Does America Hate the Poor? The Other American Dilemma: Lessons for the 21st Century from the 1960s and the 1970s

By John E. Tropman | Go to book overview
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One way to look at these findings is to emphasize the similarity. And there are many similarities: in things that are important, in overall sense of accomplishment, in opposing mandatory retirement, and so on. But no one says you cannot hate people similar to you.

Other findings intimate a more ominous twist. A 61-percent satisfaction rate with accomplishment is, in academic terms, a failing grade. One could well imagine younger people seeing elders as in the way of their accomplishment. For one thing, they are not much use anymore (suggesting potential need for care). When a senior cannot care for himself or herself there was a split on whether a nursing home or a relative's home was better. Everyone thought the elderly should at least be able to work (no more mandatory retirement). Elders were thought to get little respect, and the myth of familial alienation persisted in spite of frequent contact.


There is plenty of ammunition here for hate. No one said hate--they were not asked. It is a kind of stereotype. What we see, then, is negative stereo- types generated in the face of actual differences. Several factors which are related to stereotypes and how stereotypic images are maintained might help explain the differences between the image of the aged and their actual situations, as well as the differences between younger and older respondents.

First, stereotypes may serve to replace critical thought where thought is difficult or painful or where evidence is lacking or hard to evaluate. All of these conditions may apply in the area of intergenerational relationships. Each generation may not want to take the time to find out about the other, or the process of finding out may be a difficult and sensitive one. If many people experience this kind of tension in relating to people of different ages, then substituting stereotypical images of real relationships may well serve to reduce the tension. Stereotypes are "functional" in this sense, and serve the practical purpose of reducing complex situations to simplistic, dichotomous ones.

Another function stereotypes might have is to provide information of a certain sort where correct information is lacking. But suppose that accurate information is available but is rejected. One needs to ask, therefore, why certain information percolates well through the public mind and other information does not seem to take hold at all.

We would answer in part by saying that we need many of our stereotypes. They serve us both well and poorly. They protect us from our own inadequacies. If we believe that older people are largely forgotten by their families, then the attention that we pay to the elderly of our own families will seem more adequate, if not magnanimous. Similarly, if older people believe that others are worse off than they in this regard, they will feel better about themselves and their relatives. After all, it must be difficult to admit to oneself that one's family cares too little and forgets too much.


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Does America Hate the Poor? The Other American Dilemma: Lessons for the 21st Century from the 1960s and the 1970s


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