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Key Findings

This research report:

  • Assesses the prevalence and depth of stereotypes and negative attitudes towards older Australians
  • Provides insight into the impact of these attitudes and the resulting behaviours on older Australians and the general community, including business decision makers
  • Examines the portrayal, and invisibility, of older Australians in the media by all main media platforms including television, radio, magazines and digital
  • Provides insight into the role of the media in creating and reinforcing age stereotyping and discrimination.

This research was commissioned by the Age Discrimination Commissioner and was conducted by Urbis, using three integrated methodologies:

  • A media scan and qualitative analysis of the media
  • Qualitative research using focus groups
  • Quantitative research using an online survey.

These are the Key Findings from the research.

1. The context of ageing and age discrimination

Finding: Ageing is a loaded term and holds predominantly negative connotations – particularly among younger Australians.

  • Younger Australians (under 30 years) are generally the most negative about the concept of ageing.
  • Younger Australians are more likely to associate ageing with the concept of loss (loss of health, loss of hearing, loss of mental capacity, loss of income).
  • Younger Australians find it extremely difficult to identify any benefits associated with ageing and indicate it is simply not something they have given much thought to at this point in their lives.

“I’m afraid of getting older, afraid of some of the things that I can’t control and worried about the future.” (55-64 years)

“It’s terrible.” (18-25 years)

“It’s to be avoided.” (65+ years)

Finding: Younger Australians and older Australians define ‘old age’ differently and this creates tensions between them.

  • Younger Australians feel that age is numeric and defined by an actual age.
  • For older Australians, age is not just a number, but is influenced by broader social, emotional and relational elements. Many people over the age of 65 years do not feel that the term ‘old age’ applies to them. They feel that the horizon of ‘old age’ shifts as they age.
  • The mean age of ‘old age’ for younger Australians is 55.9 years, compared to 66.9 years for older Australians.
  • The mean age of someone who is ‘elderly’ for younger Australians is 66.7 years, compared to 74.4 years for older Australians.
  • Older Australians feel that differences in perceptions of ageing and old age create tensions between them and younger people – with misconceptions about age and ageing underpinning many negative stereotypes.

“I can’t think of ageing because the only way I look at ageing is someone around 70-90 years. I don’t think I am [old].” (55-64 years)

“I walk along the street and see my reflection in the shop window and think – who is that old codger?” (65+ years)

“We are boomers most of us. None of our peers seem old.” (55-64 years)

Finding: Most Australians feel that age discrimination in Australia is common.

  • 71% of all Australians feel that age discrimination in Australia is common (47% common, 24% very common).
  • Findings for business respondents are consistent with the community sample (53% common and 18% very common).
  • Most community and business respondents feel that age discrimination is likely to occur in:
    • the workplace (88% community respondents, 92% business respondents)
    • retail situations (60% business and 60% community)
    • social situations (56% business and 57% community).
  • Almost half of all Australians feel that discrimination is present within the healthcare system (52% community, 49% business), within government policy (44% community, 45% business) or in access to services (46% community, 43% business).

“It was discrimination. I had turned 65, I had an injury and they said they didn’t have suitable duties for me anymore and gave my job to a young girl who was only 33. They knew there was a loophole because I had turned 65 and I could get the pension but they didn’t realise that my husband works so I get nothing.” (65+ years)

“It doesn’t matter what you have learned, you are no longer employable unless you own the agency.” (55-64 years)

Finding: More than a third of Australians aged 55+ years have experienced age-related discrimination.

  • 35% of Australians aged 55-64 years and 43% of Australians aged 65+ years have experienced discrimination because of their age.
  • The most common types of age-related discrimination, experienced by over 50% of older Australians, are:
    • being turned down from a position (67% of Australians aged 54-65; 50% aged 65+)
    • being ignored (59% of Australians aged 54-65; 66% aged 65+)
    • being treated with disrespect (51% of Australians aged 54-65; 64% aged 65+)
    • being subjected to jokes about ageing (53% of Australians aged 54-65; 53% aged 65+).
  • Many older Australians also report:
    • service invisibility: being ignored because service people do not see value in spending time with an older person
    • product invisibility: being overlooked by corporate Australia despite the financial capacity of older Australians
    • relationship invisibility: feeling like they are a burden on friends and family because of the issues associated with ageing
    • cultural invisibility: a lack of representation in popular culture leading to a feeling of being overlooked, devalued or ignored.

“I walk into a nice dress store, I don’t get served – they see me and they think that I can’t possibly be interested in something fashionable and that I am probably killing time waiting for my grandkids.” (55-64 years)

“I had a friend who was looking to buy a new car...with cash. She walked into the dealer and was basically told that she ‘probably wouldn’t be interested in these types of cars’ and that she should look at some of the other businesses down the road.” (65+ years)

Finding: Age discrimination and invisibility result in a strong and negative emotional response.

  • A result of age discrimination and invisibility is that older Australians feel a sense of shame, anger or sadness.
  • There is also a direct impact on personal perceptions of self-worth and an impact on how older Australians define their experience of ageing.

Figure 1: Feelings associated with discrimination

The size of each word is directly proportionate to the number of mentions of that theme.


Question: How did this (discrimination) make you feel?

Base: All respondents who experienced discrimination (n=199).

“Made me feel angry and sad – my response to that person was one day you will get older too and somebody will say that to you.”

“Invisible, angry, my contribution to society, education etc. was not recognised or appreciated.”

“I call it being invisible...nobody sees you and your opinion does not matter. I feel very vulnerable.”

“Made me feel not a member of society, in fact very inadequate and I felt very distressed about it.”

“Of course it has an impact on you – I wanted to continue working – I was told ‘we don’t have suitable roles and duties for you anymore’ and that took me 12 months to get over. I had to have counselling because I thought that I still had a lot to offer and I still want to work therefore it affected my self-esteem.” (65+ years)

Finding: Those aged 18-34 years are the least concerned about age discrimination.

  • Younger Australians feel that age discrimination is not as negative as other forms of discrimination, such as race or gender.
  • Younger Australians are less likely to feel that age discrimination is common in Australia. The percentage of Australians by age group who feel it is common is:
    • 68% of those aged 18-24 years
    • 62% of those aged 25-34 years
    • 76% of those aged 45-54 years
    • 81% of those aged 55-64 years.

“If you look at discrimination based on sex or sexual preference or religion it’s [age discrimination] sort of more socially acceptable to joke about and for banter.” (26-34 years)

“It just doesn’t seem to have that sting to it. If you look at other things like religion and sexual preference and sex and so forth, it’s so careful and there are such stringent HR policies and other things – whereas people seem to be able to have a laugh about the old bastard or something like that.” (26-34 years)

2. Australians’ attitudes and behaviours

Finding: Many Australians agree with a number of stereotypes about older Australians.

  • 59% of Australians feel that older people are more likely to be lonely or isolated.
  • 52% feel that older people are more likely to be victims of crime.
  • 51% feel older people are more likely to be forgetful.
  • 43% feel older people don’t like being told what to do by someone younger.
  • Those holding predominantly negative attitudes about older Australians include:
    • young people
    • university graduates
    • those on higher incomes (earning more than $100k per household)
    • full time employees
    • Culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) community members
    • those in a capital city
    • males.

Finding: Those aged 18-24 years are the most negative about older people.

  • Younger people aged 18-24 are more likely than any other age cohort to agree that older people:
    • are more likely to be sick (51%)
    • have difficulty learning complex tasks (33%)
    • have difficulty learning new things (30%)
    • do not have sexual relationships (24%)
    • do not care about their appearance (17%).
  • Younger business decision makers are more likely to agree with all negative statements about the capabilities of older workers.
  • Social media tends to show older people in a more negative light – younger people are more likely to engage with social media.

Finding: Negative stereotypes about older Australians lead to negative behaviours.

  • 44% of Australians feel sorry for older people as they are perceived often to have complex health problems.
  • 35% of Australians feel they often have to take extra time to explain complex topics to older people.
  • 20% of Australians avoid conversations about technology with older people as they feel explanations will take a long time and a lot of effort.
  • 13% of Australians tend to speak louder to older people as they assume they cannot hear that well.
  • 11% of Australians sometimes tell jokes about older people. These jokes can have a negative impact, particularly when the joke-teller is younger than the recipient.
  • Younger people are more likely to display negative behaviours toward older Australians.

Finding: One in ten business respondents have an age above which they will not recruit – the average age is 50 years.

  • 50% of business decision makers agree that older employees are at higher risk of being made redundant. This belief is significantly more likely to be held by smaller businesses (63% of those with less than five staff agreed this was the case).
  • 36% of business decision makers believe that older employers are less likely to be promoted.
  • 29% of business decision makers believe that older employees have difficulty adapting to change.
  • 23% of business decision makers agree that older employees will not be in the role as long as younger employees and that it is difficult to teach older workers new things.
  • 22% of business decision makers agree that they do not expect older employees to have the same technical skills as younger employees.

“Getting older means you are more likely to lose your job.” (35-54 years)

“Many people don’t disclose their age in the workplace, because they know that others may make presumptions about what that person might be thinking or doing...there are others who modify their age.” (65+ years)

3. The role and influence of the media

Finding: Older Australians are underrepresented and often poorly portrayed in the media.

  • 14.2% of the population are aged 65 years. However,
    • people aged 65+ featured in only 4.7% of the advertising content
    • people aged 65+ were mentioned in only 6.6% of the editorial media content
    • people aged 55+ were referred to in only 11.5% of the editorial media content.
  • Many older Australians feel that the media plays a significant role in contributing to a sense of invisibility of older people through limited, homogenous portrayals of older people.
  • 61% of the Australian community feel that the portrayal of older people in the media is ‘unfair’.
  • Only 19% of Australians feel that the media portrays older people in diverse ways.
  • Only 16% of Australians feel that there are enough older role models portrayed in the media.
  • Only 21% believe that there are generally as many positive stories in the media about ageing as there are negative stories.

