‘An Old Age Problem?’: language and ageing.
Summary of Centre for Ageing Better’s latest report: ‘An Old Age Problem?’:
Centre for Ageing Better’s latest report analyses the language related to ageing and older people and has revealed the negative attitudes that pervade society, which could be detrimental to both intergenerational harmony and policy making regarding older people.
Using discourse analysis, ‘An Old Age Problem?’ looks at the way ageing and later life are referred to in the media, advertising, charity sector, and politics. The report also features stakeholder interviews from each of the sectors. Centre for Ageing Better has stated that the findings “reinforce the concerns raised around the treatment of older people during the COVID-19 pandemic”. Despite the different language used by the sectors, their narratives were based on similar stereotypes.
The analysis showed ageing to be associated with ill-health and decline – with older people being portrayed as dependent, frail, and vulnerable. They also found help, care, support, dementia, and the NHS to be in the top ten most frequently used words by society to describe older people.
Politics and media
Results revealed older people are often placed against younger people: “boomer vs millennial”, in competition for resources, with older age being associated with wealth. Centre for Ageing Better claims that this could overshadow the inequalities that exist within generations.
Tabloid news media is 5.5x more likely to refer to older people using colloquial and informal terminology such as ‘OAP’.
“Newspapers are looking to convey an impression very quickly, so if you are writing about old people, and it’s a touchy-feely story, then the grey-haired old couple walking arm in arm up the street might well be a sort of, image that comes to mind. Similarly, if you were writing about a cold snap coming up, then lonely old person wrapped in a blanket might well be the sort of image that comes to mind.” Matt Tee, Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), Media stakeholder. (Has since left IPSO)
Creating these negative narratives around ageing stimulate further negative associations with ageing and older people.
The ageing population is framed overall as a costly crisis, as causing “increasing costs of service provision” and placing empathises on state support. Centre for Ageing Better argues that this overlooks the vitality of older people and their contribution to society, including caring for partners and family and providing community support.
“I think the dominant narrative still is one of seeing ageing as a cost to the public purse and to society… it’s still very prevalent in, for example, debates around the funding of social care.” Paul Burstow, Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE)
The damaging result is that older people are represented as being the sole user of social care services, and as a direct cause of the funding crisis – when services are in fact being used by people of all ages.
Anna Dixon, Chief Executive at the Centre for Ageing Better, made a statement on the report:
“Open a newspaper on any day of the week and you’re likely to find articles which refer to the ‘crisis’ of an ageing population, ‘selfish’ boomers, or the ‘burden’ of older people on the NHS.
“Our new research highlights how pernicious these negative views of old age can be, with later life talked about most often in terms of decline, dependency and vulnerability across a range of sectors and representations of age in public life that are drawn from outdated assumptions and negative stereotypes.
“The serious concerns raised about the treatment of older people during the pandemic have highlighted the real-world consequences of this kind of language. The call for a ‘cull’ of the elderly was one particularly extreme response to the crisis, but it’s clear that negative attitudes to later life could have an impact on policymaking.
“We’re all living many years longer than our parents or grandparents, so it’s vital that we find new ways of talking about ageing. Politicians and those working in the media have a huge amount of power to shape the way we discuss these issues, and a responsibility to represent the reality and diversity of later life.”
The words we use influence others and can directly create negative stereotypes and reinforce detrimental narratives used throughout society. Centre for Ageing Better experts claims that this has led to the grouping of older people during the pandemic as a “vulnerable, frail and a problem” that must be dealt diminishing their value as equal members of society. They go further to warn that these negative discourses affect policymaking and cause further barriers between generations.
Centre for Ageing Better calls for age to be added to the protected characteristics of the Editor’s Code used to avoid discrimination in the media.