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UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 2 | Jan. 24, 2002

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who feels oldest of us all?

Study explores what "age" means to different generations

by Michelle Cook staff writer

There comes a day for all of us when we glance into a mirror and see someone we don't recognize staring back. Anita Hubley calls it the moment of clarity.

"We have this image of ourselves that gets frozen in time," says Hubley, an assistant professor in Educational and Counseling Psychology and Special Education. "I don't think people are entirely aware of when it occurs, but it happens to men and women. There's a moment when they realize that they feel a different age on the inside than they look on the outside."

Getting them to articulate this is part of a four-year study that Hubley is undertaking to explore what "age" means to different generations. Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, it is the first Canadian study of its kind to look at cross-generational perceptions of aging.

One question she hopes to answer is whether our age identities fluctuate.

Research shows that people have both set and contextual views on age and the inconsistency can affect things such as survey results. Hubley hopes her research will provide clues on how to more effectively word questions about age on large-scale marketing, government, health or other surveys and questionnaires.

For her research, Hubley is running 16 focus groups of men and women born between 1930-1944 (Depression/Second World War), 1945-1954 (Baby Boom/Vietnam), 1955-1964 (Baby Boom /"Me" generation), and 1965-1976 (Baby Bust).

In several sessions, the generation and gender-specific groups discuss their feelings about age, and words related to it such as "old," "middle-aged," and "act your age."

The language each group uses to describe themselves and other generations is of key importance to Hubley. While her data collection is not yet complete, she has already begun to make some interesting discoveries.

She has found that most people have difficulty articulating what age means to them and summarizing their experiences of it. With the exception of a core group of baby boomers, most participants don't know what generation they belong to, identifying instead with a specific decade.

Hubley also found that the youngest generation is also the most anxious about aging, and that both women and men are concerned about becoming invisible at a certain age, with men beginning to feel overlooked within society by their mid-30s.

What has surprised Hubley most is how much male participants are enjoying the focus group discussions.

"It's difficult to get men into research studies," Hubley says. "But I've found men are just as interested as women in this topic. Several have said that the focus group is the only opportunity they get to discuss such issues."


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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