Is Ageism One of the Last Socially Accepted Prejudices?
By Rose Strong
Have you gotten your AARP membership info in the mail yet? Or has someone given you a senior discount just because of the way you look? Better yet, how about that postcard from a local 55-and-older independent living community wishing to help you “prepare” for the future? If any of these happened to you recently, how did you feel?
Judging by the reactions of my friends and associates after they receive that first AARP membership package, being marketed to as an older adult can be a sting! That’s because our culture idolizes youth and too often dismisses older adults.”
In fact, “Age prejudice in this country is one of the most socially-condoned and institutionalized forms of prejudice.” So wrote California State University-Stanislaus professor Todd D. Nelson in a piece entitled, Ageism: Prejudice Against Our Feared Future Selves, for the Journal of Social Issues. Nelson researches and writes about the psychology of prejudice.
Today, we are seeing racial, ethnic and sexual orientation inequality being addressed vociferously, with businesses and organizations making statements and changing policies to be more inclusive to these populations. But, by and large, they haven’t addressed our prejudicial treatment of our older citizens.
“Ageism is the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of their age,” according to the World Health Organization. “Ageism is widespread and an insidious practice which has harmful effects on the health of older adults.”
From Esteemed Elder to Invisible ‘Olds’
From prehistoric times and when we were an agrarian society, we held older adults in high regard. Elders were seen as custodians of a social group’s history, with their years of experience and accumulated wisdom. That changed as society changed, and Nelson’s research demonstrates how ageism became institutionalized in our culture.
Nelson highlights two turning points that helped to degrade how we now look at older adults. The first was the invention of the printing press. Once we had books to preserve our stories, our history and knowledge could be passed on in print, diminishing the importance of our oral histories and the elders who kept them. The second was the Industrial Revolution, which made society mobile. Until that time, extended families used to live together; having grandparents in a home meant it wasn’t easy to move from place to place for income. Once families could move, they did, and parents and grandparents often were left behind.
Today, nearly 1 out of every 3 people is aged 50 or over. By 2018, AARP – which used to stand for the American Association of Retired People but today is just AARP (pronounced ‘arp’) – had 38 million members. You wouldn’t know that, however, based on the images we see in our media today. Social media, advertising, television, and print media tend to overlook older people, often treating them as invisible or as a vehicle to use for comedic intentions.
“Honest question: When was the last time you saw anyone over 55 in a decent ad?” writes Fast Company editor Jeff Beer. “The world of oldsvertising is a hellscape full of reverse mortgages, erectile dysfunction pills, and bathtubs that won’t kill you.
“If you took your entire view of the human race from primetime advertising alone, you’d see a society without old people,” Beer continued. “They don’t work, they don’t drink beer, they don’t drive cars. They don’t exist. According to Havas Group, only about 5% of U.S. advertising is even aimed at people over 50.”
Marketing to and About Older Adults
In his article, Why marketing to seniors is so terrible, Beer explores how marketing to older adults has missed the mark over the years – and demonstrates why it is important to do better, from both a cultural and an economic standpoint.
“…by 2020, the world will have more 55-year-olds than 5-year-olds, and older people are expected to generate half of all urban consumption growth between 2015 and 2030,” Beer writes. “The U.S. Census Bureau has pegged 2035 as the year older adults will outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history. By 2060 in China, one in three people – or 487 million – will be over 60. As far as brands are concerned, that’s a lot of potential sales.”
Marketers who target age brackets often forget about those 55 and older, yet, according to the article, 70 percent of U.S. income is owned by those 55 and older, and people over 60 account for $15 trillion in spending power. Ignoring this demographic is hazardous to the national and global economy, as well as the physical and mental health of older individuals.
TV advertisements that use fear to drive sales often depict a feeble, helpless woman lying on the floor crying, “Help! I can’t get up!” Then statistics scroll across the screen alerting viewers that the company’s safety monitor button saves people from catastrophe every 11 minutes in the United States. Although it may be true, the representation of the older person often is disparaging.
A 2019 study by AARP that reviewed more than 1,100 images found that more than 33 percent of the U.S. population is older than 50 but that age demographic is depicted in only 15 percent of media images. Workers over age 50 – more than 53 million of them – make up a third of the country’s labor force. However, only 13 percent of the images reviewed by AARP showed older people working. Most often, the images depicted older people at home, sitting in a chair with a partner or healthcare worker. Younger people, meanwhile, often are depicted with coworkers or friends.
In a New York Times article about the study, Martha Boudreau, AARP’s chief communications and marketing officer, explained that most advertising agencies haven’t dealt with marketing campaigns that target older adults. “Marketers reflect the culture and the conversation in our country,” Boudreau said. “Stereotypes about the 55-plus demographic were really limiting people’s sense of what they could do with this half of their lives.”
Improving the Image of Older Adults
Some advertisers have discovered that older adults are not just caricatures or punch lines. This YouTube compilation of car commercials, Old at Age, but Young at Heart – 4 Witty Commercials, should make you giggle. These smart marketing messages show older adults as they, perhaps, hope to be treated and thought of in the minds of others.
In addition to images, the words that we use also are important to communicating a sense of worth.
Writers, for example, often must describe people, but how should we describe older adults? Stacy Burling, a journalist at The Philadelphia Inquirer, analyzed how older folks feel about certain descriptions in an article entitled If we can’t call people ‘old,’ what’s the right word? “Senior citizen” is out of favor, in case you were wondering. “Elders” seems to command respect, but some feel it’s too close to “elderly,” which isn’t very well liked overall.
The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society now requires writers to use the term “older adults” for those ages 65 and older. The American Medical Association uses the same language. The AP Stylebook, which we follow here at Furia Rubel, advises using numbers to describe ages, such as, “…housing for individuals ages 65 and older.”
Words or phrases that are definitely out of favor include “coot,” “of a certain age,” “cougar,” “over the hill,” “grumpy old man,” “little old lady,” “geezer,” “codger,” and “fogey.” These are all considered derogatory today. For a glossary on what’s cool and what’s not in reference to describing older people, check out another AARP article.
Regardless of what we call older adults or how we depict them in our media, the fact remains that ageism remains a challenge in a culture that prizes youth and vitality. Still, a growing awareness of all types of biases hopefully will fuel an increased appreciation for the value that “older adults” contribute to our society.
As I was choosing artwork for this blog, I found it difficult to find older adults working, in pairs consulting as coworkers or doing more than just holding hands walking down a pathway, sitting on park benches or hugging grandchildren. As AARP pointed out in their article above, the images are limited. Our focus on and high regard for youth truly is evident in the media.
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