• English

Christian Friis Bach

Bach's Blog

The Executive Secretary's Blog

I am in my best age

When my father celebrated his birthday, we often asked him, how it was to grow old. He always replied, "I am in my very best age". This attitude has inspired me and perhaps it can inspire others. Because too often we see "growing old" as a problem and rather with a negative undertone. Have you ever jokingly used the expression of being "over the hill" when one of your friends had a big birthday? Or you called it "a senior moment" when someone forgot something? Or maybe you use anti-ageing cream to get rid of all those unwanted signs of ageing? It seems that people want to have a long life but they don’t actually want to grow old!

Older persons form a substantial part of our societies today: 15% of the population in UNECE countries are 65 years old and over. Thanks in part to the remarkable increase in longevity we have experienced over the past 50 years, this proportion will continue to grow. In 2030, one in five persons will be 65 or older and then one in four in 2050. Shortly after 2030 I will join the group and will no longer talk about them but us.

The way we view older persons matter greatly – for individuals themselves of course, but also for society as a whole. In a World Values Survey in 20 UNECE countries, 15% of respondents agreed that older people were a burden and more than half of the respondents said that older people were not respected. This paints a gloomy picture of how older people are viewed and treated. This is why this year, the International Day of Older Persons called for action against negative stereotypes about older persons and drew attention to an issue that is still too often under the radar.

Ageism is defined as stereotyping and discrimination based on a person’s age. In its most extreme form, ageism can result in harmful discriminatory practices and even elder abuse. Older workers are laid off or seniors refused a loan or insurance because of their age. Older persons are denied access to education and training. But ageism is much more than open discrimination. It is also the – often unintentional – labelling and stereotyping on the basis of a person’s age that takes place on a daily basis. This can come in many forms and may often be implicit or subconscious. Doctors not taking their older patients seriously or falsely attributing clinical symptoms to older age, jokes that poke fun at older persons, stereotyping older employees as averse to new technology and innovation – these are just a few examples of how ageist stereotypes manifest in daily actions.

These stereotypes and discriminatory practices have a detrimental effect. They can negatively impact on someone’s self-esteem, job prospects and financial situation. They can marginalize older people in their communities and worsen their quality of life. What is more, studies have shown that ageist stereotypes can work as a self-fulfilling prophecy: older persons subjected to ageism may internalize ageist attitudes and as a result show lower levels of health and memory capacity and even die sooner.

At the UN, we work to change this. UNECE assists its member countries to create awareness about ageing and to mainstream ageing in all policy fields. As ageism occurs in all spheres of society, counter efforts have to be pervasive, encompassing fields as different as health and social care, the labour market, lifelong learning, social, cultural and political participation, the representation of older persons in the media and in the film industry, etc. UNECE gives guidance through the preparation of Road Maps with recommendations, and promotes the exchange of good practices through its series of Policy Briefs on Ageing. The Active Ageing Index, a monitoring tool developed by UNECE in cooperation with the European Commission, helps to strengthen the evidence base for policymaking by measuring the untapped potential of older persons to age actively.

But the fight against ageism does not stop here. We all need to become aware of the subconscious stereotypes of older persons we might have. We need to realize when and how these stereotypes are at work in our daily interactions with older persons and in our perception of them. Only when we become aware of ageism in its many forms, can we act on it and drive change.

Discrimination weighs us down as a society and prevents us from tapping our full potential. We have been putting a lot of efforts into the fight against racism and sexism and have come a long way. We must also fight against ageism with the same vigor. We need to embrace the ageing population with the many opportunities it holds to realize our goal of an inclusive society for all ages.

So, the next time you celebrate the birthday of a person who is not that young any more use the phrase: You are in your very best age!


If you wonder why the animal accompanying my blog is a cow, it is because cows are fascinating animals; the cows of our host country, Switzerland, are famous for their quality; and because I am still a farmer, and miss the cows I had in Denmark. Now I got one back.