Type the question ‘Are older people more prejudiced?’ into google and the first article to pop up clearly states that “Older People Are More Prejudiced — And They Can’t Help It”. The second, that “there are a lot of clichés thrown around about the elderly, but one that seems to be true — or at least is backed up by research — is the belief they tend to be more prejudiced”.
Whether as a result of less diverse upbringings or their coming of age in ‘less enlightened’ times, it is assumed that elderly people are more prejudiced than their younger counterparts. As Howard Witt, journalist for The Chicago Tribune, puts it “the personality is familiar to us”:
“…the sweet old aunt, the loving grandfather or the generous widow down the street, each of them unfailingly kind toward friends and family but given to flights of shocking prejudice when the conversation turns toward ethnic groups to which they don’t belong.”
These stereotypes exemplified are well-established and it would certainly be easy to end the discussion here. But, are they true?
Research on the elderly’s attitudes on immigration
As the second article mentioned above points out, the belief that the elderly are more prejudiced is backed up by academic research.
In a 2012 paper, Rob Ford, senior lecturer in Politics at Manchester University, looks into the relevance of age to people’s attitudes to immigration. Using both the British Social Attitudes Surveys and Transatlantic Trends Immigration surveys Ford’s research finds substantial differences in attitudes towards immigration across generations. As a result of these differences he suggests that it may be useful to distinguish between a “highly qualified “cosmopolitan young” and less-educated “parochial pensioners”. Not only are younger Britons, who have grown up in more mobile and diverse communities, more favourable towards immigration,  but they are also less concerned about migrants’ origins. At the same time, research repeatedly shows that older voters are more likely to support the right-wing, Eurosceptic and anti-immigration party UKIP. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) has consistently performed best in areas with “large proportions of people aged over 65”, with UKIP voters tending to be older than both Conservative and BNP voters.
For many, including Ford, research therefore seem to suggest that public opinion will become more favourable toward immigrants and more accepting of immigration as younger, more liberal and tolerant generations replace older ones. However, for others there is something inherent in old-age that makes people less open and tolerant of change. For example, according to psychologists von Hippel, Silver and Lynch, speaking from the US, older people rely more heavily on stereotypes and lack “the ability to inhibit information,” causing people to be more prejudiced than they would like to be. In other words, old-age “robs people of their ability to inhibit previously socialized stereotypes and prejudices”. Supporting research also suggests that age-based differences in implicit prejudice are due to “older adults having less control of their automatic prejudicial associations rather than stronger automatic prejudicial associations”. In other words, older people find it harder than their younger counterparts to put the brakes on ‘automatic prejudicial responses’. It is not only that older people are seen to embody not prejudiced, ignorant and bigoted points of view, but that they age makes that unable to change or mediate these prejudices, however politically incorrect or factually inaccurate they may be.
It seems such a simple story but I can’t help wondering what such simple generalisations and divisions – between old/young, liberal/illiberal, parochial/cosmopolitans – might be obscuring.
