Age-based Stereotyping

Family Caregiving September 23, 2015 Print Friendly and PDF

Research surrounding intergenerational communication and age-based stereotyping often begins by asking children a series of direct questions about what they think about older adults. For example: What do you think older adults do for fun? How do you think it feels to be an older adult? What do you think you will do when you become an older adult?

Children may portray life after age 60 as having limited activity and being uninteresting. Comments may include statements like “they just take care of their pets” and “they like being old because they get a free bus pass.” The following quote is from an 11-year old child just before participating in an intergenerational program designed to address community issues:

  • “I think it would be sad to be an elderly person because then I would have to live in an old folks’ home and I would be with other old people and my body would feel like hell. I would have arthritis and lots of pain. I think I would spend my time just watching TV in my wheelchair or rocking chair and reading the newspaper or a book.”1

As children in this program got to know the older adults on a personal level, they began to question and see past the stereotypical views of inactivity and illness, and realize that it is a mistake to equate physical limitations with mental disability. The following comments, made by students after the six-month program of weekly sessions, illustrate the development of more positive views toward older adults:

  • “Grandma S. showed a picture of herself. She was the only one to remember to bring pictures in our group. And I thought senior citizens forgot.”
  • “By the way seniors acted, you’d think differently about them because most people think all seniors walk so very slow and they don’t like to do anything but sleep. But that’s not the way these seniors act. They are so full of energy and they are fun to be with.”

Influences on Intergenerational Communication

Age differences may influence intergenerational communication due to age-based stereotyping. Stereotypes may be formed regarding age due to the fact that age is a highly visible characteristic and is therefore easy to use as a way to make assumptions about other people. Also, since many young people and older adults have limited contact with people of other age groups, stereotypes tend to thrive.2 With little intergenerational contact, a young person may be influenced by negative images of older adults, where old age is often associated with disability and isolation. Additionally, older adults with limited contact with youth may accept negative stereotypes of youth; for example, that they are loud and disrespectful.

It has been shown that the stereotypes people hold of older adults influence how they talk and the topics they bring up for conversation. This may include questions that are asked and the responses that are encouraged.3 Age-based stereotypes also influence whether a person’s talents, contributions and feelings are acknowledged.

Fortunately, there are ways to counteract these negative stereotypes. To help people understand and appreciate differences among people -- whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or age -– it is necessary to go beyond simply providing information about another person. We must share experiences and promote regular contact with each other to change attitudes. This holds true for changing young children’s attitudes toward older adults and may hold true when trying to promote intergenerational understanding among other age groups.

Intergenerational programs that are successful in breaking down age-based stereotypes do not aim to deny or paint over generational differences. Rather, these programs seek to provide participants with opportunities to discuss and reflect upon intergenerational differences (real and imagined) at the beginning and throughout the program. The driving force for such discussion and reflection is the participants’ new experiences with people from other generations. In the context of families with grandparents and other relatives raising children, such experiences -– typically in the form of family activities -– are equally important for providing family members with opportunities to learn firsthand how popular age-related stereotypes are often inaccurate and should not be allowed to affect how they view and relate to each other.


  • Matthew S. Kaplan, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Intergenerational Programs and Aging, Department of Agricultural and Extension Education, Penn State University.
  • Andrew B. Crocker, Extension Program Specialist - Gerontology Health, Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Texas A&M System.


  1. Kaplan, M. (1997). The benefits of intergenerational community service projects: Implications for promoting intergenerational unity, community activism, and cultural continuity. Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 28(1/2), 211-228.
  2. Stearns, P.N. (1989). Historical trends in intergenerational contacts. In S. Newman & S.W. Brummel (eds.) Intergenerational programs: Imperatives, strategies, impacts, trends (21-32). Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.
  3. Harwood, J. (1998). Young adults' cognitive representations of intergenerational conversations. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 26, 13-31.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.