How do you feel about your age? Is it something you happily embrace or do you shy away from it and fear the process of getting older? Unfortunately, when it comes to ageing we Brits seem to have a pretty negative opinion of it. As a nation, we view ageing as a process of becoming less attractive, less physically able and experiencing cognitive decline. This stereotype of older people is perpetuated through our media and the way that we treat older members of society. It’s no surprise then that just 39% of over 50s feel they can relate to how their age is portrayed in the media*.
But what is so wrong with being a ‘senior’? Ageing is something that we should be celebrating. After all, not everyone is privileged to make it so far in life. So, what does it really mean to be over 50 in the UK, and where do you fit into the picture?
What is ageism?
Ageism, also called age discrimination, is when you are treated unfavourably because of your age. It also includes the way that older people are portrayed in the media. Ageism can impact your job prospects, financial situation, confidence, and quality of life.
The Equality Act is a law created to protect people from discrimination. It means that discrimination or unfair treatment on the basis of certain personal characteristics, such as age, is now against the law in almost all cases. It also protects you from age discrimination in all aspects of your employment including recruitment, employment terms and conditions, promotions and transfers, training, and dismissals.
Not only can ageism impact the way that we feel about people we think of as ‘old’, but it can also affect how we feel about our own ageing process. These attitudes are often reflected in and created by the language we use about age and ageing.
What are attitudes like towards over 50s in the UK?
What does the word ‘senior’ mean to you? The Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries defines a senior citizen as ‘an older person, especially somebody who has retired from work’. In the UK, the age of retirement is currently 67 years old.
According to a new study by the Centre for Ageing Better, the UK’s attitudes towards ageing are overwhelmingly negative. The study found that people across the UK believe older workers have lower levels of performance, less ability to learn, and are more costly than younger workers.
As for older people and heath, the stereotypes are even more negative. Attitudes focused on physical decline and death as well as the belief that ageing is simply a process of increasingly poor health.
Does the stereotype accurately portray over 50s?
By 2023, the ONS projects that one in two adults in the UK will be over the age of 50*. If you’re over 50 already or getting near it, you might find it difficult to look at how over 50s are portrayed in the media and align it with how you feel.
If we are to believe the attitudes in the UK, over 50s as a group are doddering but dear seniors that are to be pitied. But that’s not the case. In fact, for many, life is just beginning at 50. According to Age UK, the number of self-employed people aged 65 and over has more than doubled in the past five years. Some over 50s become writers, or ride motorcycles, or start dating again. Hobbies that we’ve had throughout our lives don’t simply disappear overnight. Nor do we suddenly become lesser versions of ourselves the day we turn 50.
Why life over 50 is something to look forward to
Because of negative stereotypes and the way that we internalise these attitudes, many of us shy away from or even develop a fear of ageing. But ageing can be a wonderful process. According to Age UK, research shows we're happiest between the ages of 65 and 79. This is because our later years can be free from the stresses and strains of work and the responsibility of caring for children. You might also find yourself becoming happier in your own skin as you age.
Not only are your 50s and later years a time to enjoy life, but it can also be a good time to start a new chapter in your life. In fact, 1 in 5 people over 50 take up a new hobby and 1 in 8 learn a new skill. And if that’s not motivating enough, Bolder, the site that looks at ageing in a positive way, has interviewed a range of people aged 70 and up to show you that there’s more to being over 50 than simply ageing. Here’s a few stories to inspire you…
Muffie Grieve is a tennis player that recently took home two world championship titles for Over 80s Doubles at the International Tennis Federation Super Senior World Team and Individual Championships. To her, ageing is a source of tremendous confidence. She married her second husband in her 80s and is currently learning Spanish.
Jeffery Archer is a former politician turned best-selling novelist. For him, writing novels gives him a thrill like no other and that’s the reason he continues to write in his 80s. He ran a charity marathon at age 62 and doesn’t see his age as a setback in any way.
Lotte Moore began her writing career at age 70. She has since written more than 20s children books including some bestsellers. For Lotte, the trick to enjoying your older years is surrounding yourself with youth. She believes that the young and the old are very alike and both need a little love and comfort.
Tim Drake relaunched his career in his 50s when he lost everything in the recession. Instead of shying away from starting all over again, he embraced it and now has a successful writing and speaking career. When it comes to life over 50, Tim believes that you should continue to learn new things, earn money if you want to and to carry on having fun!
How can we fight ageism?
Challenging existing stereotypes can be a difficult task. But it’s not impossible. Start with your own attitudes towards ageing first. Using patronising and infantilising language towards people your own age and older people can encourage them to conform to negative stereotypes of old age by consistently reinforcing the idea that older people have low competence and high dependence. Having a positive view of ageing can help us make the most of our own experiences of it too. That in turn can help to shift how society thinks, feels and acts about ageing.
Our later years need to be recognised as much a time of diversity as any other age. The Centre for Ageing Better believes that one of the most important ways to do this is to encourage more realistic depictions of ageing in traditional media, social media and policy-making circles. The ‘S’ word shouldn’t be something to be feared but rather a normal and happy progression in life.
Embracing the ‘S’ word
Growing older is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, the number of people aged 65 and over will increase by more than 40% within 20 years so, if you’re over 50, you’re certainly not alone. Instead of focusing on negative attitudes about ageing, try to focus on what you can control. Finding out how you can manage your physical and mental health as you age can help you to feel more prepared for ageing and less afraid of the unknown. And remember, age is just a number.
*Mintel, Over 50s Guaranteed Acceptance Life Insurance Inc Impact of COVID 19 report, December 2020