The American public draws on a complex set of cultural models to make sense of adult aging and the role that older Americans play in our society. Chief among these are the following implicit understandings and assumptions:
Ideal vs. Real
The public holds a set of aspirational models of the aging process structured by the ideals of self-sufficiency, staying active, participating in leisure activities, and building intimacy with family and friends. These Ideal models of adult aging are in stark contrast with a set of understandings that are used to reason about what the aging process actually entails. This distinction between the ideal and the real is central in structuring the way that the public thinks about aging issues. The public’s dominant Real models of aging include shared understandings of aging as a process of deterioration, dependency, reduced potential, family dispersal and digital incompetence. These deep and negative shared understandings make the process of aging something to be dreaded and fought against, rather than embraced as a process that brings new opportunities and challenges for individuals and society.
Us vs. Them
The public’s negative models of aging also result in the marginalization of older adults as a singular category of people — “old people” or “the elderly”— and facilitates a pattern of “us vs. them” thinking. This compartmentalization of older Americans as “other” contributes to a zero-sum logic, and a sense that any public policy initiatives made on behalf of older Americans will come at the expense of actions on behalf of “the rest of us.”
The public holds individuals largely responsible for solving their aging challenges, for example, by making “good” lifestyle choices to preserve their health, and engaging in “responsible” financial planning to guarantee retirement security. This focus on individual responsibility mutes attention to our shared responsibility as a nation to ensure that our older residents are well supported and experience well-being.
While people believe in, and support, the Social Security system, they think it has been mismanaged, is no longer sustainable, and will most likely not be there for future generations. This thinking is structured by a powerful, underlying American understanding of government as inefficient, ineffective and incapable of the management of collective resources.
The negative models of deterioration, dependency and disease, alongside the assumptions that individuals are largely responsible for their own welfare and that Social Security is doomed, create an overarching sense of fatalism that little can be done collectively to improve life in the United States for older residents.
The public lacks an understanding that the country is growing older as a population, with consequences beyond the individual. This “cognitive hole” limits people’s attention to the need for reforms that prioritize aging as a social issue and adapt our nation’s infrastructure of supports and services for older Americans and their families. The public is also not attuned to the myriad of ways that social and economic conditions operating at the population level structure people’s experiences of their older years in markedly divergent ways. Their inattention to these social determinants allows them to easily fall back on more individualized explanations for why some older Americans do not do well, and for private solutions to these purportedly private causes. The public also lacks an understanding of ageism, and of the prevalence of this discriminatory practice. This creates a lack of awareness of the degree to which ageism compromises the opportunities and wellness of older Americans. To the extent that ageism is not even seen as a problem, efforts to address this issue are likely to be either misunderstood, or dismissed entirely.
These and other cultural models emerging from the research can be seen in the following video footage.