Ageism is finally starting to take centre stage in many discussions at European and international level. Be it in the context of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on different generations, or within the discussions around demographic changes, attitudes towards age and ageing are being looked at more closely in policy discussions.
Ageism is based on negative perceptions of, attitudes and stereotypes towards people based on their age. While it affects the individual that is being discriminated against, and it also perpetuates the very stereotypes and attitudes it is based on.
But who exactly is impacted by ageism? The demographic that often comes to mind, and the one that is often the central focus of these debates, is of course, older people. However, while they undoubtedly face day-to-day barriers in an ever-evolving society and labour market, ageism is a much more pervasive phenomenon.
In this post, we’ll turn the spotlight on young people, examining the main challenges they face, while also outlining some suggestions on how policymakers, youth organisations and equality bodies can support change.
The recently published UN Global Report on Ageism, the first of its kind, not only promotes a life cycle approach to the issue, by exploring how ageism affects both older and younger generations, but also supports what the European Youth Forum and Equinet have been saying for years: that being young often means having to overcome obstacles, stereotypes and prejudices, which can hinder a young person’s path towards autonomy.
More than this, what the Global Report does, is shed light on two crucial points. Firstly, we need much more research and data to understand the extent of the problem and its implications for youth. Secondly, when data is available, it seems to point to a shocking truth: that in Europe, younger people report the highest rate of experiences of ageism.
With the exception of employment (and even here, gaps remain), EU equality legislation doesn’t adequately protect us from being discriminated against on the basis of our age. But why is that? Simply put, we know less about ageism, particularly when it affects youth, than we do about other forms of discrimination. And knowing less often leads to lack of protection.
Yet the fact that we know less about ageism doesn’t make it any less damaging. Experiencing discrimination at a young age can have long lasting consequences on our well-being, self-esteem and sense of belonging. It exposes us to more disadvantages throughout our lives, making us more likely to encounter inequalities at a later stage. This is why solidarity between generations is crucial: without a life course approach to ageing that takes into account all age groups, policies won’t be able to tackle inequalities, and we’ll carry them with us throughout our life.
Even in areas where EU legislation exists, age-based discrimination remains a reality for youth in Europe. The common assumption that young people should be ready to do whatever it takes to get a foot in the labour market, has led to several discriminatory practices emerging over time. Youth minimum wages, which discriminate against younger workers, still exist in several EU Member States. Unpaid, low quality internships remain an almost obligatory rite of passage for those looking to gain work experience.
As if this wasn’t enough, a precarious position in the labour market is often exacerbated by discriminatory legislation preventing young people from accessing social safety nets. In some EU Member States, age or employment status are key criteria to be able to access income support or unemployment benefits, de facto penalising young people.
When you can’t access a stable job or income support, renting or let alone buying a property becomes much harder too. You might not be seen as a reliable tenant, or struggle to access credit, and your path towards independence becomes increasingly longer and tougher. All of this for having dared to be young!
Some might say “if you don’t agree with the system, change it!” – easier said than done. Traditional politics often deny young people a voice. They’re told that they are too young, immature or apathetic to be able to participate in decisions that affect their lives. A seat at the table will at times be offered, but youth participation can easily turn into a box ticking exercise – a form of ageism in itself.
Ageism in one area of life only serves to reinforce and amplify challenges in others.
National equality bodies, as public institutions mandated to tackle age-based discrimination, are well-positioned to support young people. Their work on equality data collection and research can fill in current gaps in our understanding of ageism. Furthermore, equality bodies can also collaborate with young people directly or through civil society and youth organisations to organise trainings and awareness raising activities.
At the same time, equality bodies still report some key legal obstacles, which stand in the way of tackling ageism. First, age discrimination tends to be viewed as something neutral, rather than a “suspect ground” of discrimination. Too often courts themselves are likely to enforce certain ageist stereotypes instead of adopting an individualised approach for each person. Because age is seen as an inherent personal characteristic, which carries an inevitability for all of us, courts pay less attention to age discrimination. Second, several lawful exemptions and justifications can still be applied which in reality allow a wide range of discriminatory practises to restrict rights solely based on age.
Of course, this past year has complicated matters even further. We spent the first few months of the pandemic (rightfully) focusing on its immediate repercussions on our health, only to soon realise that we were going to face yet another profound socio-economic crisis, and one that will have a disproportionate impact on youth and their future prospects.
And yet, the past year also showed us how pervasive ageism can be. Media and institutions alike have taken turns in portraying older people as helpless, fragile, in dire need of protection, while young people are supposedly careless, irresponsible, and dismissive of the danger of the pandemic. Equality bodies across Europe have reported cases of limited access to healthcare and certain services, restrictions on freedom of movement and job dismissals, based simply on the fact that someone was either over or under a certain age limit. These attitudes are both unfair and damaging. They pit one generation against the other, ignore shared struggles, perpetuate harmful stereotypes, and, more than this, they don’t let us focus on how to best support all age groups, now and in the long run.
If a silver lining has to be found, then we need to make sure that, at the very least, this crisis serves as a wake up call.
While the issues are many, the good news is that ageism can be tackled. How? First, we need to fundamentally change how we view young people. Supporting youth shouldn’t be seen as a charitable gesture: young people are rights holders, and therefore, institutions have a duty to protect their rights.
Second, we need a new and healthier narrative around ageing. We must build bridges between generations, focus on education as a crucial tool to counter stereotypes, and invest in research on how ageism manifests itself and on what the costs are for society.
Third, this new wealth of information must be used for evidence-based policy-making to increase the focus on age equality. Current gaps in protection must be addressed, not only by finally moving forward with the long-halted EU Equal Treatment Directive, but also by modernising EU equality law to explicitly include age-based discrimination in all areas of life in the mandate of equality bodies. This could be paired with establishing an “equality impact assessment”, to ensure that EU level legislative and non-legislative proposals wouldn’t put any age group at a particular disadvantage.
Through collective action early on, we can prevent discrimination from happening in the first place and thus proactively work towards eliminating several of the inequalities that older people acquire throughout life.
Of course, the onus is not only on policymakers. In March 2021, Equinet and European Youth Forum members came together to discuss how to strengthen cooperation between equality bodies and youth organisations. What we found out is that by cooperating, equality bodies and youth organisations can effectively approach young people together and co-create safe, inclusive, and informal discussion spaces to tackle age-based discrimination.
It is more important than ever to support young people and increase their awareness about their rights and redress mechanisms in cases of rights violations. Equality bodies are well equipped to provide such support, and, with the help of youth organisations, their work may also become more visible and accessible.
Young people are ready to be involved, and we must consider them as equal partners. They possess a wide range of knowledge, suggestions, and feedback, but it is essential that the right communication channels are used to reach out to as wide and diverse an audience as possible. Once again, youth organisations, through their day-to-day outreach activities, can support these efforts.
Working together is the simplest, yet best way forward. Ageism can only be eliminated, if all of us, from institutions to equality bodies and civil society, come together to address the different forms of age discrimination that we experience throughout our life.
The views on this blog are always the authors’ and they do not necessarily reflect Equinet’s position.