A new study by IIASA researchers Katie Bowen and Vegard Skirbekk examines the stereotypes people have about older people, and what factors influence those views across a number of countries. In this interview Bowen describes the new findings and their implications.
Why did you decide to examine perceptions about older people’s competence?
A common stereotype about older people is that they are rather incompetent, that is, that people over a certain age are slower, out-of-date, less able to learn and generally less able to perform tasks in everyday life. However, the extent to which older people are viewed as incompetent varies across countries: In some countries older people are regarded as more competent, and in other countries older people are regarded as less competent. We wanted to know if there was a connection between national stereotypes of older people’s competence and the roles older people fulfill within a certain society.
Since employed people tend to be perceived as being particularly competent, we thought that there might be a connection between the proportion of older people working—paid or unpaid—in a country and the extent to which older people in general are perceived as competent.
What did you find?
Our results indicate that older adults are indeed seen as more competent in countries in which more older people work and volunteer. Importantly, our results suggest that the proportion of older people working and/or volunteering is related to stereotypes of older people’s competence over and above the actual competence of the older population. We had no indication that it matters whether older adults are participating in paid or volunteer work.
Besides people’s volunteer or work participation, what other factors could explain the relationship between stereotypes about older people’s competence and the proportion of older people working or volunteering and how did you control for these factors?
Being older means different things in different countries. For instance, the health of the older population, as for instance roughly indicated by average life expectancy, varies significantly across Europe. Another example is education: in some countries, the older population is highly educated, whereas in some countries the older population has only limited formal education. As a third example, since women tend to live longer than men, women tend to make up a larger part of the older population, although this varies across countries. Finally, research has shown that the objective cognitive performance of the older population also varies significantly across countries.
All of these factors—health, education, gender, and cognitive performance—are also linked with perceptions of competence. For instance, men tend to be perceived as more competent than women, healthier people tend to be perceived as more competent, and so on. It could be that national stereotypes about older people’s competence reflect ‘real’ differences in the competence of the older population as captured by the educational level, health, and cognitive skills of the older population, or that differences in perceptions of older people’s competence are mixed up with stereotypes about women’s competence. Furthermore, at least in some countries, working and volunteering older people tend to be healthier, more educated and more cognitively fit relative to their non-working/volunteering peers. It was therefore important to try to separate out the extent to which national stereotypes of older people’s competence were related to the health, education and cognitive fitness of the older population versus the participation of older people in roles that allow them to demonstrate their competence.
In our new study, we did this by statistically controlling for average life expectancy, education level of the older population, and proportion of women within the older population in each country. In a subsample of countries, we were also able to control for the average objective cognitive skills of the older population. When we controlled for these factors, there was a clear link between the proportion of older people participating in paid and/or volunteer work and national stereotypes of older people’s competence.
What methods did you use to conduct the study?
We used data from the 2008 European Social Survey (ESS). The ESS includes data from representative samples from 28 countries regarding perceptions of older people’s competence. We analyzed the data with a multi-level regression model. As our dependent variable, we used data from 43,376 individuals aged below 65 years, who indicated the extent to which older people in their country are perceived as competent. We used data from the ESS and other sources like the OECD for information on the participation of older people in paid and/or volunteer work, as well as average education of the older population, the gender ratio of the older population, and the average life expectancy in each country. For a subsample of 11 countries, we had data on the average cognitive abilities of the older population in each country from the SHARE study.
Were there any surprises in your results?
Well, Hungary was a bit of an outlier. According to our data, there are very positive perceptions of older people’s competence in Hungary which are not well explained by the characteristics of the older population which we included in our model.
Why are the results of this study important for society?
Our study shows that the opportunities that older people have for participating in a society really matter. Paid and volunteer work can be an important way for older people to demonstrate their competence. Our results imply that social policies and structural factors at the country level that create opportunities for older adults to participate in work and volunteer roles may contribute to more positive perceptions of older adults’ competence. This matters not only for older people, but also for younger people who form expectations about their own aging based in part on how they perceive older people over the course of their lifetime. Several longitudinal studies have now demonstrated that what you expect from aging is what you get: people with more positive perceptions of aging tend to actually age better.
The takeaway of our study is this: social institutions influence the roles that older people have in society, and roles contribute to how older people are perceived.
Bowen, C.E., & Skirbekk, V. (2013). National stereotypes of older people’s competence are related to older adults’ participation in paid and volunteer work. Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 68(6), 974–983, doi:10.1093/geronb/gbt101. 974983 http://psychsocgerontology.oxfordjournals.org/content/68/6/974.full
Katie Bowen is a developmental psychologist interested in understanding how social (e.g., country-level) and individual predictors together influence patterns of adult development. To date her research has focused on images of aging (i.e., mental representations of older people and the aging process), aging and the work context, and adult personality development.
Bowen joined IIASA’s World Population (POP) program in November 2013, to research social and individual predictors of longevity preferences.
Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.