The everyday events that convey an ageist message. The humorous birthday cards that show decline with age (not for birthdays beyond a certain age). The offers of help with something you are capable of doing. The advertising that uses an out of date stereotype of the old. Assumptions about senior moments. All these are examples of ageism embedded in everyday life. Does anyone notice? Do they matter?
Researchers have tried to develop a scale to measure those acts of “everyday ageism”. They are minor but can convey hostilities and a negative stereotype . The scale does not ask about ageism directly. Instead they ask about events. Examples include:
“How often to you hear, see or read things that suggest that older adults are unattractive or undesirable?”
“People often assume that I have difficulty using cell phones and computers” .
How Frequent Are these Incidents of Everyday Ageism?
They asked a representative sample of over 2000 US respondents over 50:
“In you day-to-day life, how often do the following happen to you?”
The scale was “Often”, “Sometimes”, “Rarely” and “Never”.
Exposure to Ageist Messages happened most often. 65% agreed to at least one of the items. This was related to their TV viewing levels and frequency of use of the internet. The highest scoring item was:
“I hear, see or read jokes about old age, ageing and older adults”
at 61% scoring “often” and “sometimes”. Perhaps those birthday cards are not as harmless as they look?
The media stereotype of older people is evolving. In the early nineties the older person in a TV detective series was in their Fourth Age. They were decrepit and depressed. They were portrayed in menial roles, usually the “old janitor”. Over time that physical image has improved significantly. Older people are portrayed as active and enjoying life. They have been “promoted” in terms of role. They are now equal members of police teams standing alongside their fellow detectives. We are on the cusp of having the lead detective in a crime series being 75 (Newsletter 017).
Ageing in Interpersonal Relations used five different items. All of which had been experienced "Often" or "Sometimes" by about one fifth of people. Top of the list were: people assuming you had difficulty with: using cell phones and computers; remembering or understanding something; or hearing and seeing. “People insisting on helping with things I can do on my own” came next.
The closest to a direct ageist action were those people who assumed that “I do nothing important or valuable”. 45% of all respondents said they had experienced one or more such events.
Their sample contained respondents of all ages from 50 upwards. It was clear that the incidence increased with age. It could be that looking older triggered the ageism. It could also be that being older brings with it sensitivity to such ageism. The exact explanation of the association is unclear. Everyday Ageism increased with ethnicity and non-white groups suffering more. It was also worse for people who were not working. Ageism obviously is accentuated by other forms of discrimination.
The Enemy Within
The third part of their scale relates to “The Enemy Within”. This is an idea I introduced in earlier Newsletters. We are exposed to negative stereotypes about age throughout our lives. These are often out of date and at least partly based on our own experience of our parents ageing. We internalise those stereotypes. The “enemy” is always there and can be triggered by events. We then conform to the stereotype. It becomes a self-fulling negative script for us. Experiments have shown that triggering that stereotype can reduce mental and physical ability (Newsletter 017). The data from this study allows us to see the extent to which this is happening in the real world.
It is happening to a surprising level. The “Everyday Ageism Survey” measured the “Enemy Within” with two questions. 29% of people "agreed" or "agreed strongly" with the statement: “Feeling lonely is just part of getter older”. 26% of people that “Feeling depressed, sad or worried is part of getting older”. 35% of the people surveyed said they had felt one or both. With over a third of the population feeling this way one might expect it to influence life satisfaction and the feeling of “wellbeing”.
This turns out to be not the case. The same survey showed that 83% of people felt “comfortable in being themselves”. 80% had “a strong sense of purpose” in their lives. Two thirds felt that they were “ positive about ageing” and that “their life was better than they thought it would be”. All of these are very positive indicators of a feeling of wellbeing.
At Harvard University there is an Institute dedicated to “Human Flourishing”. They recently surveyed a representative sample of US people across all age groups. They found that wellbeing went up with age. They actually analysed their data using cohorts. They used groups like Generation Z or Baby Boomers (Newsletter 63). They found that the group with the greatest self-reported “well-being” was the “The Silent Generation”. This is the cohort above 70. Baby boomers followed etc. The lowest scoring group was Generation Z.
They have a sophisticated measure of wellbeing covering a broad range of areas. They looked across many different domains of well-being. The results were the same whether looking at Happiness and Life Satisfaction; Physical and Mental Health; Meaning and Purpose; Character and Virtue; Close Social Relationships or Financial and Material Stability. In every domain wellbeing increased with age. Older people can regulate their emotional environment allowing them to maintain their wellbeing. Even if they are subject to day-to-day ageism.