Glass Half Empty: Negative Stereotypes of Aging Persist against All Odds

Holding negative stereotypes about aging has been associated with poorer cognitive function and increased risk of disability in later life, as well as decreased longevity. While it would seem that a variety of age-related trends should be reducing these negative stereotypes about aging and replacing them with more positive stereotypes, data shows the opposite: Negative age-related stereotypes are increasing, creating what has been described as the “age-stereotype paradox.”

A recent article points to four trends that should increase positive aging stereotypes. First is health data showing that older adults are healthier. Healthier older individuals can serve as exemplars that refute stereotypes about bad health being an inherent part of aging. Second is intergenerational contact, which should theoretically increase due to the greater proportion of older adults in society. Third is the presence of legislation such as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act that aims to decrease age-related mistreatment of older adults. Lastly, it would seem that a social climate that is more accepting of minorities and disadvantaged groups should also have a positive effect, in theory. Yet despite all of this, negative stereotypes about aging are on the rise.

Turning to how this paradox could be overcome, the article makes two main recommendations. The first is a top-down approach, with the creation of an “anti-aging czar.” Modeled along the lines of the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy or “drug czar,” this government position could direct communications and other efforts to combat ageism. The second suggestion is more bottom-up: the formation of an aging rights movement, which could adapt strategies successfully employed by other social movements to change attitudes about the groups they represent. Both of these approaches could potentially be powerful forces for “reinforcing conditions that promote positive age stereotypes and attenuating conditions that promote negative age stereotypes” and by doing so, finally break down the age-stereotype paradox and promote more positive and realistic perspectives on aging.


Levy BR. Age-stereotype paradox: opportunity for social change. The Gerontologist (2017); 57(suppl 2): S118–126.


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