Is Ageism Getting Worse?

By Sarah Stevenson
A recent Princeton study on the causes of ageism reveals that we’ve still got a long way to go in the fight against age-related negative stereotypes.

Ageism against seniors can’t be defined simply as prejudice against older adults. Researchers are finding that ageism is a complex phenomenon consisting of a range of negative attitudes toward seniors. We may not like to think about it, but the effect of ageism is detectable throughout our society: in the family and home environment, in the media, in the working world, and even in the realm of government policy. And if we don’t address the issue openly, it’s bound to get a whole lot more complicated when the considerable population of baby boomers - the same ones who used to say “don’t trust anyone over thirty”- begins to reach their own golden years.

What Is Ageism?

The general definition of ageism is any sort of age-based prejudice. According to the Assisted Living Foundation of America, ageism against seniors occurs when “societal norms marginalize seniors, treat them with disrespect, make them feel unwelcome and otherwise generalize as if they were all the same.”
Negative stereotypes about older adults may be all too familiar: they are “slow,” they have poor memories, they’re afraid of the modern world. Researchers refer to these as “descriptive stereotypes,” or generalizations about the way seniors supposedly are - in contrast to “prescriptive stereotypes,” which generalize about how seniors should be, and often lead to discriminatory behaviors and practices.

In a recent study by psychologists at Princeton University, these prescriptive stereotypes were examined more closely and “unpacked” to see what more we can learn about how American society views the elderly. According to an article from Princeton’s Office of Communications, the scientists found that prescriptive stereotypes focus on three central issues:
  • Succession: “the idea that older people should move aside from high-paying jobs and prominent social roles to make way for younger people.”
  • Identity: “the idea that older people shouldn’t attempt to act younger than they are.”
  • Consumption: “the idea that older people shouldn’t consume so many scarce resources such as health care.”

Why the Study of Ageism is Important

Studying ageism is about to become even more critical as we face the “graying” of our population; older adults are more numerous and visible than ever before, says the Princeton article. Ageism has far-reaching effects on the mental and emotional health of seniors and their dignity, and it can lead to discriminatory practices in housing and social policy, resulting in a negative impact on seniors’ quality of life. In extreme cases, notes ALFA, such attitudes about seniors can even result in elder abuse.

The Princeton researchers are well aware of the growing importance of the issue of ageism: “It’s not hard to read The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal and see that as the baby boomers are getting older, age-discrimination cases are on the rise and worries are growing about the long-term sustainability of Social Security and Medicare,” graduate student Michael North said. “The academic literature hasn’t really spoken to these questions.”

Debunking Stereotypes about Older Adults

Getting past our ingrained stereotypes about seniors, the researchers say, will help our society as a whole move past outdated ideas and social policies.

“Talking about these issues helps you find constructive ways to address them,” said North. One potentially productive avenue of research, for instance, relies on a crucial distinction between the “young-old” - those seniors who are still relatively healthy and who may still be working - and the “old-old,” who may be less healthy and more impaired. Learning more about the differences between these two subtypes can help us better serve the needs of a diverse and growing senior population.

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