3.2 Our associations with old age
3.3 Later life in popular culture
3.4 Selling later life
3.5 Intergenerational relationships and friendships may be an answer
3.6 Looking forward – how our values might change
When we meet someone for the first time, our perceptions of their age unconsciously influence what we think of them, how we speak to them, how loudly we talk and what we think their capabilities and beliefs might be.54 That we do this is not inherently offensive; stereotyping is a normal basic mental shortcut that helps us navigate often complex day-to-day social situations. But when these perceptions become institutionalised, then it affects hiring decisions, product development, communications and social policy.
It is nearly 50 years since US gerontologist Robert N Butler coined the term ‘ageism’ to describe prejudice and discrimination against people because of their age. He argued that, underpinning this prejudice, is a “deep-seated uneasiness on the part of the young and middle-aged – a personal revulsion to and distaste for growing old, disease, disability and fear of powerlessness, uselessness and death”.55
This “deep-seated uneasiness” manifests itself in shockingly high levels of age discrimination. In the UK alone, over half of those aged over 55 say they have been discriminated against unfairly because of their age. Of course, age discrimination cuts both ways, and this work found that the young felt even more aggrieved; three quarters of those aged 25-34 felt that they had been discriminated against for being too young. But focusing on older workers, of those who felt they had been treated unfairly because of their age, one in five stated that they were told that they would be too stuck in their ways.56
A huge challenge in many societies is the rapid decline in employment after 55, where workers are forced out. In the UK for example, the Centre for Ageing Better has identified that around 3.6 million people aged 50-64 – almost a third of that age group – are not in work. What’s more, it is estimated that for around 1 million of those people this is not a choice, but rather they have had to leave employment involuntarily as a result of issues such as ill health, caring responsibilities or redundancy.
Three quarters of people aged over 55 feel that employers are not doing enough to tap into their knowledge and skills, with a third describing themselves as being sidelined. The same survey found that this is not because employers do not believe that older workers have nothing to offer; 94% of employers say that older workers could hold the key to bridging the skills gap. However, this belief has not translated into changing working practices to allow for a more age-diverse workforce – only a quarter of these employers are actively recruiting workers aged over 50.57
The situation is little better in the US. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 20,588 charges of age discrimination in 2014, up from 17,837 a decade earlier. What is more, legal and employment experts have warned that these numbers will only increase, with young people keen to get into the workforce and older people reluctant to leave it.58 The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP – a non-profit, non-partisan association with a membership of nearly 40 million) has also shone a light on this issue.59 It found that three in five (61%) of those aged 45 and above in work or looking for work have seen or experienced age discrimination. Nine in ten (91%) of these feel that discrimination is common. When thinking about the different ways in which age discrimination manifests, 16% believe they did not get a job they applied for, 12% thought they had been passed over for promotion and 7% said they had been laid off, fired or forced out of a job – all because of their age.
Age discrimination doesn’t just carry a financial penalty for older people – the human cost is all too clear. In qualitative work we undertook for the Centre for Ageing Better, we found people in later life were keen to get back into or stay in work for a number of reasons; personal finances of course had a part to play but, beyond this, building strong social connections and, most importantly, maintaining a sense of self-worth all matter. For many people, their identity is intrinsically tied to their job and it is important to them that, as they get older, they can demonstrate that they are still the same person that they have always been. Part of this includes wanting to remain in work in some capacity for as long as possible. As one participant, a former lecturer, who attributed his long-term unemployment directly to ageism described: “This year I’ve applied for 20 jobs and this was my first interview. I was heartbroken to find out I didn’t get the job… if I can just get back to work, I know everything will be better.” 60
Our associations with old age
These high levels of age discrimination have their roots in what we think ageing is like, and what older people are capable of. People’s associations with ageing are overwhelmingly negative – a natural process is perceived as a social problem. Indeed, as we saw in the previous chapter, many people all over the world are worried about ageing, seeing it as a problem for their country and potentially for themselves too, given the negative associations that they hold with later life. Research in the US, UK and across Europe suggests that older people are likely to be stereotyped as frail, ill and dependent, and having low social status. Findings from the European Social Survey show that people aged 70 and over are perceived as contributing relatively little to the economy, and as a burden on health services.61
This plays out in how people in later life are treated. The mantra that you should ‘treat your elders with respect’ doesn’t appear to be reflected in reality; six in ten around the world agree that ‘people don’t respect old people as much as they should’. What’s more, level of agreement increases with age: only half (53%) of those aged 16-24 agree with this, compared to seven in ten (69%) of those aged 55-64. There are interesting differences around the world, too; this lack of respect appears to be much more of an issue in Latin America than Asia and the Middle East. To illustrate, Brazilians (82%), Colombians (79%), and Argentines (76%) are the most likely to agree that people don’t get treated with the respect they deserve – with Mexicans (70%) and Peruvians (69%) not far behind. In contrast, in countries often associated with having more respect for older people, perceptions are different. Only 26% feel that the elderly do not get the respect they deserve in Saudi Arabia, and this is similar in Japan (32%).
