University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine
Summer 2004

What a Drag It Is Getting Old

Self-esteem can fall with age, study finds

Everyone gets wrinkles as they age. But researchers have discovered another reason to dislike growing old – falling self-esteem. And the effect is worse among low-income earners. “We live in a culture where being young is prized and idealized,” says Professor John Cairney, a sociologist in U of T’s psychiatry department and co-author of a study on self-worth that was published in the Journal of Aging Studies. Cairney, who is also a research scientist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and lead author Julie Ann McMullin of the University of Western Ontario in London analysed data from Statistic Canada’s 1994 National Population Health Survey.

They compared the participants’ self-reported level of self-esteem and related it to their gender, social class and age. Researchers found virtually no differences in self-esteem among income levels from early adolescence through to middle age. But by about age 62, individuals in the highest income groups report higher levels of self-esteem than those in the lowest income group. The gap keeps widening until it is the most pronounced in those aged 80 and up.

“A person’s sense of self-worth is probably linked, to a certain degree, on how economically or socially successful they are,” says Cairney.

How can we gain more confidence as we age? “It starts early,” says Cairney. “It’s about changing negative stereotypes associated with age.”

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