Underage, over-the-hill and round the bend. An interview with psychologist Iain Smith
TAONR. You've often been described as a boffin, although you've neglected to bring your lab coat with you today. Could you make up for that by sharing some insights from research on what's it's like to be an older adult nowadays in Britain?
Iain. Ha. I will do my best.
Ageism has always been very prevalent. 60% of adults aged over 65 believe that age discrimination affects older people’s everyday lives, with a similar percentage identifying it in the workplace (Age UK, 2009). What is interesting is that over the last year we've seen a shift, where overt ageism has become acceptable, even fashionable. This is a marked difference from a quote in a 2008 Government white paper, which described ageism as:
"... only noticed when it is experienced as something that is ‘out of the ordinary’ … the slow accumulation of many, seemingly minor, humiliations explains the long process of exclusion and withdrawal from public places and intergenerational social relations.'
Academics are still only just exploring the impact of Brexit on ageism, so what I say next is anecdotal. But if you talk to older adults, look at Twitter, and read outlets like Esquire (see quote below regarding Brexit), you get the sense that older adults are increasingly being generalised, stereotyped and scapegoated.
‘Some of the oldest and whitest people on the planet leapt at a chance to vote against the monsters in their heads.’ – Esquire magazine
"Research has demonstrated links between exposure to negative stereotypes about age (e.g. the nature of older characters in ongoing soap dramas) and outcomes including poorer health, poorer driving ability and enhanced cardiovascular stress."
TAONR. You've been outspoken on the recent video by Momentum. Why?
Iain. The current political divides in the UK, on the topics of Brexit. political ideology and class, have recently been conflated with age. Momentum's video is a clear example of this, where they have played on the current stereotypes of older adults to energise younger, left-wing voters. It's not to say that there aren't older adults who are affluent and so dismissive of socialist ideals. But the majority will not. And it is the majority of older adults that propaganda like this will ultimately harm.
TAONR. Stereotypes and stereotyping can impact older adults in many ways, correct?
Iain. Quite. Aside from limiting opportunities and creating social isolation, there are a couple of particularly invidious effects. The first is called stereotype threat. In essence, when we believe we are expected to perform less well because of some aspect of our identity (e.g. age) on a related task (e.g. maths challenges or physical strength), we will generally perform less well as a result. We know this concept exists, because when you neutralise the condition by, for instance, stating that a task has been created to be age-neutral, the underperformance goes away.
Then there is stereotype embodiment theory. Coined by Dr Becca Levy, this theory explains how older adults can internalise negative stereotypes. Research has demonstrated links between exposure to negative stereotypes about age (e.g. the nature of older characters in ongoing soap dramas) and outcomes including poorer health, poorer driving ability and enhanced cardiovascular stress.
TAONR. What advice do you have for people who feel they are struggling against a barrier of ageist stereotypes?
"What makes me happiest is spending time with the people who matter most to me. And that has nothing to do with age, although it is important regardless of your age."
Iain. Honestly, don't let yourself become a victim. Forms of discrimination, both overt and implicit, do exist. They will be hindrance enough without letting them get to you. Which means treating a job seeking process as a numbers game, or dismissing a subtle comment as stereotyping that we can all be guilty of.
TAONR. What about you? Do you think how old you are today is relevant to how you think about yourself and why?
Iain. Absolutely it is. I would suggest that there are broad expectations — cultural, societal — about how you should be and what you should have achieved at each stage of life. So whenever you might reflect on 'how am I doing', it is likely you'll compare yourself to broad expectations about where you should be at your age. Or compare yourself to others of a similar age. We also use quite a range of age-related phrases to describe where we’re at, for example, I might simultaneously describe myself as underage, over the hill… and round the bend!
All this is completely irrational and often unhelpful. We all have individual lives, our own stories to write. I believe it is far better to set personal goals based on who you want to be and keep checking in against those.
TAONR. What is the biggest stress in your life at the moment? Does this have anything to with how old you are?
Iain. My PhD is probably the biggest stress — in the right, challenging sense of stress — in my life now. And it has nothing to do with how old I am. My wonderful part-time PhD colleagues at the University of Nottingham are of a variety of ages. The number of birthday cards you've collated over the years has no correlation with whether you can do a PhD.
TAONR. Is there one thing which makes you happiest right now? Do you think this has to do with your age?
Iain. I do dislike clichés, but I'm going to throw one at you now: what makes me happiest is spending time with the people who matter most to me. And that has nothing to do with age, although it is important regardless of your age. Although figuring out who those people are isn't always easy, something I am hoping I might continue to develop as I become wiser in time.
TAONR. What can you learn from people who are older?
Iain. Research suggests that adults get better at managing our emotion as we age. Which is something I would definitely like to improve on.
TAONR. Last one. What do you think is the benefit of a society where our age does not define us?
Iain. Such a nice, punchy question to end on. The football manager Sir Matt Busby once observed, "If they are good enough, they are old enough." A society where our age does not define us would adopt this mantra throughout the lifespan. Specifically, whether at work or at play, this would mean we could learn, improve and collaborate together, regardless of which calendar day was scrubbed out with a red marker when you were born.
You can find Iain on Twitter @iainalexsmith or here on Linked In
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