Why we need to change how we talk about ageing
Intergenerational Week 2023 launched this Monday, celebrating and highlighting opportunities for different age groups to come together and form intergenerational friendships.
Our Chief Executive, Dr Carole Easton OBE, argues we need to move away from narratives of intergenerational difference and negative stereotyping of later life if we want connections between different age groups to flourish.
There is no doubt that we have much to benefit from sustaining and strengthening connections between different age groups. Getting to know people of other generations better can help dispel the ageist attitudes or stereotypes that are all too common throughout our society. Intergenerational friendships can strengthen our connection to our local communities and give us access to a new world view. And in the workplace, older colleagues can support younger colleagues through skills and knowledge sharing. Yet these benefits will disappear if age is increasingly presented as an insurmountable division between communities and different generations are not regarded in equal terms.
Themes for this year’s Global Intergenerational Week include building intergenerational relationships and breaking down age barriers. There is a risk that people from different age groups are presented as distinct groups without shared interests and values which can then lead to people being grouped into crude stereotypes drawn solely on age. The stereotypes of older people in the UK tend to be more negative than positive. These stereotypes can take the form of older people as ‘warm but less competent’, leading to pity and exclusion, or the idea that getting older inevitably equates to physical decline which can impact the healthcare treatment older people receive and even life expectancy.
While bringing younger and older people together can help to breakdown and challenge these stereotypes, being intergenerational goes beyond this as the organisers of Intergenerational Week 2023 make clear. It involves recognising the contributions that people of all ages make to our society. It is therefore vital to overcome prejudicial attitudes if we are to develop an age-inclusive society where people of different generations recognise and appreciate each other's value.
Changing the ways we discuss ageing and older people is an important first step in achieving this. Through focus groups with different age groups and a nationally representative survey, Ageing Better developed new ways of talking about ageing which capture the diverse experiences of later life and positive experiences of getting older.
It is vital to overcome prejudicial attitudes if we are to develop an age-inclusive society where people of different generations recognise and appreciate each other's value.
We recommend talking about ageing as a continual process of change which brings us different experiences, opportunities and challenges. We get more – not less – diverse with age. Drawing attention to the different ways of getting older can help different generations connect over common experiences, instead of younger people being fearful of what older people represent.
Intergenerational interaction has the risk of being negatively influenced by the dominant media narrative of older people being a “societal and economic burden”. Most people in society want to live as long as possible – colluding with this narrative results in a prejudice against their future selves. No-one wants to be seen as a “burden” or have their experience, wisdom and efforts dismissed as irrelevant.
Ageing Better is working to raise awareness of how TV and other media portray older people in a stereotypical and negative manner and encourage a more realistic and inclusive approach. We’ve created the first free library showing positive and authentic images of over 50s alongside a guide to talking about ageing and older age. Government, news outlets and social media all have a part to play in eliminating harmful stereotypes about ageing and later life. But we can all do our bit to tackle ageist prejudice too by talking about ageing in a way which recognises the diversity and potential of later life and the reality that most of us want to grow old.