We are Capable of Everything: Ageism in Malaysia
Joan Collins should probably revise her aphorism that “age is just a number” since it is becoming more apparent that age is truly more than just a number. Age, now being used to discriminate against others, has the power to refuse employment, fire employees, withhold medical care to certain patients, and deny decent customer service to some. The term used to describe this is called ‘ageism’, and it is a relatively new terminology that very few are aware of, although it has been plaguing society for a long time. Robert N. Butler, an American psychiatrist and gerontologist, invented the term in 1969 to characterise prejudice towards people of a different age group, or any type of stereotyping and discrimination based on chronological age. Ageism, which is similar to racism and sexism, is a bias against older individuals that have recently been seen to affect younger people as well. Institutional, interpersonal, internalised, hostile, benevolent, explicit, and implicit are just some ways to terminally categorise ageism, and it may differ situationally. A survey conducted by the University of Michigan on the National Poll on Healthy Aging in 2020 showed that 65% of ageist messages were delivered from media, 45% experienced interpersonal ageism and 36% had internalised ageism.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, ageism occurs every day in our lives, and unlike other forms of discrimination, it is quietly accepted into our community with little to no concern for its terrible repercussions. All are affected by ageism, ranging from elderly persons being turned down for jobs to young people being refused the opportunity to advance in their careers because they are “inexperienced due to age.” Ageism can be found in almost any domain, including the workplace, healthcare, the media, and even the homes. Anti-ageing products are an excellent example of higher-level ageism that has gained immense social acceptance. Imagine the outrage from the public if a company were to advertise products that were anti-feminine or anti-racial.
In theory, ageism is more prevalent among the older generation than the younger. In workplaces, where older individuals experience age discrimination at a greater height, many are denied job opportunities due to their age. Not only is it inappropriate to ask them their age during an interview, but some employers also treat older employees with less care and respect. If someone already works at a company and is accustomed to their conservative work style, they would be characterised as a ‘dinosaur’ or ‘ancient.’ Change does not happen overnight, and it takes time for the elderly to adjust to modern technology. Employers should not expect employees to learn Word or Excel in a single day. In the worst-case scenario, the older generation would be forced into early retirement and if they were to refuse, they would be fired without a pension. Another area where ageism is more blatant than ever is the healthcare industry. Consider a pandemic crisis where resources are scarce and lives are at risk; medical personnel are obligated to save the young, who have a higher chance of surviving.
Most ageists, who have no empathy for the elderly, would consider an older person holding up the line at the pay register a nuisance. Other examples include being denied interest-free credit or a new credit card, as well as having their car or travel insurance cancelled. Apart from that, receiving bad customer service in a shop or restaurant is usually reflective of the organisation’s attitude towards older people. Being denied membership in a club or trade association and a referral from a doctor to a consultant because of age are all part of the age discrimination package. This may all seem a little too far-fetched when we think of it, but sad to say it happens more often than we think. For example, ageism is evident in homes when an elderly asking a young person how to use Facebook, or send an email and is refused to be taught only because they are ‘slow’ or ‘incompetent,’ which irritates the younger. Discrimination against the elderly is rampant, and many people are unaware of it. Our ex-prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, is an excellent example of how an elderly person can lead a country with such foresight and grace. His contributions to the country are widely admired, and many people are motivated to follow in his footsteps.
The demographic that is commonly associated with ageism is older individuals, but do we grasp how it impacts the young? Seniority is valued in the traditional organisational hierarchy, and those at the top are much older adults. Younger employees are expected to work twice as hard as older employees, with no gratitude or recognition. Because of their lack of experience, some may consider younger people as inept. This is undoubtedly the dilemma that most recent graduates face while seeking employment where the requirements for work experience are absurd. As per LinkedIn’s Opportunity Index 2020, a lack of work experience hindered 40% of Gen Z and 21% of millennials from getting jobs. Ageism against today’s millennials and Gen Z stems from widespread beliefs that they are entitled and lazy radicals. It’s bad enough that today’s youth face a slew of issues, from low minimum wages to outstanding student loans, low-quality and unpaid internships, and unrealistic academic requirements; now they have to compete in a frantic rat race with one another to just get a job, which doesn’t even guarantee a permanent position.
Another type of age discrimination that youths in Malaysia faced before was the refusal to allow younger people to vote. Undi18 is a recently approved bill in parliament that lowers the voting age for general elections from 21 to 18 years old, allowing youngsters to become more politically conscious and have a say in matters affecting the country’s affairs. Most Malaysian politicians, who are accustomed to a “top down, talk down” mentality, opposed the Undi18 bill’s adoption. This stems from the radical idea and belief that younger individuals aren’t ‘mature’ enough to make informed political judgments since they lack work experience, making them naïve and gullible. This resulted in a surge of youth battling the opposition, yearning for their voices to be heard, and finally, at long last, they won.
Ageism in the Workplace
Workplace age discrimination is undoubtedly one of the most pressing issues that everyone faces. The young are denied the opportunity to take on new tasks and responsibilities, while the elderly are fired or forced into early retirement once they reach the benchmark retirement age of 60. Discrimination of this type includes dismissing employees beyond the age of 50 and refusing to hire recent graduates with little to no experience. Asking the age of a person during an interview, enacting policies that unfairly favour one age group over another, viewing older people as out of touch, less productive, or stuck in their ways, viewing younger people as unskilled, irresponsible, or unworthy, and finally bullying or harassment are all examples of ageism in the workplace.
