Assume all young people are ageist? Think again

A study released this October collecting data from over 20 countries determines that certain facets of ageism aren’t dependent on age, and instead on culture and society.

Often, people operate under the assumption that while older generations were raised upon a system of values that respect their elders, younger generations are ageist – this study substantiates that in fact, entire societies can promote ageism rather than certain age ranges.

Breaking down the study

Social psychologist Dr. Geert Hofstede, whose Six Cultural Dimensions were the result in the culmination of decades of research centering around IBM employees across 50 countries, stated that cultural distance can “act as a barrier to communication.” As a result, he and his colleagues analyzed dimensions that can distinguish one country’s value system from another.

This review, using an “eight-billion-word corpus,” cross-referenced the top 300 terms used across 20 countries were rated on an ageism scale against the two facets of the cultural dimension model. On the whole, the UK has rated the most ageist society, and Sri Lanka was rated the least ageist.

Of the six cultural dimensions, the two that were used in this particular study on ageism were masculine vs feminine societies and long-term orientation vs short-term orientation. This study is innovative because these models have never been transposed upon each other; it very clearly illustrates that “higher levels of masculinity and long-term orientation are associated with ageism”.

A “masculine” society doesn’t necessarily refer to the more loaded modern conceptualization of masculine and feminine characteristics; rather, it’s simply a label that encompasses certain features of a culture. A more masculine society means that “the roles of men and women overlap less.” men are expected to be “assertive” and “and all citizens are expected to be “successful, strong and fast.”

On the contrary, in feminine societies, there seems to be more “overlap between male and female roles”, with much more importance placed upon “working with people who cooperate well with one another.”

What does it mean?

As indicated in the study, the UK, USA, Canada, and India rank highly in ageism and medium-high in masculinity. Ghana scored the lowest in ageism but ranked in the middle of the pack on masculinity. Sri Lanka was ultimately the lowest in both ageism and masculinity by a little over one deviation. In the middle of the pack, equal in both ageism and masculinity, were Hong Kong, New Zealand, Nigeria and Singapore.

One might also note that, as mentioned previously, the UK and USA are classified as individualist societies, but India is a collectivist society; other countries such as Bangladesh and Kenya were also high in ageism, and coincidentally, also collectivist.

If we think back to the qualities of a masculine populace, it’s easy to transpose some of these qualities onto a culture such as the USA, which prides being successful and assertive as extremely important qualities. Older citizens may be seen as less aggressive or strong due to their age; the study asserts that more masculine societies “may systematically frame elders as weak.” While success measured by one’s financial situation would likely admire those that have spent a lifetime accruing wealth, those without financial stability later in life might be considered weak in certain civilizations.

Long-term orientation, the other cultural dimension weighed against ageism, is divided into two categories; high long-term orientation, and low long-term orientation (also known as short-term orientation. Societies that are categorized as long-term oriented have an “emphasis on persistence, relationships ordered by status, [and] personal adaptability important.” Leisure time can be seen as unimportant, as are investing in real estate, maintaining relationships, and market position.

Short-term orientation societies can be more fixated on quick results, personal stability, leisure time, and spending money as a form of social influence. They also tend to be absolute regarding moral judgments, whereas long-term oriented societies are more fluid about good and evil, and often consider grey areas of morality more.

Singapore ranked the highest in long term orientation, but only in the middle on ageism. The UK and US once again ranked very high in ageism, but while the UK ranked medium-high in long-term orientation, the US ranked relatively low. Ghana was the lowest in both ageism and a long-term orientation, short of Sri Lanka, which ranked lowest in ageism by far in both categories.

Long-term orientation and ageism come at an interesting cross-section. The U.S., with values like buying flashy items, being dogmatic about political views, or immediate gratification, also ranks higher in ageism. One could assume that though older generations are more oriented towards the future, a thoughtful and more austere lifestyle of some other cultures doesn’t fit with the modern ethos of America.

As former president Jimmy Carter once said, Americans seem to be “no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.” Is it possible that aged Americans own less, and consequently are given less respect? Or came from a generation that was less materialistic, and are misunderstood by a more short-term oriented society?

Other than the assumption that younger generations being more ageist than older ones, another generalization that’s not necessarily correct is that of a collectivist group maintaining less ageist values than individualistic ones. For example, a collectivist place like China or Kenya would have less ageism than the USA, UK or Australia.

But a prior study by North & Fiske (2015) found that collectivism is more often associated with negative conceptualizations of age, as the assumption is that the need for support without any societal contributions incites resentment from younger generations. This explains societies like India, a famously collectivist society, ranking higher in terms of ageism.

However, this doesn’t exclude individualist societies from experiencing ageism, as is evident by America’s ranking against other Eastern nations like Sri Lanka. Ultimately, finding out the causes of systemic biases such as this are tricky, and sweeping generalizations often don’t get to the root of the issue. There are, though, certain characteristics that overlap on a global scale, leading to potentially ageist perceptions.