Is Britain Today an Ageist Society?

Exploring Ageism in 21st Century Britain

Is Britain Today an Ageist Society?

Ageism is defined by The Oxford English Dictionary as “Prejudice or discrimination against people on the grounds of age.” Over the last 25 years, Britain has undergone noticeable demographic changes, particularly among older people. A study by the Rowntree Foundation in 2010 revealed that not only are people living longer – the population of people aged 85 years and above had risen by almost 680,000 over the last two and a half decades, there is also a change in living arrangements. The extended family is no longer a trend, due to changes within family units in general, and the cost and implications of residential care meaning that increasing numbers of older people are living alone, with or without help from outside agencies, (Falkingham et al, 2010). Given these demographic and social changes it is concerning that ageism is ubiquitous in Britain, often unconsciously (Donnellan, 2005). This essay will focus on two key issues where ageism exists; employment and healthcare. It will provide evidence to prove that ageism is a problem; conversely it will also discuss the measures that are being taken to combat the issue.

In July 2009, Sainsbury’s were ordered to pay compensation of over £129,000 to a 52-year-old employee after a store manager inferred that she was “past it.” The lady, a Miss Koh, had worked at the store as a duty manager since 1985, however, at the age of 51 she was asked whether she would prefer an easier job, possibly in administration, it was suggested that “as she had only a few years left to retirement that at her age she should think about doing something less responsible, stressful and demanding” (, 2009). The fact that this case was brought to court, and that the lady won her case, demonstrates both sides; that ageism exists, and that legislation is in place to deter it. Forced retirement is also an issue; some company’s insist that a person retires at a certain age, however new legislation means that a person approaching retirement age now has the choice whether they want to continue working, if an employer rejects this request on unjustifiable grounds i.e. age alone, the employee can pursue a case of unfair dismissal. Society is constantly drip fed the importance of equality and diversity, however, ageism is not as likely to enter the employer’s mind when considering recruits or promotions; the implications of being accused of sexism or racism will most definitely be considered. Around a third of Britain’s population aged between 50 and state pension age is out of work and it is easy to see why employers base their assumptions on stereotypes; in the media older people are more often than not portrayed in a negative fashion. Employers believe that older workers are slow, closed to new concepts and technology and are simply biding their time until retirement. Poor health is also a reason cited with consideration to cost implications (Donnellan, 2005, p26)

Healthcare and, more specifically, what it costs is an issue that generates regular debate. According to recent research by Policy Exchange, the NHS spent £16.17 billion of its annual budget specifically on care for the elderly, and that over the next 15 years that amount could rise by 50 percent, (Hill, 2010). Given these figures, the amount of debate generated is understandable; are people who are in the winter of their lives worth the money? There is the question of rationing healthcare and forcing us to pay into some form old age health insurance in our working years. Of course, both of these already exist, although health insurance is not compulsory. An example where healthcare rationing is in operation is in breast screening for women; currently all women over the age of 50 are invited for routine breast screening every three years, however, this stops when they reach 70 years old. Similarly, the screening programme for bowel cancer ceases at 69 years old (NHS, 2011). There is no doubt that older people cost the NHS a large amount of money, however, the questions relating to health and older people need to be considered ethically rather than in terms of cost effectiveness. Older people do not become ill on purpose; they have served the country and paid taxes all their lives so why should society not pay for the care they need to make sure the remainder of their lives are as healthy as they can be? Measures are being taken to improve the health of older people, charities like Age UK and Age Concern provide advice and support to stay active and opportunities to improve social lives which contribute to better health. The NHS are reviewing many of their practices and offering extended age brackets for cancer screening programmes. Ageism is extremely apparent in attitudes to healthcare but recent changes suggest improvement over the next few years.

There is no doubt that at present Britain is an ageist society. Older people undoubtedly encounter prejudices because of their age. They will feel let down by their workplace or short changed by the health services, and rightly so. It is interesting to note that around the same amount that the NHS spends on elderly care is spent on the care of those who abuse alcohol and other illegal substances, these cost the NHS almost £7 billion each year, (The Telegraph, 2009), then there is the amount that smoking costs each year, £5 billion, (The Independent, 2009), and of course the issue of the day, obesity, costing £4 billion (Balls, 2011). These ‘self inflicted’ illnesses total £16 billion a year, so why do people not question the cost effectiveness of treatment for the people inflicted with these illnesses? The answer is simple; as well as tobacco and alcohol generating taxes, it would be politically incorrect to do so. The government needs to be seen to be tackling current, media savvy issues in order to win votes. The people whose vote is valued are the ‘productive’ generation. However, new legislations on employment law coupled with improvements in health and social opportunities will see us living a productive lifestyle for longer hopefully meaning that ageism will be extinguished by the time we are old enough to be affected by it.

Bibliography 2009. Koh v Sainsbury’s Supermarkets Ltd. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 January 12]

Balls, J. 2011. How much does obesity cost the NHS?. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 January 12].

Donnellan, C. 2005. Ageing Issues. Independence Educational Publishers. Cambridge

Falkingham, J . Evandrou, M. McGowan, T . Bell, D. Bowes, A. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation. 2010. Demographic issues, projections and trends: Older people with high support needs in the UK. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 January 12]

Hill, A. The Guardian. 2010. Warning over £106bn bill for old-age care. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 January 12]

NHS . 2012. Cancer Screening Programmes. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 January 12].

Oxford Dictionaries. 2012. Definition for Ageism. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 January 12].

The Independent. 2009. Smoking costs NHS £5bn a year. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 January 12]

The Telegraph. 2009. £3bn cost of alcohol to NHS every year. [ONLINE] Available at:

Michelle Spittle
Michelle Spittle
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