The Intern, a 2015 movie starring Anne Hathaway and Robert De Niro, and The Internship, a Google-based movie starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaugh, depict an accurate portrayal of how ageism occurs even in a supposedly modern and forward-thinking organisation. In Malaysia, ageism screams during nationally televised broadcasts of parliament meetings, as older politicians openly criticise younger politicians, as in the case of Tanjung Karang Member of Parliament Tan Sri Noh Omar, who ridiculed Syed Saddiq during a Dewan Rakyat meeting. This incident was shown to the public, resulting in a flood of outraged youth who took to Twitter to come to Saddiq’s defence. There are many more examples of ageism in the workplace, whether apparent or not, and this is starting to become a major issue for the community, where unjust treatment against the old and the young are getting out of hand.
Ageism in Healthcare
Ageism can have a significant influence on a person’s physical and mental health, and in some more severe cases, deaths have been reported. This universal systematic type of oppression affects everyone, yet little is done to address the problem, even when evidence suggests that it could lead to death in some instances. Ageism in healthcare has been observed to influence most healthcare policies and medical decisions made worldwide, from diagnosis through prognosis. As previously stated, benevolent ageism presents itself in healthcare through baby-talking adults. This sort of infantilizing care is referred to as ‘elderspeak,’ in which health professionals speak to adults using simple language, phrases of endearment, or the rhythmic tone of voice that one would use while speaking to a kid. In other terms, ageism refers to the treatment of the elderly as if they were children. Another facet of ageism in healthcare is coercion and violence. Both the young and the old may encounter this problem since they are under the impression that feelings don’t matter, and as a result, medical workers treat them with less compassion.
According to a 2017 study, healthcare professionals spend less time with elderly patients. The study discovered that ageism is linked to nurses communicating with older patients in a shorter, less effective, and superficial manner. Healthcare workers spent a disproportionately lower amount of time caring for cancer patients who were significantly older than the young. They were less patient, less courteous, and less involved, all of which testifies to ageism’s unfair treatment of the elderly. Aside from not caring, medical personnel have been proven to stereotype diagnosis and prognosis depending on age. For example, older research has shown that physicians are less likely to associate older patients with suicidal thoughts or mental health therapy, indicating that wrong perceptions about ageing contribute to inappropriate medical care based on age assumptions. Assuming that an elderly patient is less dependent also leads to the unnecessary use of diapers or bed rest.
How COVID-19 Affects Ageism
Although ageism can be perpetrated against both the young and the old, the focus of the theoretical research was on the adults who were the victims of this discrimination. The pandemic hasn’t helped matters. The virus affects the elderly, who have a higher biological vulnerability than the younger population. Because ageing is a complicated, dynamic, and varied process, discrimination against older persons and age-based stigmatisation have become more prevalent in the wake of the epidemic, prompting major ethical and political debates. In the context of the COVID-19 epidemic, ageism was increasingly visible according to numerous studies, resulting in a variety of negative consequences for older individuals, including neglect, loneliness, diminished mobility, increased frailty, depression, anxiety, and, in many cases, death. Simply put, when two patients are on the same bed and resources are limited, the patient with a better chance of survival will be saved. Similarly, younger patients are preferred over elderly patients since they have a better chance of surviving.
It is no secret that COVID-19 has taken a toll on people’s lives all around the world. The pandemic, which claimed the lives of more than five million people globally, caused damage to economies and labour markets around the world, adding to the problem of ageism. Although not medically as affected, the younger generation is likewise affected by ageism as a result of the pandemic. The crisis affects young people differently depending on the labour market situation, according to a joint report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the International Labour Organization (ILO). According to the ILO, the outbreak harmed career prospects of young people between the age of 18 to 29, inflicting a heavy toll on them while destroying employment. Lockdown procedures have had an impact on workers of all ages, resulting in reduced working hours. Because younger people’s employment tenure is shorter, they are more likely to lose their jobs permanently rather than be suspended temporarily, hence companies are less likely to try and keep them. According to the report, young individuals are three times more likely to be unemployed than those over 25. In the first quarter of 2020, Malaysia recorded a 42% increase in employment losses. According to the Social Security Organization (SOCSO), businesses are facing a significant decline in demand and revenue as a result of their inability to function. As a result, many younger individuals have been laid off since they are considered invaluable to the organisation.
What can be done?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) proposes three approaches in combating ageism at the political and institutional levels, as they have the most potential to effect change. The first step is to educate people about ageism in modern culture to eliminate myths and preconceptions. Intergenerational interventions are then used to encourage cooperation and empathy among different age groups. Finally, laws and policies should be changed to reduce unfairness and age discrimination in the workplace and healthcare.
Individuals can assist address this problem by attempting to be allies. Allyship entails devoting personal time and attention to combating ageism by becoming aware of the problem and thinking about how it affects one’s thoughts, feelings, and life experiences. By listening to real-life experiences, reading ageism-related materials, and conducting research on the subject, one can have a better understanding of how this issue impacts people. Individually, developing and practising advocacy skills such as recognizing when to speak up and when to back off are another strategy to overcome ageism. After completing all the preceding steps, the most crucial step is to take action. To see the change we want, we must use our knowledge by correcting ageist preconceptions, confronting ageist jokes, and speaking out against ageism. It does not save the person per se, but it does go a long way toward ensuring that those in similar situations are heard.
Ageism, like any other form of bigotry, is a universal issue that affects everyone at some point in their lives. While most people are working toward a more modern attitude, some are still stuck in their jaded ways of thinking. A 20-year-old may have a mindset of cronyism, corruption, and power abuse, but a 70-year-old may have a childish perspective where everything is fun and games. So was Collins actually right? Is age, after all, just a number?
Written by: Balvin Dhaliwal. Edited by Siow Chien Wen.