There are hundreds of studies looking at ageism. Experimental studies looking at hiring decisions using artificial resumes. Analysis is done of medical treatment regimens of the young and the old. Performance evaluation and counselling are studied. There are studies about perceived memory loss. All suggest that individuals are discriminated against based on their age. The assumption is that the discrimination happens because of prejudice. That comes from a negative stereotype.
There was a recent meta-analysis of hundreds of such studies. Such analyses “pool” the results of all the studies to look for robust patterns across them. It raised the question of whether age was not the key variable after all.
The Nature of Ageism.
Looking across all studies it is clear that what we call “ageism” is multi-dimensional. Different studies have used a collection of different measures.
- EVALUATION measures such as judgements of whether people are “generous” or “friendly”.
- COMPETENCE measures such as is someone “intelligent” or “a good decision maker”
- ATTRACTIVENESS measures such as “pretty” or “wrinkled”
- BEHAVIOUR measures of whether the respondent would “like to spend time with that person”
- AGE STEREOTYPE measures such as describing an older person as “old fashioned” or “talks about the past”
All have been used to measure what we call ageism. Some alone but often in different combinations.
The “Combined View”
The meta analysis put all the studies together and used all measures. They found ageism. Across all five dimensions but to a different degree. Older people were viewed more negatively compared to “the young”. The biggest negative biases were STEREOTYPE beliefs and ATTRACTIVENESS. These are very descriptive. There were smaller biases around action orientated prejudice, such as BEHAVIOUR and indeed EVALUATION. COMPETENCE sat somewhere in the middle.
Perceptions of older adults are therefore complex and multi-dimensional. Face evaluations of stereotypes or attractiveness certainly show age bias. Less so for actual behavioural intentions. The aggregate numbers may be disguising the reality. To further understand ageism we need to understand the person doing the rating. We also need to understand the nature of “the target” they are rating . Different raters seem to have different degrees of ageism. Different types of targets create different responses.
The Nature of the Rater
In in a previous Newsletter we looked at ageism over a lifespan from infant to grave. Older adults see fewer differences between young and old (See Newsletter #099 “Age and Ageism”). In this meta analysis young adults rate older ones down on COMPETENCE and BEHAVIOUR. This is consistent with social identity theory. To the extent that the young see themselves as a group called “the young” they will want their group to be the best. They will thus “knock” any rival age group. Similarly middle aged groups rate COMPETENCE and EVALUATION down for the old.
Women exhibit less ageist bias than men. They have smaller differences between young and old scores. Newsletter #099 suggested why. A disproportionate amount of care for the elderly is contributed by women. Ageism is in the mind of the beholder and we need to understand their characteristics.
If the target is female is the ageism worse? Some studies duck the issue by specifying an “old person”. Those that do provide a specification give us an interesting insight. Across most dimensions of ageism women do suffer more. They are less highly rated than men. On COMPETENCE ratings, there is little difference when rating older men and women. This may not be as good news as it sounds. The sexist stereotype imbues men with competency. They have agency. But when they retire they are thought to lose that agency. However grim the idea might be, the men may have only “come down” to the level of a woman.
Role NOT Age
This meta-analysis raises a more fundamental proposition. As the authors put it:
“Our analysis supports our contention that it is not growing old, per se, that produces negative perceptions but rather the role that older adults occupy.”
This conclusion comes from their analysis of the way that the “target” was described in different studies. This had an impact on the resultant ageism. Was the question “Think of an old person and answer these questions”. Was it instead “Think of a seventy year old”. Was it an “old fellow employee” or an “old doctor”. Many of the studies they analysed gave a lot more details of the target.
What they found was that the more detail given the smaller was the bias against the old. This is consistent with earlier Newsletters. The generic stereotype of “the old” will only be used in the absence of any other information. It can be modified with “counter stereotype” information (see Newsletter #091 “..isms”). Describing someone’s role conveys information about their personality and competence. There is a stereotype for “a worker” or “a doctor”. No matter who fills the role its stereotype rubs off on them. An older doctor will have both stereotypes and ageism may be “diluted”.
Is Ageism Ageist?
By the very natural of the way our mind categorizes we will have multiple stereotypes of people.. To assume that there is only one “old” stereotype is to be ageist! We will only use our most generic stereotype in the absence any other clues. Given clues we might apply “the John Wayne Conservative” stereotype. We could use “the Liberal matriarch” or “the Perfect Grandparents”. If we are more negative it might be the “Shrew/Curmudgeon” or “The Inflexible Senior”.
All the data shows that if asked to rate ourselves we will make it more positive than the rest of “the old”. Our own stereotype is very personal.
Does Ageism Really Exist?
Older people suffer discrimination. There is enough evidence from all aspects of life to say that this is true. These Newsletters argue that firms discriminate against older consumers. Discrimination and prejudice are bad for the “target”. They can affect health and longevity.
Can we unpick this further to understand why discrimination happens? Is it simply the the passage of chronological time? Is it instead the roles that old people play in the “play of life”? We do not know. However the remedy is the same irrespective of the detailed diagnosis. Older people need to be given valued roles to play. They can be work roles. They can be social roles and the can be family roles. Newsletter #101 Does Ageism Really Exist?