristic in British equalities legislation but is not as well-known as the more high profile provisions for gender, race, disability and sexual orientation are. At present, older people are often framed in public discourse as ‘a burden’ with little response from politicians and state organisations. However, Lord Bracadale’s 2018 report on ‘hate crimes’ has raised the issue of ‘age hostility’ in relation to possible new statutory powers.

The concept of ageism could be a useful unifying focus for the various social, legislative and civic issues entailed by Scotland’s ageing population and the associated risk of a rise in ageist behaviour over the coming years. A starting point is this account of ageism from a recent EU report:

Ageism is the stereotyping of, prejudice or discrimination against individuals or groups based on their age. Although ageism can target young people, most studies in this area focus on the unfair treatment of older people. Ageism is deeply structural ‘find[ing] expression in institutional systems, individual attitudes and inter- generational relationships’. All manifestations of ageism – at the individual, group or societal level – gravely undermine older people’s right to human dignity and reduce their potential to contribute actively to society.   UN Campaign logo

This report described ageism as the most frequently mentioned discrimination in the EU and underlines the intersectional nature of ageism. It also argues that the emphasis for civic and political action should be on rights leading to empowerment rather than only seeing deficits leading to needs. The report offers powerful arguments for a more positive approach to ageing populations, and advocates a move away from dependency and deficit models of ageing.

Two interlinked approaches to raising awareness and combating ageism are available to us. First, a challenge to stereotypes and media representations characterising older people as a burden on the taxpayer, or ‘stealing the future’ from younger people. Language and imagery, which suggests that older people are all alike – dependent, a burden, lonely and incapable – should be challenged and replaced. Such a conceptual rethink could adopt a ‘pro-ageing’ stance and generate positive attitudes and behaviour to combat ageism. Community groups, third sector projects, and larger organisations like Age Scotland could play a part in hosting such civic debate.

Second, structural, institutionalised ageism requires investigation and exposure. This would require in-depth study of organisations across society and their impacts on ageing and older people. For example, what demographic data sets are used and to what extent are strategic plans, resource allocations and staff conduct aligned to eliminate institutional ageism? It would not be enough to rely on bland statements of values or intent, which can be used to mask dysfunctional behaviour and attitudes. Close scrutiny and, if necessary, action to eliminate ageist attitudes and behaviour would be required. An anti-ageism alliance of unions, political parties and other civic organisations working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Scotland would offer a powerful force for institutional change.

In both cases, a key aim is for the Scottish Government to give ageism a higher profile in its statements on equalities and in developing its new Older People’s Framework proposed for March 2019. The left has a long track record of challenging racism, sexism and other inequalities, so perhaps now is a good time to extend that commitment to ageism given the Scottish Government’s projected growth in the ageing population: ‘Over the next 20 years we will see a large increase in people over 75 with more than 70% of all population growth in the over 75 age group’. That future age group is currently in its fifties so awareness raising, rethinking and serious forward planning is required by the present administration and the other parties represented at Holyrood.

A target in 2019 could be to press for a debate on ageism in the Scottish Parliament to explore the current situation and future prospects. This could be supported by a wider conversation in union branches, community groups, political party branches and other forums. As demand for independence continues with local YES groups, and Pensioners for Independence, apparently growing in activity, that too would be an important point in the debate on Scotland’s future.

Bill Johnston is Chair of the Scottish Seniors Alliance ( and writes in a personal capacity.

Bracadale review:
EU Agency for Fundamental Rights: