Prejudice and discrimination based on age is widespread around the world, affecting millions of older and younger people trying to work and get health care, denying their human rights and costing society billions of dollars, a U.N. report said Thursday.
“Its main message is that we can and must prevent ageism and that even small shifts in how we think, feel and act towards age and aging will reap benefits for individuals and societies,” the heads of the U.N. health, human rights, economic and social affairs and population bodies said in a preface to the report.
The Global Report on Ageism cites a survey published last year of 83,034 people in 57 countries that found half the people held “moderately or highly ageist attitudes.”
Characteristics significantly associated with those having high ageist attitudes were younger age, male gender and lower level of education, according to the survey by researchers from the World Health Organization, Oxford University and University of Southern California published by Swiss-based MDPI.
“Ageism towards younger and older people is prevalent, unrecognized, unchallenged and has far-reaching consequences for our economies and societies,” said Maria-Francesca Spatolisano, assistant secretary-general in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs.
The 202-page report says the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed just how widespread ageism is — older and younger people have been stereotyped in public discourse and on social media, and in some cases, age has been used as the sole criterion for access to medical care and lifesaving therapies and for physical isolation.
“As countries seek to recover from the pandemic, people of all ages will continue to face different forms of ageism,” the heads of the four U.N. bodies warned. “Younger workers may be even less likely to get jobs. Older workers may become a target for workforce reduction. Triage in health care based solely on age will limit older people’s right to health.”
According to the report, health care rationing based solely on age is widespread. It cited a review in 2020 showing that in 85% of 149 studies, age determined who received certain medical procedures or treatments.
“As countries seek to recover and rebuild from the pandemic, we cannot let age-based stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination limit opportunities to secure the health, well-being and dignity of people everywhere,” said WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
The report said both older and younger adults are often disadvantaged in the workplace and access to specialized training and education decline significantly with age.
Younger people also face discrimination in employment, health, housing and politics where their voices are often denied or dismissed, it said.
As for costs, the report cites a 2020 study in the United States showing that negative age stereotypes and self-perceptions led to excess annual costs of $63 billion for the eight most expensive health conditions. It said estimates in Australia suggest that if 5% more people aged 55 or older were employed, there would be a positive impact of 48 billion Australian dollars ($37 billion) on the national economy annually.
U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said ageism is often “so widespread and accepted — in our attitudes and in policies, laws and institutions — that we do not even recognize its detrimental effect on our dignity and rights.”
“We need to fight ageism head-on, as a deep-rooted human rights violation,” she said.