“If you look at the percentage of people, the age bracket in a particular show, I think Australian-made television has a very low average age of perform[ers] compared to something coming out of Europe.” (65+ years)

“Even like presenters and stuff on TV have an expiry date where they are no longer useful.” (18-25 years)

Finding: The media influences negative perceptions of older Australians.

  • Older Australians feel that the media has a significant role to play in how older people are portrayed. For example, as:
    • lonely
    • victims
    • unhealthy
    • as sources of amusement.
  • Older people in the media are most often portrayed as frail, weak, victims or in poor health.
  • The most common words Australians use to describe the portrayal of older people in the media are forgetful, slow, frail, vulnerable, burden, grump and sick.
  • The media influences specific stereotypes:
    • Over 70% of Australians feel that stories they have seen or read in the media influence their perception that older people are victims.
    • Around 60% feel that stories they have seen or read reinforce their perception that older people are lonely or isolated.
    • 62% feel that stories they have seen or read influence their perception that older people are bad drivers.
    • Around 60% feel that stories they have seen or read in the media influence their perception that older people are more likely to be sick.


Figure 2: Perceptions of how older people are portrayed in the media

The size of each word is directly proportionate to the number of mentions of that theme.


Question: Thinking about everything you see and hear in the media (including on TV, online, on the radio and in newspapers and magazines), how does the media portray older people?

Base: All respondents (n=2,020).

“Since most of us have no other independent way of learning how the world goes, one way or another pretty much everything we get comes through the media. It may not come to us first hand through the media, it may filter through the opinions of other people who have seen that or other things but you can’t get away from the fact that most of the opinions you have on almost anything have come through the media in some form and it may be quite convoluted...but it is there.” (65+ years)

“Kids are like sponges.” (18-25 years)

“We subconsciously absorb it as well and then when you see an older person all these things come up. You don’t know where they come from but they’ve come from everything that you have seen.” (18-25 years)

“It’s huge...because the majority of the population are either insufficiently educated and I don’t mean school...[they don’t] really look into things and they are receptive to slogans or headlines.” (65+ years)

“The influence is subliminal, for those who are not constructive enough in their lives to form their own views.” (65+ years)

Finding: Social media portrays older people as vulnerable and as victims.

  • Peaks in social media discussion are focused around reports of older people as victims of crime, or as otherwise physically vulnerable or at risk of illness.
  • The vast majority of high membership age-related Facebook sites relate to aged care and issues associated with caring for the elderly. While they are generally positive in tone, they are homogenous in content and show little diversity.
  • Despite having relatively high membership, Facebook pages generate relatively little flow-on discussion. For example, the Just Better Care Fanpage had 2,909 members, yet only 6 people were ‘talking’ about the page.
  • For each of the leading age-related Facebook pages and blog sites, the most active voices are the page administrators.

Finding: 47% of Australians feel that the portrayal of older people in advertising is ‘unfair’.

Australians feel that the portrayal of older people needs to:

  • Show older people as normal people living normal lives.

“The same as any other social group – many great things to offer, and some not so great! Realistically so to speak”.

“Just as they are – a diverse group with interests other than superannuation, insurance and funeral plans”.

“As a true cross-section of what is the reality. Interviews of ‘famous’ elderly and victims is not a true cross-section”.

“As diverse. You do have frail, doddery old people – there’s no escaping that fact. There are also some that are active and alert until they die suddenly at the age of 103”.

“To be portrayed for who they are, not how old they are. They cannot be painted with the same brush so to speak”.

“Like everyone else. Age doesn’t need to be factored into it”.

  • Show older people in roles that contribute to Australian society.

“Intelligent people who can still contribute – either in business or with the family. More recognition of the skills they can contribute”.

“More focus on the different roles that older people are engaged in. How many older people, though retirees, are called on to support their families”.

“As people that know a lot about a lot of things and could teach young people and help them by passing on what they know”.

“As being capable of contributing, being active, interested and willing to participate”.

“As people who contribute to society, from still being in the workforce, to charity or community work, not just lazy, retired people”.

  • Reduce the fear associated with the portrayal of older people as victims.

“While some older people are fearful, a lot are not. I believe that older Australians are often influenced by the media, which means that they are often ‘made’ to be fearful by inaccurate reports, which then becomes a cycle of fear”.

“In a positive way. We do see from time to time, but I love to see elderly people that study or still play sport rather than those that can’t pay their electricity bill. I do feel for those people but they also need to be seen as a positive influence on the community too”.

“More happy and loving towards their families. Also, my grandparents have an iPad each and a DS each, so they need to be shown on ads using technology”.