L.J. Rohan

L.J. Rohan

Certified Gerontologist

Myth: Seniors have no style


Yes, Virginia, many younger people believe they invented cool”and “hip,” just like they think they invented sex. (No kidding.) Actually, thanks to the jazz world, these terms became part of our conversations over seventy years ago. They were not invented in the 1990’s as many young people think, nor were the attributes that made one cool and hip or a “hipster.” Now as far as style is concerned, well, to quote one researcher, “Seniors have been around the block a few times. Which means they know how to shake a leg, how to cut a rug, and more importantly, how to dress to the nines.” We may have traded our stilettos for cute wedges or flats and given up torturing shapewear (um, girdles) under our skintight spandex dresses, but  even now, using the data base in our heads that is filled with decades of fabulous fashion tips, we can still make an entrance that leaves mouths open and eyes filled with awe and admiration. That’s style!  

Myth: Seniors have no style

Please don’t shoot me, I am only the messenger, but this myth does raise my hackles almost to Mars! An important review done in 2009, studied stereotypes of older people in the workplace by bringing together the findings from over 100 studies of age-related stereotyping at work. What the researchers found was that stereotypes of older workers have three strong themes. First, we are perceived as less motivated and competent at work. This dovetails with the myth I refuted in April, Seniors Are Warm-Hearted, But Impaired, that older people are viewed as warm but not very competent—but in fact, there is little evidence that our work performance declines with age. Some studies even show that, relative to younger people, older people are more productive at their jobs! Imagine that. 

Second, numerous studies show that older employees are seen as harder to train or retrain, making them less valuable as employees. This assumption reflects the low-competence myth I busted. And, it highlights the assumptions of older employees’ inability to change, our likely shorter tenure with the company, and our lack of potential for development. 

Last, we seasoned workers are perceived as being more expensive employees because we have higher salaries and, due to declining health, use more health care benefits. This piece of the stereotype reflects the widespread, though exaggerated, assumption that old age and illness are one and the same.

On a positive note, although it would appear that the stereotypes of older workers are uniformly negative, there exists a substantial amount of research showing older employees, compared with their younger-age counterparts, as more trustworthy, stable, sociable, and dependable. (Score one for our team!) These beliefs reflect a warmer and more positive view of older workers. Also, while younger people think that we older workers are less worthy of advancement and less interpersonally skilled, we are seen as more reliable, compared to younger workers. (Gee, no kidding?) 

Myth: Older People in the Workplace

Several studies from the respected Pew Research Center dispel this myth with their findings, yet 55% of younger people think we can’t find the location of the ON button for our computers without help. In truth, 67% of us use the internet on a regular basis, and more than 50% of us have broadband, or Wi-Fi, at home. I think the largest part of the misunderstanding comes from the use of social media. Lots of seniors see serious outcomes for young folks who can only communicate via their cellphones. Keeping face–to-face communication and actual phone calls alive, I think, is another reason why seniors reject the 24/7 use of computers, messaging, and social media.  The younger generations were born with phones in their hands, which must have been painful for their mothers giving birth ;-), and social media fluency equals intelligence in their eyes. As it turns out, the reason for the myth about our internet savvy comes from the fact that we use different social media platforms than they do. While Instagram, Twitter, Qzone, Reddit, Snapchat, and several others are favored by the young, we are the Facebook generation; 70% of mid-lifers and seniors check into Facebook every day. Clearly, we are in touch with modern technology, just on a different wave-length. 

Could you live without your computer? What are your concerns about how social media is affecting our relationships with others? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Myth: Seniors Are Not Tech Savvy

Breathe deeply now…. After receiving dozens and dozens of comments on Facebook and from my newsletter subscribers, this week I am going for a grand slam by dispelling a huge myth some younger folks have about us: we are an economic burden. Breathe deeply, again, and read on while you are resting your weary body after a long day at work. People over fifty make up only 35% of the population in the United States, but we add $7.4 Trillion dollars a year to the economy each year, or 43% of the total GDP. That’s not pocket change! Yet from the survey of 2,000 people aged sixteen to thirty-four, a full 35% thought older folks become an economic burden when we become seniors. Looking on the bright side, 65% of those responding to the survey thought we do not become an economic burden as we get older. Now that your blood pressure has dropped, what do you think about this fact? How does it make you feel? I look forward to hearing from you!

Myth: Seniors Drain the Economy

In the early 2000’s, two researchers at Princeton University queried college students about their opinions of and their ideas about seniors. Sadly, the students consistently grouped the seniors in the same category with disabled and developmentally disabled people, reflecting the widely held prejudice that older adults are low on competence. The students did throw us cognitive-impaired mid-lifers a small bone by rating us high on warmth. Yippee ;-( However, if the students did rate us as being competent, our warmth and likeability factors went through the floor. It seems we can’t be warm and competent at the same time—kind of like being blonde and smart in the same body. On the positive side, there was some wiggle room in how warm and friendly we could be, but the belief that older adults are incompetent was as solid as Mt. Rushmore. Should you think things have changed in the ensuing decade, I am sorry to say, you would be mistaken. In an update to their study published in 2016, Cuddy and Fiske, the researchers, stood by their original findings, and other studies continue to corroborate the first findings of Cuddy and Fiske. Amazing.