Challenging stereotypes with narrative
On a recent visit to the Mass Observation archives at Sussex University, I found myself reading through a box of responses given by people asked to write about their experiences with immigrants. Many of the respondents were of retirement age or thereabouts. Some gave prejudiced and xenophobic responses; many did not:
“I’m human, you’re human, you live amongst humans – why should any of us be denied the right to a warm safe place to live, enough food, and to be treated as we would all wish to be treated […] My dream is eventually, but preferably now, for the whole world to see everyone else as a mirror of themselves, not black, white, male, female, rich, poor, but just PEOPLE – all with the same needs and rights.” Female, 66
“In Manchester there are people from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, many, if not most, being born in this country. Trying to categorise them as immigrants or not seems a waste of time […] I suppose what I am saying is that I do not look at a person and then categorise them as immigrants or not […] As someone who moved from where they were brought up because of job opportunities I cannot say anything wrong with people doing the same, even if they come from abroad.” Male, 63
“Immigrants are a Good Thing […] Britain was not created from a blank space by immigrants in the same way [as the USA], but its history and language provide plentiful evidence of the importance of new immigrants, over and over again. Anyone who leaves their home country for a strange new one thereby shows their initiative and willingness to make an effort to thrive in the new land. Such people are valuable and importance and should always be welcomed”. Male, 75
“In my junior school there were many girls from the Jewish orphanage, I was very willing to help them like showing how to tie their shoelaces, explaining games like hopscotch but they mainly stayed together as a group. Dad didn’t like me mixing with them and one time it finished in a row with me being sent to my room for saying “but they are only little girls like me without a mummy and daddy”. I didn’t understand then and I don’t understand now where all this animosity regarding other people comes from […] We can’t choose how tall we will be, the colour of our eyes or skin or where we are born.” Female, 71
The comments above show a much greater openness and diversity of opinion than is suggested by elderly stereotypes and quantitative analyses of people’s attitudes. It is clearly not as simply as ‘old people are more prejudiced’. Where negative opinions and experiences were given by these individuals, and others, they tended to align with and reiterate widespread media discourses. However, the majority of respondents claimed to have had little experience with immigrants, and many recognised themselves unqualified to comment as a result.
Although many elderly people have had little personal contact with immigrants, many of those categorised as elderly today have had the benefit of growing up in the ethnically diverse neighbourhoods of post-war Britain. As in the fourth quote above, many of these individuals have, even as children, questioned the prejudices of previous generations. They are the children of the 50s and 60s, growing up alongside the Civil Rights, women and youth movements. Old people today are not the elderly of yesteryear and will be different to the elderly of tomorrow. We are the elderly of the future too. Will our politics change as a result? Will we spout the shocking prejudice of tomorrow?
Attributing prejudice to Fenton’s “resentful nationalists” and Ford’s “parochial pensioners” is also risky in obscuring the pervasiveness and cross-cutting appeal prejudice and intolerance within society so that inadequate attention is given to the prejudicial views of less marginal groups in society. As Sociologist Les Back explains: “when we make white racists into monsters there is a danger of organising racism into some – often very predictable white bodies – and away from others”.
In Britain, the marginalisation of prejudice onto older, less-educated, and working-class bodies has detracted attention away from mainstream exclusionary practices so that prejudice and intolerance appear less pervasive than they actually are.
Older generations are often associated with parochial nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia. Yet, as the narratives of some older people show, we should refrain from tarring all older people with that brush. Whether or not the four individuals quoted above are exceptional or not is, I would argue, for little importance here. The point I am making is not that the research mentioned is wrong, nor that older-people are not more likely to demonstrate prejudice than the young. Rather, I am suggesting that we must not and cannot assume that old people are inherently bigoted and narrow-minded. To do so also risks reinforcing another form of prejudice, that is, an ageism in which ‘the elderly’ are demonised and belittled en masse as a homogenous aged mass, indistinguishable as thinking and individual human-beings.
Fenton, S. (2012) Resentment, class and social sentiments about the nation: The ethnic majority in England. Ethnicities 12(4): pp. 465–483
Ford, R. (2012) Parochial and Cosmopolitan Britain: Examining the Social Divide in Reactions to Immigration. Transatlantic Trends: Immigration Focus Papers. German Marshall Fund of the United States: Washington, DC.
von Hippel, W., Silver, L. and Lynch, M. (2000) Stereotyping Against Your Will: The Role of Inhibitory Ability in Stereotyping and Prejudice Among the Elderly, in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (26(5) pp. 523-532
 See also Radvansky et al (2010) whose research found that “older adults were more likely to make and maintain stereotypic inferences than younger adults, potentially causing them to be more prejudiced than younger adults”.
 In the British Social Attitudes Survey (2013) 19% of graduates said they were prejudiced compared to 38% of those with no qualifications. 36% of over-55s described themselves as prejudiced, compared to 25% of 18-34s.