Australian Human Rights Commission: ‘What’s age got to do with it? A snapshot of ageism across the Australian lifespan’ (Report, 2021).

Ageism affects the entire spectrum of the Australian population, from young people to the elderly. Despite being such an ingrained form of prejudice, there has been little formal inquiry into the discrimination and inequality it perpetuates.

Aiming to reconcile this lack of research, the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2021 report, ‘What’s age got to do with it? A snapshot of ageism across the Australian lifespan’, examines attitudes, stereotypes and beliefs about age and ageism according to extensive research undertaken from a cross-section of Australian society.

Key Findings

The AHRC’s report defines ‘ageism’ as including the stereotypes (how individuals think), prejudice (how individuals feel), and discrimination (how individuals act) toward others on the basis of their age.

The report had several key findings with regard to such stereotypes and prejudice.

  • It was revealed that 83% of Australians believe that ageism is a legitimate problem which detrimentally impacts individuals personally and professionally.
  • Additionally, both younger and older individuals are reported as having experienced ageism in various forms in the workplace; which impact the ability to both obtain and maintain work.
  • Furthermore, stereotyping on the basis of age was reported as a common experience across multiple generations, with 60% of Australians agreeing that they may have stereotyped of judged someone due to their age. Young adults (70%) were the most likely to agree that they had subscribed to age-based stereotypes, compared to middle aged (58%) or older individuals (45%).

The AHRC also examined the general attitudes held by Australians toward broad age categories within the populace.

  • Young adults are largely viewed as energetic, dynamic, and technologically advanced. Despite this, only 35% of Australians surveyed viewed young adults as polite and respectful: the prevailing stereotype for this age group is that there is a lack in work ethic, that individuals are still in the process of learning, and that making mistakes is the norm.
  • Those in their middle age are viewed in a largely favourable light by Australians: they are affirming professional success, whilst tending to their families and raising children; as well as being associated with leadership roles both in the workplace and in society at large. Notably, this age group is also seen to be somewhat pressured and subject to increased stress, given the competing demands of their familial and professional lives.
  • The elderly are viewed in a positive overall light by the majority (74%) of Australians surveyed typically seen as warm and likeable, whilst ‘slowing down’ in retirement and enjoying leisure and simpler pleasures. However, Australians also consider older people to possess a declining set of skills and competence, and lack agency, as well as being limited by their age, poor health, and general frailty.

As these attitudes are prevalent in Australian society, so too did the report note the impact of ageism on individuals in the workplace. 30% of young adults reported being condescended or ignored in a workplace environment as a consequence of their age. Additionally, middle-aged Australians were more likely (35%) to report being turned down for a new role or position, compared to young adults and the elderly.

Considerations for Employers

Understanding how the Australian population views age and ageism is an important consideration for employers, as there are clear links between ageist attitudes and behaviours which can lead to definitional age discrimination. The attitudes that the Australian population at large possesses with regard to certain age groups and stereotypes inevitably translate into how such groups are viewed and treated in the workplace.

For instance, the report found that the belief that older Australians possess a declining skill set makes them more likely to be viewed as ‘frail onlookers’ rather than knowledgeable leaders in the workplace. In contrast, those in middle age are stereotyped to be at the peak of their professional careers, although subject to tensions from juggling responsibilities of their domestic and work lives.

It was also found that ageism is often conflated with age discrimination: young adults in particular view the idea of ‘ageism’ as concerning primarily workplace concerns and older Australians. Despite age discrimination being unlawful under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), the report emphasises how unchecked age-based stereotypes continue to inform hiring and recruiting practices.

Such attitudes can also influence workplace policies and decisions about who may be offered further training or advancement opportunities; and in the alternative, who may be offered redundancies. These findings support previous research undertaken by the Commission, including the National Prevalence Survey of Age Discrimination in the Workplace (Report, 2015), and the Discrimination – Exposing the Hidden Barrier for Mature Age Workers (Report, 2010).

Ultimately, ageism is a human rights issue, and as workplaces are intrinsically connected to the rights of their employees, it is vital for employers to ensure they ensure all employees – regardless of age – are not subject to discrimination in the workplace, and are able to participate and enjoy opportunities equally and universally.

To read the full AHRC report on age and ageism, visit the Commission’s website here: