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Age stereotypes: new research and its application where jobs are scarce

by on July 24, 2013

This article in the New York Times highlights new research by Michael North and Susan Fiske of Princeton University in the area of age stereotypes which is potentially interesting in the context of age at work.

As the article says, age discrimination in the workplace can be harder to identify and quantify than race and sex discrimination. For example, older workers may be unfairly demoted but could still earn more than their younger counterparts, making salary differentials (which can be helpful in the context of say gender) a less useful tool in identifying age discrimination.

The research examines prescriptive (as opposed to descriptive) stereotypes i.e. ones that attempt to control how older people should be. This is examined in relation to what the researchers describe as ‘encouraging active Succession of envied resources [and] preventing passive Consumption of shared resources’). The researchers make the point that these stereotypes are of interest at a time of reported generational tension in relation to scare resources (including jobs).

In the experiment, these age ‘prescriptions’ were operationalised within a character as either the type of person who would share his wealth with relatives (the compliant Max, encouraging active succession) or as a person who said he felt no obligation to share (the assertive Max).

In the experiment participants were shown a video of a Max who would be their partner in a trivia contest. He was white, neither handsome nor ugly, wore a checked shirt and said he was from Hamilton, N.J. Unknown to them, there were three different versions of Max played by different actors aged 25, 45 and 75 years old. Each Max adhered to the same script with one exception. When describing himself, half of the time he was compliant, the other time, assertive.

Participants were asked their opinion of Max. For those who saw the 25- or 45-year-old Max, it made no difference whether he was compliant or assertive. But students who saw the 75-year-old actor gave the assertive Max a high negative rating.

A copy of the paper can be downloaded from this link.

The authors comment on the wider application of their findings: ‘For better or for worse, this prescription applies primarily to older people, who are perhaps viewed as not entitled to enviable resources as much as younger generations. One potential explanation why younger people are Succession’s primary subscribers is that they are the ones who stand to benefit the most from the passing along of resources, as the age sequences progresses, and as young people are the lowest in resources‘.

These attitudes and behaviour could be reflected in the labour market where jobs are seen as a scarce resource.

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