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Media can help in the fight against age discrimination

By Susan Ryan - posted Monday, 1 July 2013

Forgetful. Slow. Inactive. Inflexible. Technophobic. Prone to illness. Unable to learn new things. Bad drivers. Vulnerable. Grumpy. Isolated. Lonely.

If I were to ask you which group of people these terms are often used to describe, I'm sure it would not take you long to arrive at 'older' people.

Yet, think of the 'older' people you know, and you will most likely come to realize that most, if not all of these terms, don't apply to them.


Then ask yourself what 'older' actually means, and, depending on your age, you will probably realize that it is a matter of perspective – that the idea of 'older' differs depending on your own age.

What does this tell you about these terms that are so often used to describe 'older' people? It tells you that they are stereotypes.

Then ask yourself - if these stereotypes are counter to your own experience, how are they being reinforced to you?

Think about it. It is most likely through the depictions you are exposed to in the media – advertising, TV shows and movies, current affairs programs, radio talk-back, newspapers and magazines.

Stereotypes are sweeping generalizations applied to an entire group of people – and in this case they are most definitely destructive.

I can say all this with authority because the Australian Human Rights Commission has just released findings from specially commissioned research that backs this up. Urbis Australia surveyed 2,020 male and female community respondents aged between 18 and 80 Australia-wide, conducted five focus groups over four age-group ranges and undertook comprehensive media, advertising and social media scans.


It found that our perceptions of the terms 'old' and 'elderly' move to older age-groups the older we get – that the younger people are, the younger they perceive the age threshold of 'old' and 'elderly' to be.

It found that the concept of 'ageing' carries predominantly negative connotations and that many Australians believe in a number of stereotypes about older people. People aged 18-24 are mostly likely to see them as 'sick', 'having difficulty learning complex tasks or new things' and 'not caring about their appearance'.

Perhaps, most surprisingly, it found that an astonishing 61% of Australians feel that the portrayal of older people in the media is 'unfair' and 47% feel the same way about the portrayal in advertising. Older people in the media are most often portrayed as frail, weak, victims or in poor health and the most common words used in relation to them in the media are 'forgetful, 'slow', 'frail', 'vulnerable', 'burden', 'grump' or 'sick'.

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Susan Ryan released the Australian Human Rights Commission's research report, "Fact or Fiction: Stereotypes of older Australians" last week. This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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About the Author

The Hon Susan Ryan AO is Age Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

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