Of course, not all of our associations with old age are negative. In fact, around the world, while ‘frail’ and ‘lonely’ are commonly mentioned, the most frequently selected word associated with old age is ‘wise’, with ‘respected’ coming in at fourth place.
As the chart above shows though, despite media coverage of wealthier older voters making unpopular choices for the young, very few of the young actually see old people as rich or selfish.
Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of these characteristics – frail but wise, lonely but respected – creates a ‘doddering, but dear’ archetype, which is damaging.62 This means that we’re more likely to pity and patronise older people, and deny them power and influence. These perceptions not only shape how people view older people, but how older people see themselves and how they feel about their lives.
Later life in popular culture
Representation matters; you cannot be what you cannot see. Or to put it another way, you won’t want to hire or develop products for a group of people who are woefully misrepresented at best, and entirely absent from popular culture at worst.
There are exceptions of course; before Sex in the City’s Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte, there were Blanche, Dorothy, Rose and Sophia. The Golden Girls, an American sitcom which ran from 1985 to 1992, depicted the lives of four elderly women who shared a home in Miami, Florida. Pulling in more than 25 million US viewers when it aired, it became the highest-rated programme of the week and consistently ranked in the top ten sitcoms during its run. Critically acclaimed, it won Emmys, Golden Globes, and in 2014 the Writer’s Guild of America hailed the show as one of the 101 best written TV shows of all time.
Overall however, older people are yet another group who have been largely airbrushed out of popular culture. Television portrays only 1.5 per cent of its characters as elderly, and most of them in minor roles.63 This vanishing trick is performed particularly well by women. Based on an analysis of US prime-time television programming, it was determined that older women “virtually vanish from the screen in major, positive, and powerful roles”.64 This is nothing new – the 1990s were no different from the 70s in terms of older women’s significance to plots in television programming, meaning that, the older women get, the less central they become to the stories that are told on TV.65
The situation is little better in film; according to a study by Polygraph, women are given less dialogue in Hollywood films the older they get.66 From an analysis of 2,000 movies, it found that women between the ages of 22 and 31 spoke 38% of all female dialogue. The figure fell to 31% for actors aged 32 to 41 and 20% for those aged 42 to 65. In contrast, male actors get more lines the older they become – up to the point that they hit 65. To illustrate, men aged between 42 and 65 get more dialogue (39%) than those aged 32-41 (32%) and 22-31 (20%). But it’s at 65 – around the age which we know from our research that public identifies as ‘old’ – that the real problems start. At this point, men get just 5% of the lines and women 3%.
