Is ageist humour a good way to cope with ageing?
The birthday cards we see often have ageist jokes on them. How do we tackle this form of ageism?
In this guest blog, we hear from Hannah McDowall and Dave Martin from Canopy, a social enterprise that partners with communities to re-imagine a fairer world.
In 2022 we helped create Better Birthdays an international collaborative campaign led in the UK by Canopy. Better Birthdays uses birthday cards as a platform for talking about age and ageism, and to encourage designers and consumers to create and purchase birthday cards that celebrate ageing, instead of denigrating it. The campaign is not about shaming designers and makers as we know that these cards are popular, especially amongst older people; and the cards reflect society’s current negative attitudes towards ageing and older people.
Is it ok to laugh at physical and mental decline?
Recently, a newspaper ran an article with the title “Take a look at the birthday cards ageism advocates say are mean and stereotypical”. The article attracted hundreds of comments, mostly supporting these ageist cards, here’s a few examples:
“I'm an old man, and I enjoy ageism type cards. It brings humor into our dreary lives. Plus, is this another attempt to take away any pleasure we have in our lives?”
“Agreed. I'm getting older, and I'm glad that I can still laugh at myself.”
“Oh please! I’m 73 and I love these cards. These 'crazy wokesters' have no sense of humor.”
“The market already has decided. That’s why there are so many of these cards, and so few 'dignified' birthday cards.”
The overwhelming majority of comments (from older people themselves) thought that laughing at the stereotypical characteristics of ageing was not just acceptable, but good. Many commentators, however, agreed that ageism or rather age discrimination, especially in the workplace, was an issue.
Unpicking the cultural narrative that tells us that getting old is bad is a big job because we start believing it so early.
Ageist or just banter between friends?
We've spoken to several senior executives in the UK Greeting Card Industry about the ageist nature of cards that make fun of ageing being older. They reinforced that the majority of these cards are sent by older people themselves, and that we must assume they aren’t doing so to upset their friends.
They explained that the relationship between sender, recipient and card is highly nuanced. The industry believes that in the vast majority of cases, the sending of these cards creates a sense of camaraderie, playfulness, reassurance and intimacy between sender and recipient.
We aren’t here to argue with them. After all, we don’t imagine that many people who send these cards intend to cause offence or harm.
But that doesn’t mean that no harm is done.
What happens when these cards sit on a shelf in a supermarket for all to see, free from the context of friendship and camaraderie? What happens when they are put on the mantelpiece facing everyone at the birthday party? They tell everyone who sees them that to grow old is to become less, is to be ridiculed and avoided if possible.
Unpicking the cultural narrative that tells us that getting old is bad is a big job because we start believing it so early (as young as 4 years old). We learn, as small children, to believe ageist stereotypes, and behave in ageist ways. We are constantly told through advertising, culture and politics that to be young is good and to get old is not, that to age is to decline, is to ‘lose’ youth, vigour and opportunity. 
And we know that internalised ageism, as well as overt ageist discrimination is truly damaging to all of us all of the time. Do we really want to continue exposing our children and young people to this worldview? And by allowing it to play out in our birthday celebrations, do we collude in it, even if we don’t feel personally offended?
How do we tackle internalised ageism?
Whilst we rail against ageism the truth is that many older people express and exchange ageist attitudes not only between peers but also about themselves. It seems to be an accepted gallows humour that we share the negatives of ageing, apologise for being old, and highlight and denigrate the ageing process, especially mental and physical decline.
And so, whilst older people continue to buy and share these cards with friends and colleagues – card designers will continue to make them and sell them.
We have a challenge. How do we lay foundations for a better more age inclusive future?
We must become the change ourselves; let’s aim to call out ageist “banter” amongst our peers, friends, and family, and most of all with the conversations we have within our heads about ourselves.
Join us in the movement to support Better Birthdays by spreading the word to everyone you know who has a birthday (i.e. everyone), and buying age-positive cards. We can all work together to be part of ending ageism.
Being able to understand how people experience these birthday messages both as senders and receivers, is really important in understanding how to design the kinds of birthday cards you want to send and receive. If you want to help us understand or you want to share your views please fill out our 3 mins survey.
 Officer, A. &amp; de la Fuente-Núñez, V. (2018) A global campaign to combat ageism, Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2018;96:299-300. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.2471/BLT.17.202424
The views and opinions expressed in this guest blog are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the policy or positions of the Centre for Ageing Better.