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Nice but incompetent? The eldery stereotype in Europe

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How can we combat ageism?

Ageism is the stereotyping of and discrimination against a person or groups of individuals on the basis of their age. EU-funded research has delved into the cultural, socioeconomic and political context behind age discrimination to grasp the dynamics of the problem.

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The project ELDERLY STEREOTYPES (Nice but incompetent? The elderly stereotype in Europe) adopted a multilevel perspective in investigating the contextual and personal underpinnings of age-related attitudes and older people’s ageing experiences. Work included analysing representative data from the European Social Survey (ESS) module ‘Age Attitudes and Experiences of Ageism’ (56 752 individuals from 29 countries). The team carried out five different studies that show how the societal context combines with individual-level variables in explaining ageist attitudes and ageing experiences. A combination of socioeconomic factors and the employment rate of the elderly in society influences the way older people are perceived. Noteworthy findings point to more positive perceptions of the elderly in more modern countries that also have a higher employment rate of older people. Older people’s ill-health is greater in countries where income is distributed unevenly. Also, a major factor in how others view the elderly has to do with the latter group’s health and their own perceptions of their age. In a second phase, researchers conducted a series of experimental and survey studies to better understand how malleable age stereotypes are. Findings in this line of inquiry highlight cultural differences in ageism. Furthermore, the stereotype that the elderly are nice but incompetent starts early. It is found in children as young as six years of age and remains there until adolescence. On the upside, the structured and theory-guided imAGES intervention programme can be used to change this ambivalent age stereotype. The results of an experimental study on the role of environmental cues support the idea that perceptions about older people are malleable. Europe as a world region shows the greatest increase in the percentage of elderly people relative to its workforce. This research project advanced knowledge on the causes of ageism, which can be used to inform policy and design interventions ensuring fewer older people miss out on opportunities.


Ageism, age discrimination, elderly, stereotypes, ageing

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