Age self-stereotyping (aka internalized ageism): it’s insidious and harmful.

This guest post is by Louise Pendry, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Exeter in the UK.  She’s delighted to be combining her work on online communities, stereotyping and prejudice, with her long-standing personal interest in and (more recently) her lived experience of women and ageing. Currently she is exploring how online communities can help support and empower women as they grow older. You can reach her at l.f.pendry@exeter.ac.uk or find her on Instagram as silverserenity4.

I like to think I’ve got a pretty good attitude to growing older. I’m genuinely enjoying my life post-50. But recently, I hit a roadblock to my progress here, and that roadblock is me, or more precisely, how I sometimes think about me. That’s what I want to share with you.

As a psychology lecturer, I teach a class on stereotyping. Mostly I focus on how we stereotype other people, but lately I’ve started to look at what happens when we stereotype ourselves, especially when we do so on the basis of age (internalised ageism). I like to start each class with concrete examples of the topic I want to tell my students about to make it real. This is easy when it comes to stereotyping other groups (e.g., black males shot in error by police). But this SELF-stereotyping angle was less obvious. I was struggling to find a vivid, relevant illustration. Little did I realise that I’d do something – actually in the class itself – that would give my students a perfect real-life example.

Here’s what happened. It was the week before my planned session on age stereotyping. Part of the class involves students giving presentations on research articles. This is my cue to sit down and grade their efforts. The room layout was cramped and necessitated me clambering (tripping!) around the AV equipment, before climbing inelegantly over a desk to reach a seat. All of this was achieved with much stumbling and huffing and puffing on my part. Trying to make light of it, I smiled and said “Ha! I’m not the woman I was!” Cue much laughing. At the end of class, a student approached me about her presentation the following week, ironically on an article about age self-stereotyping. “You know, you just demonstrated what that article called ‘internalised ageism’,” she said. And she was right. I had used a common negative stereotype about ageing (declining physical fitness) to explain my behaviour and it was more than likely not justified. Actually anyone would have struggled to reach their seat in that classroom, young or old.

Thinking this was just an aberrant moment on my part, I tried not to worry. But as I started to think about it, I realised this was not an isolated episode. I’ve certainly found myself joking about an unfortunate “senior moment” when I’ve mislaid my glasses and can’t recall where. Where’s the harm in that? We all do it, right? Really though, what I’m doing here when I make this kind of humorous self-deprecating remark is classifying a behaviour I’ve performed as proof that my memory’s going and furthermore, highlighting it’s because of a negative and enduring part of the elderly stereotype: forgetful. I’ve pigeonholed myself, written myself off. This memory lapse could be a sign of impending Alzheimers but it’s more likely to signify that my life is way too busy. It could happen to anyone AT ANY AGE if they had as much going on as I often do. Or it could be down to menopausal brain fog (annoying but not necessarily permanent). Minor deteriorations in cognitive function can certainly happen as we age, but that doesn’t mean every slight memory lapse is a sign of serious cognitive decline.

Perhaps you think I’m over-reacting. You might think, “Good grief, where’s your sense of humour?” Now don’t get me wrong, I like a laugh as much as anyone. But here I think it might be an issue because such self-stereotyping can have important consequences for us. Research by Becca Levy and colleagues has shown that when we THINK of old as negative, we can start to FEEL old and may even ACT in a way that confirms negative elderly stereotypes.  And that can basically hijack our best efforts to age positively. What does this mean? Well, translated into everyday life, it suggests that the unconscious age self-stereotypes we hold and express (“I left my phone in the fridge, I’m having yet another senior moment!”) affect how well we approach and perform associated tasks in future (“My memory is clearly ****ed. How will I ever remember everything on my to-do list today?”). We become our own self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now I’m aware, I’m going to try to catch myself in the act when I do this, and maybe respond differently. It’s early days yet, but I would say I’m noticing this tendency more in myself and others. I met a friend for coffee recently and we were chatting about her job, and whether she wanted to apply for a new role with more responsibility. “I just don’t feel I’m mentally up to it any more,” she confessed, “I’m too old.” Mindful of all I’ve said above, I replied, “If you really don’t fancy it, that’s up to you. But if you do feel it’s not for you, is it down to your age? Remember, you moved jobs two years ago from one in which you had control over your daily routine to one which has you running around, at the beck and call of others. In your current role, you often feel overwhelmed, and that might be colouring your mindset, making you doubt your abilities. It might not be your age.” “Louise,” she replied, “you would never have said that before, you’d just have agreed with me.” And she’s right, I would have.

I’m not saying there aren’t some downsides to growing older, simply that there may be many explanations for the things we do as we grow older that are not irrevocably tied to age. Pausing to reflect on these alternatives might allow us to reappraise our achievements and move forward with this phase of our lives more positively, be that bit more resilient. As Becca Levy says: “…as all humans age, they should be aware of their own implicit negative views of their group and consciously develop an identity with old age and its positive attributes, using these to compensate for the ill effects of automatic ageism.” Reader, I’m on it!

One thought on “Age self-stereotyping (aka internalized ageism): it’s insidious and harmful.

  1. such perfect timing. 3 of my friends had birthdays this week and all of them posted “I don’t feel old” or “headed over the hill”. BTW my co workers are all ages and we all forget stuff – whether it’s pop culture trivia or where we left the cart with stuff we are working on. Like you said – if my 22 yo co worker puts her tablet in the fridge with her lunch stuff is she having a “Junior moment?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.