Here’s the conventional wisdom: The U.S. is a shamelessly youth-obsessed culture that doesn’t appreciate anyone with a candle-heavy birthday cake. And: Developing countries, especially those in Asia, have more respect for their elders. These assumptions are so ingrained in our belief system and experience, it’s hard to imagine they could be inaccurate. But they are, according to the Global Report on Ageism from the World Health Organization (WHO), which proves that stereotypes of any kind—even those about who is more likely to have stereotypes about older people—are a bad idea.
When releasing the report last month, WHO acknowledged that COVID has revealed sometimes ugly truths about ageism. “COVID-19 has affected people of all ages, in different ways. But beyond the impacts of the virus itself, some of the narratives about different age groups have exposed a deep and older malady: ageism,” the report authors state. “This global report on ageism could not be timelier. Its main message is that we can and must prevent ageism and that even small shifts in how we think, feel and act towards age and aging will reap benefits for individuals and societies.”
One of the key findings in the report was an astonishing prevalence of ageism. Based on a survey of more than 83,000 people from 57 countries conducted between 2010 and 2014, at least one in every two people across the globe held moderately or highly ageist attitudes.
The Geography of Ageism
What we found most fascinating is the geography of ageism. The study classified countries as low,
moderate, or high in ageist attitudes and found that 34 of the 57 countries were classified as moderate or high. The highest prevalence of ageism was in low-income and lower-middle-income countries (for example, India, Nigeria, and Yemen). Thirty-nine percent of survey participants from low-income and lower-middle-income countries were found to have strong ageist attitudes.
“This is concerning, given that about half of the world’s population lives in low-income and lower middle-income countries,” the authors state. (The break down is 9.3 percent of the population is in low-income countries and 39 percent in lower-middle-income countries.)
Lower rates of ageism were found in higher-income countries, such as Australia Japan and Poland. Among participants from high-income countries, 69 percent were found to be low in ageist attitudes compared with 18 percent from low income and lower-middle-income countries.
The two regions where the largest proportion of the population held moderately or highly ageist attitudes were Africa and South-East Asia (85.2 percent and 86.4 percent respectively). The Americas (specifically the United States, Chile, Argentina, and Peru) had low rates of ageism. Way to go, U.S.A.!
What’s Up with the French and the Swiss?
The report took pains to point out that more research needed to be done and that “using broad, geographical
generalizations to understand contemporary attitudes towards older adults is inadequate.” However, the report wasn’t done with stereotype busting.
In 2015, a review of 37 papers explored the issue of cross-cultural variation in ageism in greater depth. “The starting point was the prevailing belief that cultures in [South-East Asia and the Western Pacific, such as China, India, Japan, Philippines, and Vietnam] hold older adults in higher esteem than in anglophone cultures…owing to the stronger collectivist traditions of filial piety,” the report states. “The analysis found evidence for the opposite pattern: anglophone cultures and those in [Europe] appear to hold older adults in higher esteem” than the Asian cultures noted.
To get even more specific, the review found that among Asian countries, the Chinese, Japanese and South Koreans held the greatest negativity toward older people. And the French and the Swiss had stronger ageist views than Asian countries. “This analysis also found that negative views of older people appear to be driven by recent, rapid demographic changes in population aging,” the report observes.
Certainly more research will be done to clarify these findings, and if you want to take part in the WHO campaign to curb ageism, click here. But at this point, we might owe the America spirit an apology for the times we’ve cursed its preoccupation with the youngs. Either that or what we experience as ageism here is child’s play (um, not to be ageist toward children, who of course have some very sophisticated types of play). Whew.