This is the best country to retire to in the world

It’s often said that we should respect our elders, but according to a new set of research the US is doing a pretty poor job of that in comparison to other countries.

Researchers at Michigan State University investigated which countries show the highest levels of ageism, or discrimination toward older people, and which nations show the most respect to their older citizens.

In short, individualistic countries like the US, Germany, and Ireland ranked the highest for ageism. On the other end of the spectrum, more “collectivist” countries such as China, Japan, and India tend to respect their elders much more.

Besides that global analysis, a second relevant study investigated ageism across the United States specifically. Interestingly, that study concluded US ageism is highest in Southern and Northeastern states. Suddenly Tampa doesn’t sound like a great retirement destination anymore.

“Older adults are one of the only stigmatized groups that we all become part of someday. And that’s always struck me as interesting — that we would treat so poorly a group of people that we’re destined to become someday,” says William Chopik, assistant professor of psychology and author of the studies, in a release. “Making more equitable environments for older adults are even in younger people’s self-interests.”

It’s certainly curious as to why younger people in many cultures have a proclivity toward sweeping older generations under the rug. After all, we’re all heading in that same direction and chances are you’ll want to be treated like you matter no matter how old you may be.

“In some countries and cultures, older adults fair better, so a natural question we had was whether the people living in different countries might think about older adults and aging differently. And, maybe that explains why societies are so different in the structures put in place to support older adults,” Chopik explains.

For both studies, a group of over 800,000 participants from all over the world was given the Implicit Association Test, which is an assessment designed to measure the strength of an individual’s subconscious associations. 

Aside from the US, Germany, and Ireland, South America and Australia were also named nations ranking the highest in ageism. What do all those countries have in common? Culturally, they tend to emphasize individuality and independence. Additionally, culturally Western countries like those named above usually place greater importance on looks, attractiveness, and beauty than other cultures.

“Countries that showed high bias also showed an interesting effect when you asked people how old they felt. In ageist cultures, people tended to report feeling particularly younger than their actual age,” Chopik notes. “We interpreted this as something called age-group dissociation — or, feeling motivated to distance yourself from that group. People do this by identifying with younger age groups, lying about their age, and even saying that they feel quantitatively younger than they actually are.”

Professor Chopik’s last point is worth expanding on a bit. It’s super common in the US for people to make jokes like “Oh, I’m going to stay 22 forever” or flat out lie about their age when meeting new people or interviewing for a new position. This occurs so often because we’ve all been conditioned from an early age to look at old age as something bad or even undesirable. 

On the other hand, citizens of countries like Japan, Korea, Brazil, China, and India don’t share that same mentality. For them, growing old is something to look forward to. With old age comes wisdom, understanding, and respect, not shame. Much of this has to do with the culture in these more collectivist-minded countries. These nations place much greater importance on the family, group cohesion, and societal harmony.

Circling back to the US-centric study, perhaps the most telling finding from that project was the revelation that older adults living in states with high rates of ageism experience worse health outcomes and enjoy shorter life expectancies than their age-peers living in other states. That’s a major point because it suggests that a lack of respect for older people in Western cultures is a legitimate health concern.

Oddly, some states known for their large elderly populations, like Florida, showed the highest rates of ageism.

“We found a strange pattern in which some popular retirement destinations tended to be higher in age bias, like Florida and the Carolinas,” Chopik comments. “Possibly, this could be due to the friction that occurs when there are large influxes and migrations of older adults to regions that are not always best suited to welcome them.”

“Both of our studies demonstrate how local environments affect people’s attitudes and the lives of older adults. We grow up in our environments and they shape us in pretty important ways and in ways we don’t even realize,” he concludes. “Being exposed to policies and attitudes at a country level can shape how you interact with older adults. At the state level in the United States, how you treat older adults has important implications for them — for example, their health and how long older people live — and even the economy, like how much money we spend on older adults’ health care.”

All of this doesn’t mean that a culture emphasizing the importance of individuality and forging one’s own path is an entirely bad notion. There are plenty of benefits to this type of mindset, just like there are different drawbacks to collectivist cultures as well. Still, it appears the United States and many other countries have an ageism issue to address in the coming years.

The studies can be found here and here, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology and the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, respectively.