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Generational divide? It’s more myth than reality

Discrimination Age Discrimination

Although antagonism between the generations is often seen as inevitable, the ‘generational wars’ we hear about are not supported by Australians themselves.

A new report by the Australian Human Rights Commission, What’s age got to do with it? A snapshot of ageism across the Australian lifespan, examines what young adult, middle-aged and older Australians really think about age and ageism across the lifespan.

Ageism is arguably the least understood and most normalised form of discriminatory prejudice. Evidence such as the 2021 World Health Organization ‘Global Report on Ageism’ suggests it is more pervasive and socially accepted than sexism or racism.

The Commission’s research found 90% of Australians agree ageism exists and 83% see it as a problem, with two-thirds thinking it affects people of all ages. 

Australians aren’t blaming intergenerational conflict for these levels of ageism. For example, most (70%) did not agree that today’s older generation is leaving the world in a worse state than before and fewer than 20% agreed that any age group was a burden on their family or on society. The suggestion that any one age group had more than its fair share of assets or resources was also rejected by our research participants. 

In fact, I was struck by the real sense of warmth and empathy between the generations and their ready awareness that intergenerational conflict was not the most relevant issue. Where they did identify tensions between age groups, they were more often attributed to inequalities in wealth and access to resources, coupled at times with ageist stereotypes.

Overall, the findings revealed genuine intergenerational understanding of the life issues faced by those in other age groups, coupled with a heartfelt desire to support them. I find this very encouraging.

These views are echoed in multiple studies across the globe, such as a recent UK study on attitudes about climate change which found that a generational divide over the issue is a myth.

Why, then, do we hear so much about intergenerational tensions? 

Participants of all ages in the Commission’s research clearly identified ageist stereotypes being used to spur narratives of intergenerational conflict and competition for resources, through media accounts of scarcity and greed. They readily expressed their perception that stories that pitted one generation against another were overstated and media-driven. Generations are an obvious and convenient way of categorising and explaining age-related differences, but the stereotypes that accompany generational narratives are often inaccurate and outdated. This has serious implications.

Ageism can limit people’s enjoyment of human rights, including their participation in education, health services and the workplace. Ageist attitudes can also affect people’s ability to access meaningful life roles and relationships. Perpetuating misconceptions that inform policies we develop and opportunities we create – or fail to create – affects people across the lifespan.

As Age Discrimination Commissioner, an important part of my role is to make ageism part of the national conversation. I want to foster discussions about what it looks like, who experiences it, how they are affected – and how ageism can underpin age discrimination by driving exclusion and inequality. I hope our report will help inform these discussions.

Today is the United Nations International Day of Older Persons – a day to reflect and bring awareness to the issues of ageism and human rights. I would encourage everyone to take a moment to think about ageism and how it affects you and those close to you. 

It is incumbent on each of us to do our bit to bring ageism into mainstream conversations in our workplaces, living rooms, and with our friends.

Every Australian must do what they can to challenge ageist attitudes in themselves and others, so together we can reduce ageism for Australians of all ages. 

Age is not the problem – ageism is.

Dr Kay Patterson, Age Discrimination Commissioner