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Are Young People Ageism Towards Older People?

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Due to the population of older people predicted to significantly increase, it is important to study young people’s perceptions of older people as ageism could become a more predominant discrimination. Four hundred and seventy-six participants were asked to complete a sketch of either their grandparent or an older person that is not a member of their family. Then to provide the age and the gender of the sketch as well as their own age and gender. After investigating young people’s perceptions of older people, it was found that the majority of young people in the study had positive attitudes towards their grandparents and other older people. Therefore, it was concluded that overall young people perceive people positively, but these perceptions could change due to life experience. Young people do not hold ageist attitudes however, many of these attitudes could be said to be stereotypical. Relational schema theory and Levy’s stereotype theory both suggest that the environment plays a role in negative perceptions of older people. These theories can be used to develop an understanding of how a young person’s perception of older people is formed. Thus, it is important that further research investigates the stereotypes that young people hold against older people and to look into interventions which could reduce these stereotypes.


Even though every individual has the potential to experience the effects of ageism, the topic remains under-researched, in comparison to other prejudices such as sexism and racism, underappreciated and overlooked (North & Fiske, 2012). Ageism is the prejudice or discrimination towards individuals based on their age (Lyons et al, 2018). Ageism has been found to have a variety of negative impacts on an older individual’s: mental health (Lyons et al, 2018), cognitive performance (Marquet, Missotten, Dardenne & Adam, 2017) and quality of life (Kelchner, 1999). According to relational schema theory, the environment influences ageism. Attitudes shown towards age determines the formation of the schema for old and young people (Gendron & Welleford, 2017). Ageism is forecast to become a more prevailing global issue, driven by ongoing and accelerating demographic changes in population aging (North & Fiske, 2015). An association has been found between these demographic changes and negative perceptions of aging. (Marquet, Missotten, Dardenne & Adam, 2017). The World Health Organisation (WHO) predicts that the number of people aged 60 years or older will to rise to approximately 2 billion in 2050 (WHO, 2017). Therefore, it is becoming increasingly necessary to understand how older people are perceived so successful interventions can be developed to reduce ageism’s impact. Levy’s stereotype embodiment theory suggests, exposure to stereotypes during an individual’s life results in people developing stereotypes about older people. (Levy, 2009). The closeness with grandparents is positively associated with favourable perceptions of those same grandparents (Pecchioni & Croghan, 2002) whereas the attitudes towards other older adults are less clear. Lepinka (2015) gives an insight into the attitudes of older people as they found that media depictions of older people have surged with positivity. But, the effects of these media depictions are unknown on the perceptions of older adults. Even though undergraduates have generally positive attitudes toward older adults, (Mansfield-Green, Morrisseau, Valliant & Caswell 2015) their perceptions are found to be prevalent in, both positive and negative stereotypes (Barrett & Cantwell, 2007). Whereas, it has also been found that students have little stereotypes regarding old people (Leichstein et al, 2005). Hoogland and Hoogland (2018) found a considerable differentiation in the perceptions of grandparents and older people, with older people being described more stereotypically than grandparents. Due to incoherent findings, it is hard to make generalisations about the general perceptions of young people towards older people and their grandparents. The aim of this study is to find out whether the overall portrayal of older people by students predominantly positive or negative? Also, whether the portrayal associated with the category of the older person depicted (grandparents versus old people in general). It has been predicted that the findings of this study will be consistent with the findings of Barrett and Cantwell, 2007.



There were 478 participants. Participants were students, not studying psychology, at the University of Lincoln. Participants were aged 18 – 25 (mean = 19) (SD =1.1). There were 277 females, 196 males, 1 agender, 2 gender non-binary and 2 gender variant/ non-conforming participants. An opportunity sampling method was used to collect participants.


Participants were given an A4 blank sheet of paper which asked them to draw either a grandparent or an old person, then to put the age and the gender of the drawing. They were also asked to provide their gender and age. A pen was given to fill out the questionnaire and sketch.


Firstly, the participants were given a verbal brief and then they asked to give verbal consent to take part in the study. The study was an independent measures design meaning there was two conditions in which participants could have taken part in, this was chosen at random by the researcher. In Condition 1, the participant draws a picture of an old person (who is not a member of their family). In Condition 2, the participant draws a picture of a grandparent. Participants were then to provide written responses to questions about their drawing. They were asked two questions; the first question was “What is the gender of the person in your drawing?” and the second question was “What is their approximate age?”. They were asked to provide their age, gender, and a memorable word so they could anonymously withdraw their data from the study later if they wish to. Lastly, the participants were provided with a verbal debrief. They were given a take home slip. There was no time limit to complete either conditions.


Approval for this study was gained from the School of Psychology Research Ethics Committee. Ethics application decision - PSY1718394. Before participants took the questionnaire, they were verbally briefed about the study, so they could give valid informed consent. This also eliminates the deception of participants. They were also ensured that their anonymity will be maintained throughout the entire study and were referred to as numbers in the data set.

Participants were assured that they did not need to reveal anything about their age/gender if they did not wish too. Additionally, they were told that they could leave the study at any point if they felt uncomfortable. At the end of the study, participants were debriefed about the true aim of the study. They were given the option to withdraw their data after taking part, by giving a memorable phrase at the end of the study, this allowed participants to withdraw their responses anonymously. Take home slips were given which encouraged them to contact student wellbeing if any emotion issues had been triggered by the study.

