Our mind works by simplifying, by categorizing. We generalize so that we do not have to hold every detail within our memory. We create stereotypes of people as part of this process. In the absence of other information we use the stereotype to fill in the gaps. It is part of the way that our perception creates a virtual reality for us ( Newsletter #031 “Reality is Just a Guess”). We will use stereotypes as long as they are useful. If we find that people do not conform to the stereotype often enough, we have to change it.
A stereotype of an older person can become ageist. If it is negative AND it causes our attitudes about an older person to be negative it has created prejudice. If we act upon that negative view then it is causing discrimination. Using the stereotype to adapt our behaviour to an older person is not ageist. Over compensating our speech for an older person can become ageist. Only if it is perceived as patronizing (Newsletter #097 “Elderspeak”).
Ageism and Children
We expect pre-school children not to be ageist. They may are exposed to cartoons of the “wicked witch” but how much impact can that have? The evidence is not totally consistent. Studies have shown children have preferences for younger people. In one study, children were shown four pictures of the same man at different ages. They were asked with whom they would want to spend time. The younger version was most often chosen.
A large study in Belgium suggests the opposite, particularly for pre-school children. They first asked these very young children for five words to describe an older person. The words were coded by judges as positive or negative. They then adapted a semantic scale for their use. The adult version asked people to choose between two words to describe an older person. A typical example was: fast -slow. These words anchored either end of a line. All you had to do was mark the line to show which word most described that person and by how much. For the pre-schoolers the words were replaced with cartoons. On both measures their attitudes to older people were generally positive. The only negative was that they were seen as closer to “slow” than “fast”. In choosing five words it was clear that there was a strong association between “old” and “grandparents”.
Similar studies have been performed with school aged children. In most of these studies attitudes towards older people were neutral to positive. It appears that typical negative stereotypes are not fully present in children. If they are, they are a mixture of positive and negatives. There was variation in those views. Some children were more negative about the old. The researchers looked for ways to explain the differences. Interestingly, it does not appear to come from the parents. In one pre-schooler study they collected ageist views from parents and their children. It turns out that there is little relationship between the two.
The biggest explanatory variable was the quality of the relationship between the child and their grandparents. Frequency of contact explained some of the variation. The biggest impact was the quality of the relationship. This extended throughout their early school years. The grandparents were “role modelling” being old for their grandchildren. They were also pre-empting the use of any negative stereotype.
Adolescents were more ageist. They focused on the physical characteristics of the person. Older people were seen as “ugly”. This did not happen with younger groups. The results are confounded. The average age of the grandparents was increasing as as the children progress through adolescence. They would look older. The study also asked children about the health of their grandparents. Those perceived as healthy had a bigger impact on the positive stereotype.
Representative surveys of ageism across populations have taken place in a number of countries. Many other studies include the demographics of their respondents. There are some generalizable findings. Men are more ageist than women across all adult age groups. The explanation for this is not clear. One proposed explanation is that women tend to take on the caring for the old. They have more exposure and need a stereotype less.
Younger adults seem to be more ageist. Ageism is not an easy thing to measure. The most common scale has three components. There are questions about the contribution of older people to Society. There are questions measuring the tendency of people to avoid contact with the old. There are questions related to the stereotype itself, for example are they “feeble”, “poor memory”. It seems that young adults rate the old down on their "contribution to society".
Middle aged people actually rated older people the lowest on that “ contribution” component. Researchers speculated that middle age brings the first signs of ageing. At the same time people may be caring for ageing parents with growing illness. They postulate that this leads to a need to deny their own ageing by being ageist. They downplay the value of the old. On other parts of the scale they are less negative than the young adults.
Ageism and the Retired.
In one study retirees were analsyed in three age groups (68-73,73-80 and above 81). The most surprising result was the attitude of the oldest group of Israelis. They were more ageist than the young retirees. In particular they scored highest on the “ negative stereotype” component. The researchers suggest that these negative attitudes were a defence. They did not want to be reminded of their own mortality and the start of their own fourth age.
Ageism by Stealth
In other Newsletters I have discussed what makes ageism different to other “isms”. ( Newsletter #091 “..isms”). Professor Levy of Yale University suggests another important difference. We can suffer from racism, sexism even sectarianism as children. We start to pushback against other people’s stereotypes from an early age. We are being inoculated. The problem about ageism is that there is no such inoculation. We absorb the stereotype when our defences are not active. Old age is not something we worry about. If someone in authority such as a parent or teacher is ageist we absorb it subconsciously. It is only later in life that we might need an old age stereotype. By then it can be fully formed and unchallenged (Breaking the Age Code, by Dr Becca Levy).
Ageism starts young and creeps up on us. We need to attack it in children. Grandparents have a big role to play.