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Great (Age-Based) Expectations

September 5, 2013
Die Hard Brain (Jill Andrews) / CC BY 3.0

By Michael North (Columbia University) and Susan Fiske (Princeton University)

A pivotal period in U.S. history, the 2008 Presidential Election featured a striking contrast between two candidates. On one hand, John McCain represented an older, White male establishment figure typical of the presidency; on the other, Barack Obama was the upstart, younger, mixed-race candidate with a message of hope and change. Obviously, the end result was the historic first election of an African-American president—leading many to assume that the candidates’ racial difference was the deciding element. But as it turns out, that assumption is incorrect; although race was certainly one consideration, exit polls indicated that another factor weighed twice as heavily on voters’ minds.

That factor was age—namely, that John McCain was too old.

The validity of this belief is not something we will address here (although McCain’s gene pool offers some contradictory evidence; his mother is currently alive and well at 101 years old). More striking to us was the sheer intensity of opinion concerning McCain’s age and consequently whether he should have even been running for president in the first place. Along with hot-button issues surrounding the rapidly aging population, an increase in age discrimination lawsuits, and the sustainability of Medicare and Social Security, these beliefs seemed to spur questions not directly answered by the social psychological literature: What exactly are people’s prescriptive ideas concerning what seniors should be doing in society, and the share of resources they should be using?

Using theory-driven approaches (see also North & Fiske, Psychological Assessment, in press), our work has validated three critical domains of resource-focused “shoulds” targeting elders. First, there is Succession: the idea that older people should actively cede enviable resources—such as employment, wealth, and yes, political influence. Second, there is Consumption: the idea that older people should minimize their passive drain on shared societal resources—such as public space and government funding (driving, healthcare, Social Security). Finally, there is Identity: the idea that seniors should refrain from participating in youth-oriented activities, such as Facebook, texting, and fashionable dressing. In all cases, we have found that younger people most strongly believe in these prescriptive, controlling stereotypes—most probably because they stand to gain when elders step aside and give younger generations their turn.

Using six experiments (North & Fiske, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2013), we investigated how people’s attitudes shift based on the age and behavior of others. Comprising both vignette and simulated interaction paradigms, using a 3 (older/middle-aged/younger target) x 2 (violating/adhering to prescriptive expectations) design, and recruiting a wide age range of participants (18 to 81), these studies found two consistent trends.

First, the younger the participants, the more likely they were to express resentment toward older violators of prescriptions. An older man who does not adequately pass along his enviable wealth (Succession), undergoes a resource-intensive medical procedure (Consumption), or displays his affinity for youth-oriented music (Identity) faces the most backlash from younger participants. In all cases, regression analyses found that as participants grew progressively older, they became more forgiving of these elders’ alleged transgressions. It made less difference how the comparable middle-aged or younger characters behaved.

Second, a closer look at the younger portion of each sample demonstrated an equally marked effect: for the youth, older people were the most polarizing, compared with the younger and middle-aged targets. In other words, the greatest frequency of both punishing prescription violators and rewarding prescription adherers occurred toward the older characters. In a sense, this is encouraging; older people can potentially, albeit unjustly, earn greater positive regard by being perceived as staying in their place. At the very least, this unique polarization toward the old—which did not emerge with the middle-aged—demonstrates age’s complexity; the differential reaction is more than a mere outgroup polarization effect (Linville & Jones, 1980).

Considering that the population is graying at an unprecedented rate, these findings offer both pessimistic and optimistic take-home messages (see also North & Fiske, Psychological Bulletin, 2012). On the pessimistic side, as increasingly fewer seniors quietly go off into the sunset, the risk for resentment among younger generations seeking their own opportunities might also grow. However, the optimistic view suggests that a healthier, more active older population might contradict beliefs about society’s elders as useless and burdensome. Either way, if the 2008 Election is any indication, younger people’s prescriptive beliefs will indeed have significant consequences: nearly 70 percent of under-30 voters voted for Obama. A key goal for society—not to mention social psychology—will be to increase understanding and reduce the prevalence of intergenerational tensions and age-based bias.

Author Information


Michael North is a Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Columbia University.  His primary research focus centers on age-based prejudice and related management and policy applications.


Susan Fiske is Eugene Higgins Professor, Psychology and Pubic Affairs, at Princeton University. Her research addresses how stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination are encouraged or discouraged by social relationships, such as cooperation, competition, and power. She was recently elected to the National Academy of Science.


CNN (2008, November 4). Exit polls: Obama wins big among young, minority voters.

Linville, P.W., & Jones, E.E. (1980). Polarized appraisals of out-group members. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38(5), 689-703.

North, M.S., & Fiske, S.T. (2012). An inconvenienced youth? Ageism and its potential intergenerational roots. Psychological Bulletin, 138(5), 982-997.

North, M.S., & Fiske, S.T. (2013). Act your (old) age: Prescriptive, ageist biases over Succession, Consumption, and Identity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(6), 720-734.

North, M.S., & Fiske, S.T. (in press). A prescriptive, intergenerational-tension ageism scale: Succession, Identity, and Consumption (SIC). Psychological Assessment.

Image Credit:    Die Hard Brain (Jill Andrews) / CC BY 3.0

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