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Home  arrow Sociology by the Numbers  arrow Is Ageism Increasing in America?

Is Ageism Increasing in America?

Michael V. Miller

KEY QUESTION: What are the current sentiments of Americans toward assisting the elderly? Have Americans, particularly the young, become less inclined in recent years to help them?

KEY CONCEPTS: ageism, intergenerational conflict

KEY SOURCES OF DATA: 2004 General Social Survey, National Opinion Research Center.

QUESTION FOR REFLECTION: Answer the polling questions below, which were modified from the General Social Survey, National Opinion Research Center, and compare your responses to those of your peers.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: Please click on the response that best reflects your opinion:

A. Many older people share a house with their grown children. Do you think this is generally a good idea or a bad idea?   button3.gif

B. Relative to government spending on Social Security for the support of the elderly, do you think that the amount currently being spent is too little, about right, or too much?   button3.gif

INTRODUCTION: It is commonly asserted that ageism is pervasive in America. Presumably, we place great value on youth, while devaluing that which is aging or old. Sociologists have long maintained that Americans, in general, are likely to hold the elderly in low esteem and to view them through decidedly negative stereotypes (old-fashioned, stubborn, inept, feeble, etc.). Moreover, some sociologists have observed that, in recent years, Americans have become increasingly resentful of providing financial assistance to the elderly. For example, predictions are now common that significant intergenerational conflict will soon characterize our society in coming decades as younger people become hard pressed to support that large cohort of aging "baby boomers" through burdensome Social Security taxes. (See page 373-375 in the Henslin text.)

While certainly plausible, we must ask if available empirical evidence does, in fact, support these assertions about the growing resistance, especially among younger Americans, toward helping the elderly

DATA ANALYSIS: Tables in this section report data for the only relevant indicators that could be found in the large survey, representative of the U.S. adult population, that is conducted each year, the General Social Survey. Positions favoring assistance to the elderly are indicated by responses that sharing a house with a grown child is a "good idea" and that "too little" is being spent on Social Security.

Inspection of Table 1 clearly shows that Americans have not become increasingly negative toward providing the elderly assistance. Significantly more respondents reported that sharing a home with an aging parent was a "good idea" in the 1990s than in the 1970s (although the proportion agreeing was slightly higher in the early 1980s). Indeed, only a minority of respondents supported the idea in the 1970s, whereas by the 1980s and the past decade, the majority of respondents endorsed it. However, support is beginning to decline as noted in the 2004 numbers. Likewise, public support for Social Security has shown no sign of declining since the question was first asked in 1984. Indeed, a greater proportion of respondents agreed in 2004 that "too little" was being spent than in earlier survey years.

TABLE 1. Trends in Attitudes toward Assistance for the Elderly, 1973 to 2004

Attitude 1973 1978 1984 1990 1998 2004
Sharing Home            
 Good Idea 36.7 43.9 59.9 56.8 56.5 49.4
 N 1335 1273 1260 733 1511 873
Social Security $            
 Too Little     53.9 52.1 59.4 65.6
 Too Much     10.2 5.8 6.7 5.6
 N 917 1288 922 1281 2658 2702

Table 2 describes the distribution of favorable attitudes in 2004 across selected demographic variables. As shown, those who indicated that sharing a home with an elderly parent was a "good idea" were relatively similar in most respects, although college-educated and younger respondents were considerably more apt than others to say that it is a "good idea." The fact that respondents 50 years and older had the lowest proportion of endorsement is noteworthy and somewhat ironic. For the other indicator, women, blacks, and those with less education and income were most likely to report that Social Security payments to the elderly were "too little." Older respondents again were much less supportive, having a low rate of agreement with this position.

TABLE 2. Favorable Attitudes toward Assisting the Elderly by Selected Demographic Variables, 2004 (percents responding that sharing home is a "good idea" and that Social Security spending is "too little")

Variable Sharing Home Social Security $
Male 48.8 59.9
Female 49.9 70.3
White 47.9 62.7
Black 46.4 83.2
< 30 52.6 68.5
30-49 55.6 69.6
49 > 41.2 60.1
High school graduate 49.2 70.2
High school graduate< 48.4 69.8
College 50.7 57.9
Low 55.8 70.0
Middle 52.1 68.9
High 47.9 57.9
Sample N > 581 > 1817

Given the prominence of race and class (income/education) in relation to attitudes about Social Security spending, multivariate analysis was performed to determine whether the high rate of black endorsement for greater spending was more a function of their disproportionate distribution in lower socioeconomic categories than a function of race. Analysis clearly indicates that this was not the case: regardless of income, blacks were far more likely than whites to report that current Social Security payments provided the elderly "too little" money. (See Table 3.)

TABLE 3. Percent Agreeing that Social Security Pays "Too Little" by Race and Income Status, 2004 (N=1689)

 Income Level
  Income Level
Race Low Middle High
White 68.1 66.1 59.7
Black 82.4 88.0 83.3

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