Intergenerational Tension: A New Look at Ageism

By Nancy LaFever / Posted on 09 May 2013

You can’t observe any form of media today without seIntergenerational Tension New Look at Ageismeing blatant examples of ageism as seniors are portrayed as crotchety, technophobic, absentminded, and out of touch with our modern age. But often ageism is more subtle, such as when older adults are subject to very entrenched beliefs held by younger people.

A recent study at Princeton University set out to uncover what researchers term the “prescriptive prejudice” of ageism – prescribing what others think older adults should be, not what they really are. The researchers, social psychologist Susan Fiske and graduate student Michael North, found seniors that didn’t follow these prescribed beliefs were often the subject of discrimination. Those that fit the stereotypes met with approval. Describing ageism as a result of this “intergenerational tension,” the researchers looked for causes.The three prescriptive stereotypes found were:

  1. Identity – The idea that older people shouldn’t attempt to act younger that they are.
  2. Consumption – The idea that older people shouldn’t consume so many scarce resources.
  3. Succession – The idea that older people should move aside from high-paying jobs and prominent social roles to make way for younger people.

The hope is that by identifying these components of ageism, we will be better able to address it. What was of particular concern to the researchers is that older people are expected to be more than a quarter of the population by 2050. “In other words, the people society now considers older and irrelevant are about to become far more common and visible — perhaps more so than ever in modern society,” noted the researchers.

A graduate student in his 20’s, North initially thought working with older people would be boring and admittedly had his own set of stereotypical beliefs. The project has him looking at ageism in a new light. “If there’s one take away from this research, it’s that it’s important to focus on the facts of these demographic changes rather than misguided perceptions,” North said. “Talking about these issues helps you find constructive ways to address them.”



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