The Journey to Age Equality

16 October 2019

Age equality
On the 1st October the UN once again celebrated the annual International Day of Older Persons (IDOP) its 2019 theme aligning with Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 10 focussing on pathways of coping with existing and preventing future old age inequality.

SDG 10 sets out to reduce inequality within and among countries and aims to “ensure equal opportunity and reduce inequalities of outcome,” which includes measures to eliminate discrimination, and to “empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status.”

Reducing theses inequalities is certainly a challenge in a world where they sometimes appear to be hard-wired into societies. As a recent article on 2020 US Presidential election candidates shows, US politicians are likely to enjoy advantages that mean they have a healthy life expectancy significantly better than that of most Americans of their age. This reflects what the UN itself acknowledges to be the disparities in old age arising from cumulative disadvantage over the life course, in which health and income, gender, socio‐economic status and geographical location all play a role.

Ageism is a powerful amplifier of inequalities faced throughout life, with the manifestations of these inequalities in older age taken as proof of the inevitable consequences of ageing. Assumptions about what happens in older age lead to prejudice, discrimination, and the exclusion of older people from data collection, policies and programmes. These views ignore the reality that later life is not a singular experience - we all experience older age differently. The capabilities of older women and men are determined by myriad intersecting inequalities, including (as a recent report has shown) those produced through gender processes, and the effects of accumulating assets and liabilities over a life course.

Overcoming ageism is central to equal opportunity and reduced inequalities for everyone throughout the life course. However, both in the “developed” and the “developing” world, formidable barriers remain to the achievement of more equal societies for older people. Age discrimination is still not prohibited in many national constitutions and not covered in anti-discrimination laws. Other laws, policies and practices continue to limit older people's autonomy, increase their dependency on others and deprive them of their dignity.

In many low- and middle-income countries pensions are neither universal nor guaranteed in law, and the value of the pension is so low that many older people living near or below the poverty line continue to be financially dependent on others. Mandatory retirement ages exclude older people from the workforce, and upper age limits deny older people access to health services, financial goods and services. And older people rarely have choice or control over the care and support they may need to live independently. It is often unavailable, unaffordable and not guaranteed in law.

There has been some progress in challenging embedded ageism. A recent judgement by India’s Supreme Court, for example, required the government to revisit the adequacy of pension provision, arguing that ‘social justice is about providing equal opportunities’. In response, a number of state governments have raised pension payments, and the federal government has begun a review of the national scheme. However, the advocacy needed to achieve such advances is time-consuming and costly, and successes like this consequently remain few and far between.

Policy declarations mean little if they are not implemented or fail to respond to the needs of older people. A case in point is Universal Health Coverage (UHC) which promises health for all, including older people, but in many contexts fails to provide the infrastructure needed to ensure that appropriate health care is offered. Questions have also been raised regarding the policy focus of the UHC impetus on the health sector, ignoring the wider social and environmental determinants which play a decisive role in health for all. This emphasis threatens its role in promoting health-related SDGs such as food and nutrition (SDG 2), gender equality (SDG 5), and water and sanitation (SDG 6) and indeed the reduction of inequality (SDG 10) which is the focus of this year’s IDOP.

We are hampered by a dearth of research on ageism in low- and middle-income countries, with most studies focussed on western contexts, though even here the volume of research is much smaller than that for say, racism or sexism. For the “developing” world we know very little about the impact of the cumulative processes which affect the experience of growing old. Very little information, including national statistics, is systematically collected to capture the outcomes of differential experiences of issues such as education, health, relative poverty and gender on ageing. Much of the evidence submitted to consultations on ageism is therefore anecdotal, which, while providing powerful individual testimony, does not necessarily furnish the data persuasive to policymakers and legislators.

Human rights are universal, and their enjoyment should not diminish with age. A new international convention on the rights of older people is probably the most effective way to ensure that all people enjoy their human rights in older age, and on an equal basis with others. Such a convention should provide a comprehensive and systematic framework for the protection and promotion of all our human rights in older age, prohibiting all forms of discrimination in older age. It should articulate how each human right specifically applies to people in older age and provide for a strong implementation, monitoring and accountability system. Advocacy making the case for these rights has grown in strength in recent years, attracting increasing support from UN member states, but remains challenging in a world focussed on other priorities.

Notwithstanding the central importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with its assertion that ‘All human beings are all born free and equal in dignity and rights’, it failed to recognise ageism and prohibit age discrimination. Older people's human rights still need to be made visible in international human rights law, in national law, in policies and in our day-to-day lives. Only thus will the journey to age equality be successfully concluded.

This blog was originally published on Oxford Institute of Population Ageing.

About the Author

Mark Gorman is a Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. He is the Director of Strategic Development at HelpAge International.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.