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Senior Stereotypes: An Age-Old Problem


In marketing or media circles, “over 50s” is echoed quite often. The phrase is apropos when considering:

• An estimated 106 million people in the United States are age 50 and above;

• In 2010, the United States had an estimated 70,490 centenarians, the greatest number of any single nation

• This demographic in the United States controls a household net worth of more than US$19 trillion in spending power;

• Centenarians account for 41 percent of all new cars, 25 percent of toys and, most relevant to the  attendees of the World Medical Tourism & Global Healthcare Congress, 60 percent of all healthcare purchasing

But, because the average life expectancy is 82 years for a woman in the United Kingdom — and similar for other developed nations including the United States — this can be a very blunt, indeed lazy, definition.

Even those business entities, such as pharmaceutical companies, which are used to targeting them, often misunderstand and miscommunicate to them. Why is this? Because, fundamentally, they succumb to what academics have defined as “stereotype threat.”


When people use stereotypes, they make attributions about a person or entity purely on the basis of the category to which they belong and in the absence of any further information. When the words, “young woman,” or “Chinese” or “old man” are heard, a series of images come to mind automatically and often unconsciously. Thus, stereotypes are “cognitive structures that store our beliefs and expectations”; images and ideas with specific meanings in our culture which can be rapidly activated if the right prompt appears.

In our daily lives, we all make use of stereotypes and there are good reasons why we have them. They are central to the way our brains have evolved. A normal life would be hard to lead without them. Finding one face-to-face with a lion on the savannah, or confronting a group of young men with hoodies loitering at the entrance to a dark alleyway, makes sense to have a powerful, instinctive emotional reaction and to act on it swiftly.

The downside to these stereotypes is that they could be wrong. A significant body of research indicates that, in time, people can self-stereotype. This is a process whereby beliefs about a group, say older people, are learned early in childhood, reinforced in adulthood and eventually internalized so that later, old- age stereotypes, for example, become old-age self-stereotypes. In other words, we see ourselves more consistent with stereotypes about a group to which we belong than we otherwise would.

A related and important concept to self-stereotyping is the “stereotype threat,” defined by psychologist Claude Steele, in 1995, as a situation where “we experience anxiety or concern when a person has the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about their social group.”

Self-stereotyping is, he believes, one of the major problems pervading daily life. Once a stereotype is activated, people may apply it to their own behavior and not always in a positive way. Steele and his colleague Aronson showed in a series of experiments that African-American college students performed worse on standardized tests when race was emphasized. When race was not emphasized, they performed at least as well, if not better, than their white counterparts.

If this thinking is applied to an increasingly large section of society, the older generations, then self-stereotypical activation of “old age” might cause people to behave in ways self-consistent with that stereotype; for example, walking more slowly or performing poorly on tests of competence. This is exactly what occurs and it’s not good for the individual or society.

Most people nowadays are aware that it’s not acceptable to be openly racist or sexist. However, Harvard University developed the Implicit Association Test that has shown stereotypes about age are stronger and more resistant to change than those about race or gender. In fact, age prejudice is socially condoned; birthday cards often bemoan the unfortunate fact that someone is a year older.

The stereotypes people have about aging leads many to believe that older people are incompetent across a whole range of domains. Seniors are evaluated less positively than younger people by individuals of all ages and there’s clear evidence for the double standard of aging whereby older women are evaluated more negatively than similar aged men.

Susan Fiske and her research team at Princeton found that people differentiated groups in society along two dimensions, competence and warmth. The category “elderly” was grouped with “disabled,” “retarded,” “blind,” “house- cleaners” and “housewives” as rating low on competence, but high on warmth.

In situations where an older person was rated as competent, they were often rated lower on warmth, suggesting that seniors are only evaluated positively if they pose no obvious competitive threat.

Given that human beings neither could, nor perhaps should, ever be wholly free from all stereotypes – whether about lions or a group of hooded young men or even about aging – negative and unfounded stereotypes that might have a detrimental effect on our own and others’ behavior should not be reinforced.

About the Author

Crispin Reed is managing director, Europe, for global brand and innovation consultancy, Fusion Learning, which has worked with companies in the health and wellness sector including Boots, Beiersdorf, Galderma, Johnson & Johnson, Merz Aesthetics and Reckitt Benckiser. He was a featured speaker at the 7th World Medical Tourism & Global Healthcare Congress, in Washington, D.C.

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