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When does 'youth' end and 'old age' begin?

Professor Dominic Abrams and Dr Melanie Vauclair from the School of Psychology at the University of Kent will present findings from the European Social Survey's research project 'Attitudes to Age in the UK and Europe' during an event at City University, London, on Monday 15 March.

Titled What do the British think about... ageism, political institutions and welfare?, this Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) event will consist of an information seminar and an online demonstration of how to access and use the European Social Survey(ESS) data archive, currently comprising 21 European countries and more than 40,000 respondents. The event runs from 9am-11am.

With a steadily growing proportion of older people in the UK and Europe, the 2008 ESS included a module that examined how people perceive and feel about their own and other age groups.

Professor Abrams explained: 'The survey showed that age prejudice - being treated as 'too young' or 'too old' - is perceived to be a serious or very serious issue by 63 per cent of respondents, so it is obviously important to know what these age labels mean to people'. To find out, the survey asked when does 'youth' end and 'old age' begin? For the UK, average response to this question was that, youth ends in one's mid-thirties (from the age of 36) and old age begins from the end of one's fifties (59).

However, the survey also revealed that people's judgements depend strongly on the 'age of the beholder'. On average, the youngest respondents (15 to 24-year old) judged that youth ends at 28 and old age starts from 55, whereas the oldest age group (80 and older) judged that youth ends after 42 and old age starts at 67.

In the UK, there is a gap of almost 40 years between that age that young people believe that youth ends (28) and the age that older people believe that old age begins (67). However, more startlingly, there is a gap of only 12 years between older people's judgement of the end of youth and younger people's judgement of the start of old age.

Professor Abrams said: 'This evidence shows that what counts as young and old is largely down to the age of the beholder.'

In general, men regarded the end of youth and start of old age to begin two years earlier than women did.

There were also large differences between European countries. Youth was perceived to end earliest in Nordic countries such as Norway (34) but as much as 10 years later in countries such as Belgium and Slovenia The average perception of the end of youth and start of old age were both later in Cyprus (over 52 and 67, respectively) than in 20 other countries.

The findings illustrate that when people discover another person's age, whether they categorise that person as 'young or old is highly subjective. It is affected by where the perceiver lives, whether they are male or female, and their own age. This may have important implications in influencing people's assumptions about the other person's responsibilities, rights and capabilities.

Amongst other findings, the survey also showed that 28 per cent of UK respondents reported that they had been treated with prejudice because of their age in the past year and that the youngest age group were more likely to report experiences of prejudice than any other. Across the European countries in the survey, age prejudice was most widely reported in Finland (47 per cent) and least so in Cyprus and Portugal (19 per cent). The UK ranked 16 out of 21 countries in regard to this question.


Story published at 8:45am 19 March 2010

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