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What is age discrimination and why is it important?

The IFA believes that the quality of life of older people can be improved when they are engaged in and by society and are actors in their communities. Age discrimination is a barrier to their full participation in the community. Awareness of and about age discrimination is imperative to overcoming it. Government officials, employers, service providers and the public in general must understand the problems it causes, and older people must be aware of their rights.

It is common for societies to divide themselves into various age groups for the purpose of ascribing rights and responsibilities, and indeed some age differentiation can be useful such as primary education for the ‘young’ and pensions for the ‘old’. However, some forms of age differentiation are harmful and counterproductive: Age discrimination occurs when one age group is treated differently from another resulting in unequal treatment or service.

Age discrimination can occur at all levels of society: within government, within the private sector, and within the community. Any person or group can experience age discrimination. Older people are a large age cohort subjected to particularly high levels of discrimination, much of it institutionalized. Age discrimination toward older people is primarily influenced by the concept that an individual’s physical and mental capacity is negatively affected through ageing, and younger people are therefore more able.

Presently there are no international legal instruments that explicitly prohibit age discrimination and in international human rights law, age discrimination has received little attention. Nor is there consensus among governments on how to legally prohibit age discrimination. Nevertheless, the demographics in many regions toward an older population is a bringing increasing attention to this important issue and governments are taking notice. At the national level in many countries, legal instruments prohibiting age discrimination are generally recent products.

Reviewing age discrimination laws in place around the world indicates that age discrimination in the workforce is considered the most pressing legal issue. Ageing workforces are having an effect on the short and long-term economic forecasts of many countries, necessitating review and action on discrimination in this area. Some legislation in place only covers age discrimination in employment; notably in relation to mandatory retirement ages and discriminatory hiring practices.

Other areas where discrimination can occur such as in the provision of goods and services, or in access to health care and insurance, are often not addressed by legislation. Equality will not be achieved if only some forms of discrimination are illegal while others are allowed to continue.

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