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Older people in yoga class

Do actions speak louder than words when it comes to ageing?

When many people think about ageing, they think about the common stereotypes of older people being frail or lonely, but a good later life is possible for many of us

Ageing Better’s Communications Director, Louise Ansari, explores how media narratives can reinforce negative attitudes towards ageing 

Let’s imagine you’re listening to Radio 4. The Today programme is on. Evan Davis is reporting on some new statistics that show how much our society is ageing, and that by 2030, an incredible 28 million – that’s 40% of the entire population of the UK – will be over 60. He has two interviewees with very different interpretations of what this means for society

The first person takes inspiration from Dad’s Army’s Private Frazer. Their analysis is: we’re all doomed. The ageing population is a ticking time bomb for the health and social care system. Older people are all reactionary voters, protecting their housing assets and pensions and so causing deep intergenerational unfairness. They are a silver tsunami, set with their boring habits to turn the UK into one great big garden centre tea room. 

The second uses different words. Our longer lives are a time of opportunity. The experience of older people should be capitalised on in the workplace. Older people are entrepreneurial and wise. They provide billions of pounds worth of value to the economy in the form of unpaid childcare and volunteering. At 90 you can still do anything you like – from running your own business to running marathons. 

This approach so loved by the media polarises the arguments and leaves no room for a more balanced reality. And each way of talking about the same issue makes us think and feel very differently about it. But does the language of hope or fear actually spur individuals or institutions into the necessary action? Does the positive, more hopeful language lead us to putting ageing at the top of our list in terms of preparation and campaigning for change, or does it make us complacent – ‘everything will be fine and there’s nothing we need to do about it’? Do the negative metaphors drive us to be more active in managing the risk, or do they make us fatalistic – ‘everything will go wrong - and there’s nothing we can do about it’?  

We shouldn’t have to rely on misleading metaphors of timebombs, or stereotypes of wise and caring older people, to catalyse action on one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Perhaps there’s an alternative – a richer way of describing the new reality of longer lives. Language that resonates both with ordinary people and with professionals who need to change the way they work to adapt to an ageing society. Language that makes people think and feel differently, and really does spur people into action.  

At Ageing Better we are set to carry out research into how to change the ‘framing’ of age: how to conceptualise and explain the nuance rather than the stereotypes in a way that will make people connect more with the complex reality of ageing and what it means for society. This research aims to show us how language around ageing is used – and test new, more positive, ways to talk about later lives.  

However you describe ageing, the need to prepare – and indeed act now – so that we can all enjoy later life is an urgent necessity. Employers need to realise that an ageing workforce is the workforce of the future and get rid of ageism in recruitment and training, do more to support employees’ health needs and enable flexible working. More accessible housing needs to be planned in, and current housing stock adapted. Health and care should focus on preventing disease onset in middle age and helping people stay independent for as long as possible. 

We shouldn’t have to rely on misleading metaphors of timebombs, or stereotypes of wise and caring older people, to catalyse action on one of the most pressing issues of our time. 

The State of Ageing in 2019: Adding life to our years

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Louise Ansari
Director of Communications and Influencing