Method of analysing results

The analytic strategy of Robinson, Zurcher & Callahan (2015) was used to code drawings as either positive or negative. Drawings in both conditions, were analysed in the same way. They were analysed via positive and negative signifiers (Appendix A). These age signifiers were adapted from the methodology of Barrett and Cantwell (2007). The decision as to whether the drawing was positive or negative was made in collaborative teams, the teams would reach full agreement or take the majority decision. (Barrett and Cantwell, 2007)


The drawings ranged from highly detailed sketches (Appendix B) to simple stick people (Appendix C). The minimum age of the person drawn was 41 years old and the maximum was 98 years old. (M= 74) (SD =8.69). Overall, more drawings were classed as positive (n=284) than negative (n=194). There were more males (n = 254) drawn than females (n=222) with even less for transgender (n =1) and gender variant/nonconforming (n=1).

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There was no significant difference between the age of person drawn and condition, t (472.274) = 1.069, p = .286. Levene’s test indicated unequal variances (F = 4.34, p = .038), so degrees of freedom were adjusted from 476 to 472. (Appendix D). Overall, it was found that the participant sketches were significantly positive rather than negative. (χ² (1) = 16.946, p = 0.01). (Appendix F)

A significant association was found between the perception of older adults and grandparents (χ ² (1) = 11.244, p =.001) Overall, grandparents were seen more positively than older people (Figure G)


To be classed as an ‘older person’, an individual must be 65 years or above, (World Health Organisation, 2002) however, findings are not consistent with this. The youngest participant sketch was 41 years of age and the oldest being 98 years of age. Suggesting that, individuals all have different perceptions of what classes as ‘old’. Classing 41 – 98-year olds as old would imply that they are similar (Morrow-Howell, 2012). Therefore, it is not well established as to what young people define as ‘old’. This is supported by t-test results which suggest that young people do not have a stereotypical age for older people.

Young people generally have a positive perception of older people. Findings were consistent with the findings of Mansfield-Green, Morrisseau, Valliant and Caswell, (2015). Both finding an overall, positive attitude towards older people. Inferring that most young people are not ageist. Despite this, the participant sketches were coded via positive and negative signifiers (Appendix A). These signifiers include predominantly positive and negative stereotypes. Thus, it could be suggested that a different method of data collection be used such as a questionnaire with open-end questions to avoid the influence of stereotypes on data. Thus, it is hard to say whether young people are ageist as the method of analysis was flawed.

There could be longitudinal changes in a younger person’s perception of older people. Robinson, Zurcher, and Callahan (2015) found that 78.9% of older people were perceived as positive and 21.1% were viewed negatively. Contradicting this study as it was found that 59.4% of older people were viewed positively and 40.6% were viewed negatively. This shows that older adults are perceived more negatively as children get older. This is evident as the participants of Robinson, Zurcher and Callahan’s study were 8-12 years of age, whereas the participants in this study, were 18 – 25. Furthermore, in Robinson. Zurcher and Callahan’s study more women (59.9%) were sketched then men (40.1%). Whereas in this study, more men (53.1%) were sketched than women (46.4%), transgender (0.2%) and gender variant/ non-conforming (0.2%) Therefore, a cross-sectional study would be useful to distinguish why this change has occurred. A potential explanation could be that younger children see older women almost like ‘motherly’ figures thus, associate them with positive signifiers. As children get older, they are not in the home environment as often, therefore, form different relational schemas about older people.

Overall, grandparents were preferred over other older people. Support for this finding comes from Hoogland and Hoogland (2018) who found that grandparents were perceived more positively than other older people with personality being the predominant factor in their perception. Furthermore, this supports Pecchioni and Croghan’s (2002) study who found that the closer an individual is to their grandparents, the more positively they perceive them.

It is suggested that people have varying relational schemas of older people and grandparents. Implying that young people have been subject to a range of experience which shapes their perception. Findings suggest that the environment facilitates negative attitudes towards older people as individuals age. Findings also relate to Levy’s stereotype theory as it could suggest that children become more exposed to negative aging stereotypes as they get older.

Future studies on the perception of older people and grandparents should measure perception using a different method to participant sketches. This is because drawings are open to interpretation and as a scientific study, qualitative data is the least objectifiable. It could be recommended that future study’s use a methodology like Hoogland and Hoogland (2017). Where students were given 60 seconds to write down what words come into mind when they think of a grandparent, older person or young person. This would have increased that objectivity of results. Future studies should also use a longitudinal or cross-sectional methodology to investigate the changes in perception over time. To make generalisations about young people, it would also be beneficial to study cross-culturally.

In conclusion, young people generally view older people and their grandparents positively, however, changes to individual’s perception may have occurred due to life experience. Young people prefer their grandparents to older people overall. These perceptions may be due to relational schema theory or Levy’s stereotype theory. Therefore, most young people cannot be said to be ageist as they do not discriminate solely on the variable of age so, other factors must contribute towards their perception. Thus, no intervention would be needed to change young people’s perception of older people. Instead, an effort should be made to challenge the stereotypes of older people. Comment by Amelia: Other factors contribute towards perception


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