Hasan Suroor

The British government has announced plans for tougher measures to check ageism after pressure groups warned of a “class war” if the old continued to be treated as though they were less than full citizens.

The title of the Oscar-winning Hollywood blockbuster, No country for Old Men — the film is not exactly about old age — could well apply to Britain where old people say they feel like “second class citizens” because of widespread prejudice against them despite stringent anti-age discrimination laws. The government has been forced to announce plans for tougher measures to check “ageism” after pressure groups warned of a “class war” if the old continued to be treated as though they were less than full citizens.

A new legislation, introduced in the Commons last week, will extend the existing ban on age-related discrimination to provision of goods and services. This follows research showing that a majority of old Britons believe that the country is “rampantly ageist” with those over 50 facing discrimination not only at work but also in other areas of life.

In a more youthful country, this may not have mattered so much. But Britain is an ageing nation and according to the government’s own data there has been a significant increase in the population of old people as Britons are living longer as a result of improved sanitation, medicine, food and living standards. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) point to a further rise in their population. It is estimated that the number of people over 100 alone is expected to be in the region of 40,000 by mid-2031.

Yet social attitudes have not kept pace with the growth of the “grey” population and, critics say, there is hardly any sphere of life where old people, especially the 60-plus, are not regarded as a “risk” or liability. Employers are reluctant to hire them; doctors don’t see them as a priority; financial institutions tend to look the other way when old people come asking for loans/mortgages; and insurance agents run a mile at their sight.

There have been cases of old people being refused credit cards, mortgages, travel insurance (one woman reported that her insurance company cancelled her travel insurance when she turned 70) and denied even proper medical treatment because of their age. Last year, a study by Quality and Safety in Health Care, a sister publication of the British Medical Journal, revealed that doctors routinely discriminated against older patients by denying them the tests and treatments they offered to younger people.

It said, for example, that those over 65 were less likely to be referred to a cardiologist and given heart treatments than younger patients. A pressure on resources was cited as a factor. “Resources are limited and doctors have to make difficult decisions. Maybe they have run out of options and are using age as an excuse. When we spoke to the doctors they were quite ready to justify their reasons. They may see older people as less deserving,” Professor Ann Bowling of the department of psychology at the University College London, who led the study, said in a newspaper interview.

More recently, The Observer reported the case of an elderly woman with back pain who was told by her doctor that it was because of old age, but later it turned out that she had had cancer of the spine. “In another case, a 76-year-old heart patient was told that she had had a ‘long life’ and asked if she really wanted to stay on the waiting list for a bypass,” it said.

According to campaign groups such as the Help Aged and the Age Concern, a person’s age should never be used as a factor in determining treatment. The British Medical Association is reported to be conducting its own study to gauge doctors’ attitude towards older patients. The view in medical circles is that the problem is exaggerated. It is claimed that more often than not, there are sound medical reasons for not subjecting elderly and fragile patients to stressful tests but this is misunderstood as discrimination. It is acknowledged, though, that there is need for doctors to handle such situations with greater sensitivity.

Ageism is reported to be most common at workplace with employers openly flouting Employment Equality (Age) Regulations which came into force in 2006 following an European Union directive. The law bans age-based discrimination in recruitment, wages, training, promotion, redundancy, retirement and pension provision.

A review on the first anniversary of the law revealed that ageism was still “endemic” with 55-64-year-olds being the worst-affected. A separate poll found that 16 million people experienced “ageist practices.” This despite the fact that more than 80 per cent of the employers said they were aware it was illegal to discriminate on grounds of age.

The Employment Tribunal Service, which adjudicates cases of alleged discrimination, has been inundated with complaints since the anti-age discrimination law came into force. According to a report of the Employers Forum on Age (EFA), a charity which campaigns against ageism, more than 2,000 claims for compensation were received by the Tribunal in the first year of the new law.

Campaigners claim that this is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg as many cases go unreported. But, thanks to the 2006 law, the victims of ageism are at least able to seek redress and the issue is now “on the radar,” as an EFA official put it. Employers have been warned of a backlash if workers continue to be discriminated against because of their age.

Even in liberal institutions such as theatre, media and universities, covert ageism is reported to be rife. Actors, writers and technicians on the wrong side of 60 complain that they don’t get work in theatre. Last year, a group of like-minded theatre professionals — all in their 60s — got together to launch a company, Prime Theatre, with the aim of providing work for older actors, technicians, etc. The company, funded by the Arts Council England and the Lottery Fund, will also produce plays that appeal to older audiences and, indeed, its maiden play, Aleksei Arbuzov’s Old World, was about ageism.

Prime Theatre’s patron Edward Woodward, who has been a successful film and TV actor, said he felt marginalised as he grew older as did other members of the group. Its founder and artistic director Ros Liddiard was reported in the Stage News, the newspaper of the performing arts industry, as saying that one reason for older artistes not getting work was that fewer parts are written for them.

“It’s perceived older actors feel a little bit marginalised, not because they aren’t usable, but there does tend to be a lack of older parts. We also talked to a lot of older people who said they’re not getting the sort of theatre they want to see,” she said.

Charge against BBC

The BBC is routinely accused of ageism, especially in relation to women, prompting charges of both “ageism and sexism.” Several high-profile women have left the BBC in recent years complaining that it is not a place for old women. Last year, there was an uproar when 55-year-old Moira Stuart, BBC’s first black news presenter, was dropped from news and current affairs allegedly to make room for younger presenters. A few months later, she resigned saying she felt frustrated by alleged prejudice against older women.

Before that, 62-year-old Anna Ford, one of the BBC’s most seasoned news presenters, quit saying she feared she would be “sidelined” and “shovelled off … to a graveyard shift” because of her age.

“I think when you reflect on the people who they’re bringing in and they’re all much younger. I think they are being brought in because they are younger. I think that’s specifically one of the reasons why they’re being employed … I might have been shovelled off into News 24 … to the sort of graveyard shift, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do that because it wouldn’t have interested me,” she said sparking front-page headlines about a growing “culture of ageism” at the BBC.

Then there was Nick Ross, a leading male presenter, who resigned saying he had seen the “writing on the wall” and preferred to leave on his own before shove came to push. Mr. Ross who had presented the BBC’s popular prime-time programme Crimewatch since it was launched in the 1980s, criticised the corporation for ignoring older people as it sought out younger audiences.

The BBC, of course, denies this as do other organisations. There may be some truth in claims that often there is too much generalisation with isolated or individual cases blown out of proportion by pro-active campaigners and a hyper media. But it is also true that there is no smoke without fire and, in this case, the smoke is thick enough to warrant action.