How does this information make you feel?

Myth: Seniors are Warm-Hearted but Impaired

I came across this poem recently and it stopped me cold. I looked at the date and nodded my head, yet realized almost forty years later, many people would still find this poem to be accurate. What do you think?

The Little and the Old Man (1981)

Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”

Said the old man, “I do that too.”

The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”

“I do that too,” laughed the little old man.

Said the little boy, “I often cry.”

The old man nodded, “So do I.”

“But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems

Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”

And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.

“I know what you mean,” said the little old man.

Shel Silverstein (1930-1999)

Myth: In Some Ways, Nothing Has Changed

A survey of 2,000 young people sixteen to thirty-four were asked, “What age is ‘old’ to you?” I almost fell out of my desk chair laughing, when I read their answers: the male respondents believe a person becomes “old” at fifty-six. The female respondents gave us a few more years of life by selecting sixty-one as the age at which someone is considered “old.” For anyone reading this who is older than, say, fifty, or fifty-six for sure, I hope you will thank me forever for enlightening you as to what age the younger generation thinks a person is over the hill. I don’t even need to spend time refuting this one. Please share this with some of your other “old” friends for a good laugh, and a knowing roll of the eyes!

Myth: People Are “Old” at 56

Older drivers are crazy drivers. That’s what younger people, and some older people 😉 seem to believe. However, according to official sources, namely the Federal Highway Safety Administration, drivers sixty-five and over make up only 19% of the crash victims, while those young folks 18-35 make up almost 40%, 38% to be exact, of crash victims. Add to that a study from Consumer Reports which found seniors had fewer crashes per miles driven than younger drivers. The final bombshell that destroys this myth? Research from the University of Swansea suggests that drivers seventeen to twenty-one are four times more likely to crash their cars than are senior drivers. But, anyone who has, or had, teenagers knows that is true. Why do you think kids’ insurance rates are so high and then drop dramatically at twenty-five?

Myth: Our Driving Skills Decline As We Get Older

I have never seen an expiration date stamped on the forehead of an artist, or a musician, or an interior designer. Creativity, like wisdom, is often a gift that becomes more complex and more nuanced as we get older. Michelangelo was seventy-one when he took on the job of completing St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Tony Bennett will be ninety-three on his next birthday, and when he was eighty-eight he did a killer duet of “The Lady is a Tramp” with Lady Gaga. It’s had more than 29 million views on YouTube. The sheet-metal sculptor, Beverly Pepper, is still producing monumental works at ninety-six. 

I could keep listing active artists in all fields for the next week, but I think the point is made that as humans we are hardwired for creativity, and it is something we carry with us until our last breath.  

Myth: We Lose Our Creativity as We Get Older

Since humans first put stick to cave wall, in almost every type of image–moving or in print–where older adults are portrayed, the creator gives us one or more of the perceived shortcomings listed above. (This doesn’t include the ads for Viagra and the like, where the fit, handsome, and vitally alive, silver-haired fox looks longingly at the beautiful and equally toned and vital woman of a certain age.) The term for this systematic stereotyping is called “ageism.” 

This term came into existence in 1969. Before that no word existed to describe the pervasive prejudice against people with seasoning, experience, and wisdom. Now here is the most surprising piece: younger and older adults hold similar stereotypes about aging–how can that be when we are now looking out the eyes of an older adult? I certainly don’t think of myself as mentally deficient, or slow and creaky. Unfortunately, that stereotyping is true because there are almost always (unless you are a centenarian) people who are older than we are on whom we can attach the list of stereotypes. Ageism is one of the last socially acceptable prejudices. Society, in general, still tends to categorize older adults into one of three subtypes: grandmother types–helpful, kindly, serene, wise, trustworthy; elder statesman–intelligent, competent, aggressive, intolerant; generic senior citizen—lonely, old-fashioned, weak, genderless (and for sure, asexual!) Adding to the unrealistic view of older adults, these automatically activated stereotypes subconsciously guide our behavior toward older people and how we communicate with them. Patronizing talk, including slower speech, simpler vocabulary, careful enunciation, a demeaning emotional tone, and the adoption of superficial conversation are telltale signs our implicit negative stereotyping is kicking in. Even sadder, women have suffered from greater ageism than men. 

Now for some good news? There is a sea-change coming. More and more films and television programs are accurately depicting older adults as vibrant, energetic, smart, funny, and completely with-it.