When the idea of ageism was first introduced it focused on acts by people in work. They made the money and “supported” both the young and the old. This idea still exists in the different “dependency ratios” used by Governments. They measure the old and the young separately against the working age population. Ageism was against the old and the young. Over time ageism redefined itself with the old being the “victims”. The young complained about employment discrimination. About how difficult it was to get on the “employment ladder”. That was about all. What we miss is the everyday ageism of the old and how they attack the young.
The arguement goes something like this. The conversation revolves around the decline in Society. The old talk about how standards have declined. How people are not as kind to each other as they used to be. How respect has broken down. Honesty is going backwards and we all have to lock our doors. Always about the "Good Old Days".
The implication is very clear. The “good guys” are dying and being replaced by an inferior version of themselves. The are certainly looking down on the young and are feeling superior. The “good old days” is ageism, unless ofcourse it is true. Social identity theory would find this unsurprising. We all aspire to be part of a group. Whether that is a supporters club, an arts club , an age group, or just the regulars at a bar. We then want our group to be superior to all other groups. We all want our team to win the “pub quiz”.
I have being reading an excellent Substack Newsletter in the
Experimental History site. It shows that such “Good Old Days” ageism is very prevalent. They collected 177 different surveys in the US that covered over 220,000 respondents. Over 84% said that “morality” had declined. People today were less kind, honest and respectful. The same kind of numbers exist around the world.
Like all ageism the headline results hide a more complex and very different story. All age groups believe that succeeding generations have declining standards. Standards of kindness, honesty and respect. The Baby Boomers feel it about all younger generations. So too does GenX. As many people say that standards have declined today as they did a generation ago. It seems to be independent of other attitudes. “Conservatives” say it just as much as “Liberals”. Most surprising to me is that it is mathematically logical. Older people feel more decline than younger people but if you divide by everyone’s age the number is a constant. Decline in morality is proportional to age!
Morality may be declining but is it because older “moral” people are being replaced by “immoral” younger versions? The alternative is that everyone is changing. It turns out that we all believe it is a mixture of the two. The old may come across as criticizing the young but they do accept some of the blame. All this does not apply to our friends! Surveys show that when asked about changes to people with whom we have a lot of contact, declining morality does not apply to them. It is the rest of the world that has the problem. This is a classic negative stereotype.
It Is All A Myth
What seems like a logical argument collapses when faced with the facts. Those same large scale surveys have been measuring “popular morality” for many years. They regularly asked questions such as:
“Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?”
“Are people generally helpful or are they looking out for themselves?”
It turns out that the results over many years are constant. Things are not getting worse. 90% of people said they were treated with respect in 2006. 90% said the same thing in 2019. Across 107 surveys and 4.4 million respondents there is no change between 1965 and today on any such measure. The view that “the old” have of the young today is no different than their parents had about them a generation ago. Moreover it is not all that bad. The vast majority think they are respected and other people are helpful.
A Psychological Explanation
Experimental History is written by an experimental psychologist,
Adam Mastroianni . His work was published in the eminent journal Nature (See his Newsletter ‘The Illusion of Moral Decline”). He goes on to suggest why this might be happening. It is because of biases within both our perception and memories. He argues that we give disproportionate attention to negative information. We have a biased exposure. The media companies have long known this. The “news” is full of murder, chaos and disasters. Good news is rare because it doesn’t attract viewers.
The most popular genre of TV programs are the crime shows. They are full of bad news. "Midsummer Murders" has run for 23 seasons and nearly 150 episodes. In its first 25 years there were 396 murders in 126 episodes. Other murders took place off screen. Such as the “murder 20 years ago” that explains the current bloodbath. This brings the total to 581 deaths and 164 attempted murders or suicides. The population of this small rural community must be dropping fast! It is estimated to have the third highest murder rate in the UK.
At the same time our memory has a bias against negative information. It tends to fade faster than positive information. We very quickly forget the pain of a dentist or hospital visit. They tested this by changing the benchmark. They asked people whether “morality” had gone down since a year that was before they were born. People obviously could not have a memory, biased or otherwise. The effect disappeared. Decline seems to start about the year we are born!
Todays world will therefore always seem worse than the world we remember.