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KU researchers show younger, older Americans perceive age discrimination

LAWRENCE -- Americans younger than 20 and older than 65 perceive they have lower social status than those who are middle-aged, and they're more likely to perceive age discrimination directed against them, according to new research.

KU professors Teri Garstka, Nyla Branscombe and Mary Lee Hummert have studied the issue, and their research was published in the June issue of the journal Psychology and Aging.

When older Americans detect such discrimination, it is associated with lower self-esteem and life satisfaction, Garstka said. But these negatives can be diminished, and the sting of perceived discrimination lessened, if they identify more strongly with others their age.

In contrast, young adults who experience age discrimination appear to suffer less psychological harm from it, Garstka said.

"They may be less affected by their lower status and age discrimination because they know they'll eventually leave their age group and attain the status associated with middle age," said Garstka, assistant research professor in KUs Gerontology Center. "They may also focus on some of the more positive aspects of their age group, like youth, beauty and health."

Fifty-nine young adults aged 17 to 25 years and 60 older adults aged 64 to 91 years participated in a study by Garstka; Branscombe, professor of psychology; Hummert, professor of communication studies; and Michael Schmitt, assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.

The study focused on general perceptions of discrimination and their consequences for psychological well-being and age-group identification, Garstka said. Most research on age discrimination has looked at the issue primarily in the realms of employment and health care.

Those studies show that age plays a significant and often negative role in hiring decisions, evaluations of and attitudes toward older workers and task-performance expectations. Older adults also may get less aggressive medical treatment for a range of medical problems, Garstka said.

"Ours are among the first data to illustrate that group identification may be a response that enables older adults to avoid some of the negative effects of age discrimination," the researchers write.

Behaviors that show "group identification," Garstka said, may include such steps as joining the American Association of Retired Persons, the Red Hat Society or the Gray Panthers. These groups affirm the identity of older Americans and lobby about issues important to them.

For other older adults, group identification might mean discussing the experience of aging with peers at church or in a book club.

The main component of age-group identification, however, is having a positive sense of belonging to the group "older adults," Garstka said.

"On the flip side," Garstka said, "those who avoid thinking about themselves as 'older adults' might not reap the benefits, in terms of well-being, that such an identification can bring."

Older Americans are not well-defended against the pain of age discrimination, Garstka said.

"Age-group identification was able to partially reduce the negative effects of age discrimination on well-being but not eliminate them entirely.

"I would say, though, that older adults who age successfully find many ways of adapting to the adverse experiences associated with aging."

The researchers believe that the benefits derived from feeling positively identified with the group "older adults" is indicative of successful aging.

The National Institute on Aging, a part of the National Institutes of Health, provided support to Hummert for the research.


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