The arrival of the industrial revolution made age a useful way to categorize people. Employment could start at a certain age. Attendance at school could be mandated for certain ages. Pensions could be started at a given age. Using age as a “category” became institutionalized. Ageism has mirrored this trend (see Newsletter #066 “250 Years of Ageism”) and grown with industrialization. Today we will have separate conversations about old and the young issues but they share a common cause. The solution lies in overcoming ageism at all ages.
What everyone agrees upon is that the segregation of Society by age is bad. It creates separate groups. Each can create negative stereotypes about all other groups. Children grow up never seeing their parents engage in productive work. Parents never see their children’s "school world". Old people reach the point that they cannot understand the language of the young. Older peoples’ negative stereotypes of “the young” are as dangerous as the reverse. All serve to build “us versus them” walls. Prejudice and discrimination goes both ways.
For a stereotype to persist it has to be useful. We have to gain insight about an individual by applying a generalized stereotype. If individuals do not conform to our stereotype and behave accordingly, there is little value. In last weeks newsletter (#091 “…isms”) , we saw how this could work. If an older receptionist does not conform to the “warm and incompetent” stereotype satisfaction improves. This gives us the key to breaking down ageism. Segregation is an antecedent as well as a consequence of ageism. We have to break the cycle.
Contact between age groups will help but it is not enough to generate change. We need a younger person to take on the perspective of someone much older than themselves. (and vice versa). We need self-awareness to be created in the old and young. An human link must be built. Stereotypes make people invisible. It takes time to make them emerge as individuals again. There has to be substantive contact sustained over time. There are three broad spheres in which this can take place. They are the family; the neighbourhood and those spaces dedicated to a purpose such as work, studying, recreating and worship.
The family is a powerful integrating part of Society. Research has shown that older family members are judged less stereotypically. They are described more positively than older strangers. Families create permanent contact. They may be stressful but they do build bridges across the age boundaries.
The data on multi-generational household units varies by country. They are increasing in some countries but in others there are more older people living alone. We have talked before about the strange state of the housing market in Japan. Latest estimates are that by the end of 2023 some 10m houses will be empty. At the same time Japan is undergoing a minor housing boom. The secret is that more households are being created. They need different housing. More people in Japan, particularly old people, are living alone. This is a result of the ageing of the population and the continued migration to the cities like Tokyo.
In the US, a recent Pew Report suggests that the opposite is happening. More people are living in multi-generational households. They have gone from 7% of households in 1971 to almost 20% in 2021. Until the crash of 2008 the numbers were flat or even declining. Since then the numbers have grown. There are many explanations beyond the economy. One is the growth of Asian, Black and Hispanic immigrants. They tend to live in such units.
The predominant model is for younger adults to be living with their parents. In 1999 18% of US 27 year olds lived at home. This grew to 31% by 2014. If you cannot buy, you rent or live at home. Living with ones parents varies across countries. Italy is famous for having at least half of young Italians between 25 and 34 living at home. This compares to only 5% in Norway. No matter the starting point, the numbers are going up. Children are moving out later. Societies are adapting to the stage of ageing in their populations.
In general the Pew Research shows that these arrangements are a success. Many situations include care of one form or another. The multi-generational units are stronger and more resistant to economic shocks.
Historically across towns , villages and cities, the generations lived together. Age based ghettos are now emerging. In the US this is not about retirement communities in the sun but the whole country. The US is now more segregated by age than by ethnic group. The UK has undergone a similar separation. The generations have drifted apart geographically and it has happened very recently.
There are 343 councils in the UK each responsible for a different area of the country. In 2001 the different generations were mixed across most councils. There were only 15 councils which had an older population ten percent above the national average. There was a similar number with a higher proportion of young people. By 2015 that had changed dramatically. There are now 60 councils with a proportion of older people higher than Japan. There are another 23 that are young, in fact younger than Chile. (see Newsletter #063 “Baby Boomers versus Millennials”)
The young have migrated to the cities. The small towns and villages are now populated by the old. In the smaller towns and villages the birthrate has dropped. The young have left and few young people move there. The cities offer the prospect of jobs and opportunity. They have become fashionable. New overseas immigrants tend to base themselves in the cities. They are often younger. In Japan the Government is now offering a bounty to any young family that moves out of Tokyo. They will pay $7,600 per child.
Places of Work, Study, Recreation and Worship
An age diverse workplace has to be the key target. Recreation and Religion are more transient. Universities tend to be “youth ghettos”. The growth of mature students will help. Social media is unlikely to be anti-ageist. All the research shows that the web mirrors society. It is segregated by age. Few people talk to anyone of a different generation (except within families).
Work creates long term relationships. Those relationships will “force” a reappraisal of ability and value of the young and old. We have seen that Society needs older people to be working. We have seen that age diverse work groups are more productive (see Newsletter #088 “A Wise Society”). Older people working might also stem the geographic segregation. They may stay closer to the city and their workplace. Remote working might however be a less powerful change agent.