The actress Juliet Stevenson, who is in her sixties, commented: “As you go through life it gets more and more interesting and complicated, but the parts offered get more and more simple, and less complicated.” The same is true when we consider the lack of good roles for old characters in literature. Novelist Penelope Lively said that: “Old age is forever stereotyped … from the smiling old dear to the grumbling curmudgeon.” In fiction, she says, the stereotypes “are rife — indeed fiction is perhaps responsible for the standard perception of the old, with just a few writers able to raise the game”.67
Selling later life
In advertising too, older people are largely absent – despite having a disposable income that makes them worth courting. A US-based content analysis of magazines over four decades found that the percentage of older people portrayed in advertisements has decreased since 1964, despite the fact that the percentage of older people in the general population has increased rapidly.68 Focusing on Ebony and Life magazine adverts between 1990 and 1997, scholars determined that fewer older people were featured in the 1990s compared to the previous decade – only 1.5% of the people featured could be considered old.69 While there are greater numbers of older people in television adverts, these figures are still low when you consider both the spending power and sheer numbers of people in later life.70
The lack of older people in advertising hasn’t gone unnoticed; in a study by Campaign Magazine, four in five of those working in advertising, media and PR agreed that the advertising industry comes across as ageist.71 As one creative director explained: “There is a real seduction around youth culture and everyone wants to be a part of that.” But when nearly one in ten of us (9%) across the world is over the age of 65,72 it is no surprise that there are calls for change; three in ten (31%) of the British public would like to see more older people in advertising.73 Supporting this, work by JW Thompson found that even though, in the UK, the over-50s are dubbed ‘power consumers’, outspending their younger counterparts for the first time ever in 2015, two thirds (67%) of their panel think advertisers only care about young people.74
It’s not just the lack of screen time devoted to older people that is problematic but how they are depicted on the few occasions when they do feature. Typically, when older characters do make an appearance, they tend to be shown in a less than flattering light: older adults are more likely than any other age group to appear in television and film as conduits for comic relief, exploiting stereotypes of physical, cognitive and sexual ineffectiveness.75
Indeed, our own research has highlighted the problems with how later life is depicted in advertising. Across the world, only three in ten (31%) believe TV, film and advertising make old age seem exciting and full of potential, with nearly as many believing it makes old age seem depressing with limited opportunities (29%). Those in the BRIC countries (as well as Italy) are the most likely to think that media coverage makes old age seem exciting and full of potential – which could help to explain why these countries are most positive about various aspects of ageing. In contrast, in the UK and France, fewer than one in five feel the media makes old age seem exciting, a similar proportion in France and slightly more in the UK feel the media brings the negative aspects of ageing to the fore.
This is the problem with limited screen time; when you don’t give characters the opportunity to develop, by necessity, they are reduced to stereotypes. There are always exceptions but, too often, the elderly are shown as blunt, tactless and downright rude (think Sophia Petrillo in the Golden Girls – “jealousy is a very ugly thing, Dorothy, and so are you in anything backless”, Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave, Father Jack in Father Ted, Jack Nicholson in As Good as It Gets). They are often mocked as behind the times and prejudiced (Alf Garnett in In Sickness and In Health, Albert Steptoe in Steptoe and Son), incompetent (most of the cast of Dad’s Army but a special shout-out to Captain Mainwaring), confused (Abe Simpson, the grandpa in The Simpsons) and lonely (Carl Fredricksen in Up).
Indeed, such are the familiarity of these depictions that, upon the release of the film The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, a New York Times film critic said it belonged to a whole genre of films which could be termed “old people behaving hilariously”.76 Another article – by the same journalist – posited that this negative portrayal is “payback for years of Baby Boomer boasting and self-glorification”,77 meaning that, in years to come, today’s elderly will be forever remembered through celluloid preservation as “the people who were obsessed with their bowels and couldn’t work a smartphone”.78 More likely though, this depiction is a result of our worst fears about ageing and the fact that we don’t know any different.
Intergenerational relationships and friendships may be an answer
Cultivation theory states that the more someone pays attention to media coverage, the more likely it is that they will come to accept the attitudes and beliefs propagated by it.79 The effect is particularly strong when people don’t have any real-life examples to act as a counter. Which, when it comes to friendship with other generations, it seems is often the case.
