There is a wicked inclination in most people to suppose an old man decayed in intellect. If a young or middle aged man, when leaving company, does not recollect where he has laid his hat, it is nothing; but if the same inattention is discovered in an old man, people shrug their shoulders, and say "his memory is going”
Dr Johnson, 1783 in the Rambler.
From Simple Word Count to Ageism
Simple word count captures only part of the story. Context and word association would be more insightful. Recently researchers have used such an approach to study ageism from 1800. Their data base is broader but only covers America. The “Corpus of Historical American English” is a data base of 100,000 fiction and non-fiction books but also contains magazines and periodicals. It is only 400m words and covers the period 1810-2009.
They first needed to create a set of "target words" to cover the aged. Three words were common across all decades: “aged”; “elderly” and “old people”. This was the core target group. There were another eleven words that were also used. For example “senior citizen” only appeared in 1949. Having created these two groups they looked for “qualifiers”. Were the “old” described in a positive way for example “wise” or negatively for example “decrepit”. They rated all those qualifiers on a scale of how positive and negative they were.
Their results raise an interesting set of issues. Attitudes towards the old decline in a straight line from 1810. From a positive score in 1810 they decline to neutrality around 1890. They then continue to get more and more negative. The results are the same whether using the core three words as the target or the broader 11 words. Perhaps Samuel Johnson was only an outlier in a world which was generally more positive.
Why has Ageism Grown
The researchers looked at two different explanations using their data. They included in their analysis the number of people over 65 in each decade. Ageism can be related to dependency. The more old people, the more the feeling of a large group in need of “support”. Their statistical analysis suggests that the growth in ageism can be partly explained by the number of old people. Since the US population over 65 has grown by a third in the past decade, then ageism might be expected to have risen.
Their second theory was that ageism has been driven by the “medicalization” of ageing. Medical science has increased longevity over the period. The price is that ageing has stopped being a natural part of life. Instead it has been broken down by medical specialists. It has become a series of diseases in need of treatment. That focus has paid off. It has also generated an industry focused on the old and “selling” solutions to them.
They coded the words used in their analysis as medical or non-medical. Over time, but particularly since the turn of the last century, ageing has become more and more a disease. There is a association between ageism and this medicalization. Unfortunately this is confound by the passing of time.
The underlying psychology of ageism may have changed in the past two hundred years. The “Terror Theory” hinges on our fear of dying. To avoid being reminded of the inevitability of death we avoid the old. To do so with a clear conscience, we dehumanize them. In 1810 people were probably just as afraid of dying. However they might not have needed older people to remind them. Death of children was hugely higher. Many more women died in childbirth. Industrial accidents were more common. Death was much more a part of everyday life. Today we live in a world were death is much less visible. The sight of old people may have become a much more salient reminder.
The Social Identity theory of ageism suggests we want our age group to be superior. We look down on people older than ourselves. If there were many fewer older people in Society would we have bothered? In the UK in 1900 less than 5% of people were over 65. In 1800 it would have been much lower. Would we have thought of ourselves in age groups or as part of some other group.
The industrial revolution was arriving across this period of increasing ageism. The idea that old people were less effective workers becomes more important as we move from farms to factories. They idea that old people take jobs from the young probably makes more sense at that time. Certainly there were far more 70 year olds in the workforce in 1810. There are many explanations.