a new study focusing on how olders “should be”

I was excited to learn via Twitter that two Princeton researchers are charting a “new path for [the] study of ageism.” Psychology professor Susan Fiske has been studying stereotypes for some time, and her approach focuses on prescriptive stereotypes (ones that describe how people “should be”): in this case that olders should cede jobs and prominent roles to youngers; that they should consume fewer scarce resources; and that they shouldn’t attempt to act younger than they are.


She’s working with fifth-year grad student Mike North, and I dropped him a line to let him know about British economist’s Phil Mullan’s The Imaginary Time Bomb (more on that soon), Margaret Gullette’s work, and my own, saying, “I hope you’ll be challenging those stereotypes—oh, wait, that’s what activists do, not academics—because stereotypes are particularly inaccurate when it comes to older populations, since they grow more heterogenous over time.”


North’s response was prompt and generous, and I’m glad we’re in contact.  Because I’m uncomfortable with his and Fiske’s underlying premise: that understanding intergenerational tension is key to understanding ageism.  Maybe I’m just extra-prickly after reading this description of a seminar called “LOVE AND LET DIE: An All-Day Consideration of Ballooning Longevity, the Quality of Life, and the Coming Generational Smash-up” that NYU is hosting on June 1:

“With increasing frequency one hears stories of 60 year-olds having to cope with the excruciating medically-extended lives of their ever-more-incapacitated 90 year-old parents.  But look at the situation from the point of view of their 25 year-old children, trying to imagine what the world will be like when those same baby-boom parents reach 90.  We may well be approaching a situation in which we as a society will have to choose between living in a world where an 85 year-old is routinely granted five hip operations, or one in which we can still afford, say, primary school.  Why do we as a country (and as individuals within families) have such a hard time talking about such things—and in particular about the Good Death, which is to say about Family Planning broadly conceived and how might we begin to change that?


This “kids versus canes” is a false dichotomy that gerontologists have refuted over and over. The richest nation in the world doesn’t have to choose between its two most vulnerable populations. The “scarcity” is artificial, the consequence of an aging population being scapegoated for general economic hardship and a rationale for further gutting the welfare state. Why is spending money on human beings at the ends of their life more ethically problematic than the millions we spend on teeny preemies at the beginning of it? Why is euthanasia routinely proposed as the “solution” to this imagined scarcity? It’s hard to imagine five hip operations ever being “routine,” but if surgeons botched my first four, I’d like a crack at #5—without having to defend my right to want to stick around. 


The larger point is that the old and young are natural allies, and that we need to reject the zero-sum thinking that pits them against each other. This us-or-them logic always pops us around health-care rationing: we should spend money on kids instead of wasting it on people who’re going to die soon anyway. “Can you imagine a similar public debate based on race or sex?” asks Laura Carstensen of the Stanford Center on Longevity. “Yet we have these discussions freely about age.” The tension between generations is indeed worth studying, but as a symptom of the problematization of aging itself. Populations have been aging and support ratios (the number of people in the workforce relative to those who are not) have been falling at pretty much the same rate for over a century, without causing economies to tank or people to eat their young. Wealth generation is a function of the size and productivity of the labor force, not of the average age of the population or of demographic ratios. Longer lifespans are not the cause of the current global recession; rather, they reflect growing global wealth. Older workers do not take jobs away from younger ones. Olders do make disproportionate demands on welfare services, because the system is designed that way. They need more health care and by definition receive all pensions. This does not make them a “burden” that we cannot afford. They do not prosper at the expense of the young. Even though conflict “sells papers,” it’s essential for ageism researchers, conference organizers, journalists, editors, and Facebook, to refute the notion of intergenerational conflict rather than fan the flames. 

One thought on “a new study focusing on how olders “should be”

  1. On this count I’d like to note that (I think) we’re very much in agreement. Remember that though we argue that the “shoulds” are a key component of ageist attitudes, we in no way claim that they are valid beliefs. In fact, one of the main points I make when I present this work–which I did mention to the author of the article you read, but which didn’t make it into the final version–is that the “canes-vs.-kids” idea is overblown, much as you believe. For one thing, an enlarged older population doesn’t mean there won’t be enough to go around–e.g., one could argue that there will be comparatively fewer younger people competing for “young jobs” (if there is such a thing), so things might even be better for younger workers. Or if that argument isn’t convincing, I also generally like to point out–in line with the “natural allies” point you make in your blog post–that an aging population means unprecedented opportunities for innovative kinds of jobs that involve intergenerational collaboration and understanding. And as further evidence that zero-sum notions are overblown, there was a recent Pew Institute study that looked at employment rates for the last 40 years and found that employment rates for younger and older workers are actually *positively* correlated, not negative as many believe. (You can check it out here: http://www.pewstates.org/uploadedFiles/PCS_Assets/2012/EMP_retirement_delay.pdf) In short, I think there is mounting evidence that these zero-sum beliefs are overblown, and at any rate it really behooves society the most to talk constructively about intergenerational solutions, rather than hyping generational warfare and blaming the Boomers for everything.


    So really in this case I think we’re very much aligned (unless I’m mistaken). Perhaps the main difference is, as you say, that we are at this point more academic than activist (the latter is more your job!). But rest assured that emphasizing the truth about (lack of) generational competition is one of our main aims, long-term. 

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