So, with the old airbrushed from popular culture, we also find young people are unlikely to have intergenerational friendships – we tend to hang around with people who are roughly our own age. As shown in the chart below, less than half (45%) overall of those surveyed said they had friends who are at least 15 years older than them, and only a third stated that they had friends who are at least 15 years younger than them. Though people may, of course, have intergenerational family relationships, or work with colleagues from across the generations, these are likely to be different in tone to other friendships due to past or current dependencies. Those who do not have peer relationships with those in different generations may then struggle to understand what it is like to be older, or younger.
Those who are between 55-64 were the least likely to have older friends (39% compared to 45% overall). Despite being the closest to later life, this group’s lack of contact with those who are older could mean that they do not understand the realities of what is coming down the line, and how to learn from the experience of others in preparing for it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, particularly given our desire to be younger than our years, the older you get the more likely you are to have friends who are at least 15 years younger than you – with 50% of those surveyed between the ages of 55-64 stating they do, compared to 46% of those between 45-54 and 38% of those who are between 35-44.
On the one hand, the relative rarity of intergenerational friendships makes perfect sense. From nursery school onwards, our social interactions are segregated on the basis of age, meaning opportunities to make friends who are of a different generation to us are limited. Plus, the shared values, experiences and cultural reference points that an individual can have with someone of their own age forges strong bonds.
There are some interesting differences here too; intergenerational friendships tend to be more common for women than men, but only because friendships are too. Men have fewer friends than women to begin with, and struggle to maintain these relationships as they age. A survey80 asked men to say how many friends, if any, they had outside of the home with whom they would discuss a serious topic, such as worries about money, work or their health. Half (51%) said two or fewer, but one in eight said none. This is a problem which increases with age; only 7% of those under the age of 24 said they had no friends with whom they could talk about these issues, compared to one in five (19%) of those aged over 55. This fall-off happens after the age of 30 and is, the evidence suggests, because these friendships are more prone to being hurt by geographical moves and differences in career trajectories.81 Not for nothing has the US Surgeon General, Dr Vivek Murphy, said that the most prevalent health issue in the US today is not cancer, heart disease or obesity, but isolation.82 Likewise Ipsos MORI research for the Centre for Ageing Better in 2015 highlighted social connections, alongside good health and financial stability, as key to a good later life.83
This gender divide also has its roots in the different ways that men and women tend to make and maintain friends. Whereas male friendships tend to revolve around activities, women prioritise emotional connection. So, in order to make an intergenerational friendship work, men may have to first find an activity they can do together, and then they need to make sure it is accessible to people of different ages. Women are more likely to simply ‘catch up’.84
That’s not to say women have it easy. Studies show that women in their late 20s and 30s have a harder time staying in touch with their friends. These are, of course, the years in which they’re forging ahead with their careers and/or caring for children (and, increasingly, their ageing parents – more on which later). The difference is, at around the age of 40, women start reconnecting. Until the 1990s this shift was assumed to be because women had more time for friendships; as their children grew and became independent, women could devote more time to themselves and their friends. Now though, the thinking is that, as women begin to prepare for the next phase of their lives, they seek guidance and empathy from others,85 but men don’t – to their cost.
But this lack of intergenerational friendships belies the considerable value, and joy, to be found in them. The Stanford Center for Longevity86 conducted extensive research based on the premise of Urie Bronfenbrenner, child psychologist and co-founder of the Head Start preschool program, who advanced the idea that a key ingredient for success in life is the commitment of a non-parental adult to a youth’s wellbeing. Older people are well placed to act as champions, offering the stability, wisdom, experience and time necessary to help young people thrive. The benefits are not just one way either; pairing older and younger people together allows older people to feel fulfilled and the opportunity to learn and have their perspectives broadened.
