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News announcement11 July 2024Joint Research Centre4 min read

Addressing ageism: a key priority for a society of longevity

Addressing ageism – stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination based on age - is crucial for ensuring that policies are successful in promoting the well-being and participation of older persons in society.  

As the EU transitions to a longevity society, it needs a vision that aims for the active participation and wellbeing of all age groups.
© Eemeli Kiukkonen via Vanhustyön keskusliitto

The world population is living longer than ever. For more than a century, life expectancy has been increasing in most countries worldwide. In the EU, life expectancy has increased by more than two years per decade since the 1960s, reaching 81.5 years in 2023. This is a remarkable societal achievement, reflecting improvements in overall living and health conditions. 

Increased life expectancy and declining birth rates are contributing to population ageing in the EU. The EU is transitioning into a new stage of social change – a society of longevity – where a significant portion of the population is living longer and there is an increasing number of older people in the population.  

As the EU makes this transition to a longevity society, it needs a vision that can exploit the advantages of longer lives. A vision that does not see old age as a burden and that aims for the active participation and wellbeing of all age groups. This requires substantial changes to how we see ageing and the contribution of older persons to society.  

The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) looks at the prevalence and impact of ageism on individuals and society in a series of science for policy briefs

Ageism – i.e. stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination based on age – poses a major challenge in terms of achieving this, because it affects older person’s perception of themselves and of their capacities, prevents them from being an active part of society and limits the options that are available as we age. 

Ageism is prevalent in various sectors of society 

The JRC’s science for policy briefs highlight the widespread nature of ageist attitudes and discriminatory practices. Ageism is found to be a global issue, prevalent in every social, economic, ethnic and geographic sphere and in different contexts, including the workplace, media, healthcare and public discourse. 

The results of the 2023 Eurobarometer Report on Discrimination in the EU indicate that 45% of Europeans are convinced that age discrimination (being perceived as too old or too young) is widespread in the EU. Additionally, 52% of Europeans mention age as the main criteria that may put a candidate at a disadvantage during a recruitment process. The latter represents a five-percentage point increase compared with the previous Eurobarometer survey in 2019. 

Ageism has wide-ranging impacts on individuals and society 

Ageism has a universal impact as it affects everybody over the course of their life. It has wide-ranging impacts on both individuals and societies, influencing health, well-being, economic productivity, intergenerational solidarity and the quality and fairness of policies and practices at multiple levels. 

Ageism is associated with greater likelihood of experiencing serious health issues, accidents, hospitalisation, functional limitations, cognitive decline and depressive symptoms.  

Ageist attitudes of healthcare providers and treatment plans that are not adapted to the needs of older persons are some of the manifestations of ageism in healthcare settings. Other manifestations of ageism include using age as the only criteria for clinical decisions and not involving older persons in decision making regarding their treatment. These examples of ageist attitudes can result in older persons’ autonomy being undermined.  

In the labour market, ageism is associated with limited opportunities for older workers, disparities in hiring and promotions, and discriminatory practices, including forced early retirement.  

Ageism can also impose an economic burden on societies due to increased healthcare costs, potential decline in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and inefficient use of human resources, which affects productivity and use of skills in the labour market.  

Addressing ageism should be a priority for several policy areas 

JRC’s studies emphasise that addressing ageism is crucial for ensuring that active and healthy ageing policies are successful in promoting the well-being and participation of older individuals in society.  

The researchers recommend that addressing ageism becomes a key component of policies addressing the consequences linked to an ageing population. This includes policies from health to employment that will need to consider the ageing of the EU population. For instance, more efforts are needed to actively address ageism in the workplace, and to create conditions that enable older workers to thrive.  

Raising awareness of the impact of ageism and supporting programmes that foster intergenerational contact are equally important.  

Ageism in the media 

The media plays an important role in shaping societal perceptions of ageing. It has the potential to either perpetuate ageist attitudes or contribute to a more positive narrative around ageing.  

Scientific literature repeatedly highlights the prevalence of ageist stereotypes in the media, particularly in its portrayal of older individuals, and emphasises the role of media in perpetuating ageist attitudes in society. 

Older adults are often represented as a homogeneous group – i.e. equally frail and vulnerable – not considering their diversity and individuality. 

Studies on language used in the media have highlighted the prevalence of ageist terms such as ‘elderly’ and ‘old people’, over more appropriate terms such as ‘older adults’.  

Some of the ageist attitudes and language in the media come from a place of concern for the well- being of older people. However, this often results in a patronising tone, which reinforces negative stereotypes on older persons, and overlooks their own views on the issue. 

Research indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic further normalised ageism in the media, making it more socially acceptable to articulate ageist prejudices.  

Perception is also shaped by language. JRC researchers recommend caution when calling attention to the needs of older persons and use of appropriate language and messages to avoid the overgeneralisation of all older adults as a singularly vulnerable group. 



Publication date
11 July 2024
Joint Research Centre
JRC portfolios

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