Interview: Exploring stereotypes about older people

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.

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The new study shows a connection between the proportion of older people who work or volunteer in a society, and the broader perception of their competence.

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stereotype about older people is that they are rather incompetent, that is, that people over a certain age are slower, out-of-date, less able to learn and generally less able to perform tasks in everyday life.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.

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“Our study shows that the opportunities that older people have for participating in a society really matter,” says Bowen.

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



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.

Interview: REDD+ in Cambodia

 Pheakkdey Nguon, participant in IIASA’s 2012 Young Scientists Summer Program, and IIASA Annual Fund recipient,  has won an IPCC reserach fellowship to fund his research on REDD+  in Cambodia. In this interview he discusses his research plans, the award, and his experience at IIASA.

Pheakkdey Nguon at the awards ceremony for the IPCC research fellowship.

Pheakkdey Nguon at the awards ceremony for the IPCC research fellowship on 30 September, 2013.

Nexus: Please tell us about the research that you will be working on under this grant: What is the major question that you’re studying?
Pheakkdey Nguon: The main objective of my dissertation research is to better understand how governance systems organize and distribute knowledge on the UN’s REDD+ Program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) across different groups of stakeholders with conflicting interests, and the resulting impacts of such systems on forests and people in Cambodia. I am basically asking to what extent the different groups of stakeholders in Cambodia have considered REDD+ as salient, credible and/or legitimate for addressing deforestation, forest degradation and sustainable livelihood development.

How will you address this question?
Theoretically, I am drawing from sustainability science  and political economy of institutions and decisions  literature to reveal ways in which perceptions, institutional locations, and contextual differences affect patterns of stakeholders’ engagement in REDD+, a complex environmental governance project that spans multiple levels of implementation and involve various groups of stakeholders. Methodologically, I am using qualitative methods such as key informant interviews (up to 150 interviews), observations of REDD+ policy processes (up to 70 observations), and extended archival research (e.g. government reports, newspapers, policy briefs, feasibility studies) to answer my question.

The interviews offer a first-hand account of the criteria that different group of stakeholders use and their justifications for using those criteria to assess REDD+ projects within their project areas and in Cambodia. Observations of REDD+ policy processes (e.g. meetings, workshops, consultations) provide information on the participation and engagement of different groups of stakeholders in the production, examination and dissemination of knowledge on REDD+ within the three project sites and in Cambodia. Finally, archival research is conducted for two main reasons: (1) to validate, compare, and contextualize information gathered through interviews and policy observations; and (2) to add to the study information that would not be appropriate or feasible to collect through interviews or observations, either because of the political sensitivities of the topics or time constraints.

Why are you interested in this area?
Academic and policy-oriented literature on REDD+ has been prolific within the last decade. Its central focus has been on addressing the technical issues – defined largely by the scientific and policy communities – that will improve the design and implementation of REDD+ so that its outcomes achieve the goals of effectiveness, efficiency and equity (the so-called “3Es” criteria). Whether these “3Es” criteria – or the underlying logic of REDD+ in general – are as relevant for the different groups of stakeholders in developing countries as they are for the international policy community has, however, been insufficiently substantiated in the literature. Therefore, my justification for exploring the abovementioned question departs from my assumption that the preferences and perceptions of stakeholders cannot be presumed to coincide with aspirations of scientists and/ or policy-makers who have been working on REDD+. Understanding how stakeholders interpret, experience and assess REDD+ is central to understanding the appropriateness of REDD+ as an initiative aiming at addressing deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries.

How does it relate to the work you did at IIASA?
I classify myself as a sustainability science geographer, and so I came to IIASA already very inspired because people who have had tremendous intellectual influence on me have at certain points been affiliated with IIASA, for example Robert Kates and William Clark. The main activity that I was doing during my YSSP participation was trying to translate literature from these intellectuals into testable hypotheses that will help me understand the question(s) I am asking in my dissertation research. This was not an easy process. It involved a lot of conversations between me, my advisor at Clark (Dr. Anthony Bebbington) and my advisor at IIASA (Dr. Hannes Böttcher). I would also like to acknowledge the very engaging and informative conversations that I had with Dr. Anthony Patt, Dr. Joanne Linnerooth-Bayer, Dr. Michael Thompson, and fellow YSSPers on this matter. They were very generous with their time.

How did the YSSP help you to get this grant?
I came to the YSSP with the main intention of finalizing the questions that I will pursue for my dissertation research. My goal was to have a defensible dissertation research proposal by the time I return to my PhD program at Clark University. I was also hoping that I would be able to build on this proposal to apply for research grants to pursue my empirical fieldwork in Cambodia. During the YSSP, I was very fortunate to be able to work very closely with Dr. Hannes Böttcher, from the Ecosystem Services and Management Program. Similar to other PhD students, I had so many questions that were floating in my head, some of which did not make any sense now that I am reflecting on them. Therefore, I very much admired Dr. Böttcher for his patience, supports and willingness to engage with all the ideas that I was coming up with. Through these many conversations, I did finish my dissertation research proposal that I defended at Clark. And this is the very same proposal that helped me get the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) research award. Additionally, I was also able to get one of my dissertation papers accepted for publication at Environmental Science and Policy (DOI: 10.1016/j.envsci.2013.04.011) during my time at IIASA.

Why is this research important?
I hope that my research will have some impact in the academy and in the realm of forest governance and climate change debates based in a developing country context. In academe, my research engages with politically broader discussions on the science-policy interface, market-based approaches to forest governance in developing countries, stakeholders’ assessments of policies on climate change, and national sovereignty issues. Beyond the academy, this research is relevant to the ongoing debate on how scientific knowledge is being received, perceived and reconfigured in environmental governance policy that spans multiple scales of implementation and involves various groups of stakeholders. Finally, significant for the national and international policy negotiations on REDD+, this study should contribute to the debate on why certain groups of stakeholders have been supportive, while others have been critical, of the implementation of REDD+ projects in developing countries.

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.