College student views of the elderly: some gender differences

College student views of the elderly: some gender differences

David Knox

Four hundred and forty-one undergraduates at a large southeastern university completed a confidential anonymous 38-item questionnaire designed to assess student attitudes toward the elderly. The data revealed several significant gender differences including the age at which a person becomes “old” (men select a younger age), strength (men see less decline in strength), reaction time (women see less decline in reaction time) and the perception of the elderly as “dangerous” drivers (women see the elderly as less dangerous). Limitations of the data are suggested.


“Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be, The last of life, for which the first was made” wrote Robert Browning. The last of life has been the subject of considerable research (Perren et al. 2003; Gierveld and Peeters, 2003; Kulik 2002; Furstenberg, 2002; Floyd and Weiss, 2001; Dollinger, 2001). In addition, researchers (Chamberlain et al., 1977) have studied attitudes toward the elderly held by children. These attitudes tend to be negative (the elderly are associated with canes, wrinkles, and traditional clothing) but become more positive when children are exposed to positive contexts/priming (Hoe and Davidson, 2002). Research by Sung (2002) on college students and the elderly identified various expressions of respect toward the elderly (e.g. providing care respect, linguistic respect, etc.). Another study on college students asked them to estimate what they would be like as an elderly person at age 76 (Mosher-Ashley and Ball 1999). In an attempt to add to this body of literature, the current study examined gender differences among college students on their view of the elderly.

Data and Analysis

The data consisted of 441 undergraduates enrolled at a large southeastern university who voluntarily completed an anonymous 38-item questionnaire designed to assess college student views of the elderly. Among the respondents, 73.2% were women; 26.8% were men. The age of the respondents ranged from 17 to 49 with a median age of 19. Most (82.6%) of the respondents were white, 14.2% were African-American and 3.3% identified themselves as “other.”

Data analysis consisted of recoding Likert responses to several items including “The elderly tend to be dangerous drivers” into the categories of agreement and disagreement. Such responses were cross-classified with sex of respondent and assessed for significance using chi-square.

Findings and Discussion

Analysis of the data comparing males and females in regard to their views of the elderly revealed several significant findings.

1. Men view a person becoming “old” sooner. Men were significantly (p <. 003) more likely than women to view a person becoming "old" at a younger age. Males reported that a person became "old" on average at age 58, in contrast to women who viewed a person becoming "old" on average at age 62. Previous research has demonstrated that the younger an individual, the lower the age selected to define a person as "old." Cutler (2002) found that persons between the ages of 18 and 35 identified 50 as the age at which the average man and woman become "old." In contrast, persons between the ages of 65 and 74 identified 70 as the age at which a person becomes "old."

One explanation for why men, compared to women, view individuals reaching old age faster is related to the life expectancy of men and women. White males born in 2005 are expected to die, on average, about six years sooner than white females (74.5 vs. 81.1). For African-American males and females, the average is close to seven years (69.9 vs. 76.8) (Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2002 Table 91.) Since men are likely to die sooner, and since advancing age is associated with death, it is not surprising that men see themselves as getting older sooner. In contrast, women, who live longer, see themselves becoming old “later.”

2. Men view fewer declines in physical strength of the elderly. When respondents were presented with the statement “Elderly people’s physical strength tends to decline with age” men were significantly (p<.01) less likely than women to agree. One explanation for men (when compared to women) viewing slower declines in strength with advancing age is that college men are stronger than college women which may make it more difficult for them to conceptualize a diminution in strength. In contrast, college women, already having less strength than college men may find it easier to anticipate further declines in strength with advancing.

3. Women view less decline in reaction time of the elderly. When respondents were presented with the statement “Most elderly people tend to react slower than younger people” women were significantly (p < .03) less likely than men to agree. In the absence of any specific information about reaction time of the elderly, women may be more empathetic about the elderly (as they are about people/relationships in general) and positive about their slowness to decline.

4. Women see the elderly as less dangerous drivers. When respondent’s were presented with the statement “Elderly people tend to be dangerous drivers” women were significantly (p < .01) less likely than men to view the elderly as dangerous drivers. The stereotype that "women are dangerous drivers" may encourage them to identify with any group which is similarly maligned and to reject the same stereotype that the "elderly are dangerous drivers."


The data suggest that men and women see the elderly differently with men seeing a person getting to old age faster but maintaining their strength longer and women seeing fewer declines in reaction time with age and the elderly less dangerous as drivers. However, the data should be interpreted cautiously. The convenience sample of 441 respondents is hardly representative of the over 15 million college students throughout the United States (Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2002). These data are also quantitative with no qualitative interviews to buttress or expound on the raw statistics. Subsequent research might include interviews with college students to elicit information about their own explanations for why men (when compared to women) identify a younger age at which a person becomes old, etc.


Chamberlain, V. M., E. Fetterman, & M. Maher. (1977) Children’s attitudes toward elders. Journal of Family & Consumer Sciences 89: 31-82

Cutler, Neal E. (2002) Advising mature clients. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Floyd, M. & L. Weiss. (2001) Sex and aging: A survey of young adults. Journal of Sex Education and Therapy 26: 133-140.

Gierveld, J. D. & A. Peeters. (2003). The interweaving of repartnered older adults’ lives with their children and siblings. Aging & Society 23: 187-205.

Hoe, S. & D. Davidson (2002) The effects of priming on children’s attitudes toward older individuals. International Journal of Aging and Human Development 55:366-2002

Kulik, L. (2002). Marital quality and the quality of long-term marriage in later life. Aging & Society 22:459-481.

Mosher-Ashley, M. Pearl M. & P. Ball (1999). Attitudes of college students toward elderly persons and their perceptions of themselves at age 76. Educational Gerontology 25: 89-103.

Perren, K., S. Arber, and K. Davidson. (2003) Men’s organizational affiliations in later life: the influence of social class and marital status on informal group membership. Aging & Society 23:69-82

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Sung, K.T. (2002). Elder respect among American college students: Exploration of behavioral forms. International Journal of Aging and Human Development 55:367-382


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