Gina Pell, a tech entrepreneur, also voiced her frustration with society’s expectations that people should just hang out with people their own age. In her essay, ‘Meet the Perennials’, which was originally published in the Medium87 in 2016, she argued that we live in an era of labels: each generation is ascribed values, characteristics and quirks and, as consumers, we are siloed into age categories with market studies seeking to “catalogue and homogenize our interests, our spending habits, even our values and moral baselines — all to determine what we’re worthy of being sold and how”.88
But, for many of us, reality doesn’t always align with the labels we’re given. Pell, instead, introduced us to ‘the Perennials’. Like their namesake in nature, Perennials are hardy, with the ability to withstand changes to their environment; they adapt, evolve, and grow anew. Of the Perennials, Pell wrote that:
“We are ever-blooming, relevant people of all ages who live in the present time, know what’s happening in the world, stay current with technology, and have friends of all ages. We get involved, stay curious, mentor others, are passionate, compassionate, creative, confident, collaborative, global-minded, risk takers who continue to push up against our growing edge and know how to hustle. We comprise an inclusive, enduring mindset, not a divisive demographic.”89
She also expanded on the value of intergenerational friendships – something which, she feels, comes naturally to Perennials: “Having friends of all ages helps me to integrate all the pieces of myself,” she says, “they help me remember who I was, who I am, and who I might someday become”.90 There is an appetite for these kind of relationships too. According to work undertaken by the Age of No Retirement, four in five (83%) want to mix with people of different ages and generations. This is perhaps driven by the fact that the same proportion agree that they are not like everyone else in their age group.91
But, for many, these cross-generational connections are absent and popular culture fills the void. Young people may learn negative stereotypes about what it is like to be old from the media which, in turn, will shape the interactions that they have with older people.92 Further, young people, especially adolescents, may feel negatively about their own aging process due to the things they see and hear in the media.
Looking forward – how our values might change
It’s clear that the way we characterise later life does older people a disservice. By changing existing stereotypes – many of which we hold in our own heads – people will be able to look forward to later life with anticipation rather than fear, and make the most of the opportunities that this time of life holds.
Here are three reasons to be hopeful for change.
- People want something different
There is an appetite for change. Contrary to the idea that marketing is all about the young, nine in ten (91%) agree that young people can learn from older people, and our advice becomes more credible as we age. There are signs that advertisers and brands are starting to catch up with what people want; Marks & Spencer have long promoted older women in their campaigns, while high-end fashion house Celine made the 80-year-old Joan Didion the face of its recent campaign. Similarly, cosmetics giant L’Oreal promotes its products via Helen Mirren and, Lancôme, who famously fired Isabella Rossellini just days after her 43rd birthday for being too old, re-hired her some 20 years later. Calling this return an opportunity to right the past, Rossellini explained that; “Things change. They tell me my name comes up in their market research still. And now I’m new again!”.93 There’s a long way to go, but the seeds of change have been sown.
- Life stage flexibility
The interplay of socio-economic and cultural factors means we’re doing things later: getting married, having children, going back to work, changing career – if we’re doing them at all. But, this means a lot more opportunity for ‘intergenerational intermingling’.94 A 45-year-old and 25-year-old could meet at the school gates to pick up their children from their first day at school. A recent graduate of 21 could be on the same internship programme as a person of 50 looking to get back into the workplace after time out. That life stages no longer align along generational divides gives us more opportunities to bond – which can only be a good thing.
- Digital can offer change
Not only is there appetite for change in how older people are portrayed, but there are new ways in which this change can be delivered. While waiting for brands and advertisers to catch up with what people want, people have started generating their own content which speaks to what contemporary later life is like. Take, for instance, the Instagram account ‘Accidental Icon’,95 featuring 64-year-old Lyn Slater, by day a professor at the Graduate School of Social Service at Fordham University, by night, social influencer, trend-setter, model and blogger. She has said of her account – which has over half a million followers – that “I flaunt it … I’m not 20. I don’t want to be 20, but I’m really freaking cool. That’s what I think about when I’m posting a photo”.96 Similarly, Tsuyoshi and Tomi Seki, a Japanese couple in their 60s who post near-daily photos of themselves in coordinating outfits, have received praise from fashion commentators and gathered nearly three quarters of a million followers.97 Accounts like these not only help to reflect what later life is like, but also change perceptions of it.