A glimpse into the public perception of old age and ageing in the UK
Within the last fifty years, the population pyramids of most European countries have seen clear changes in age structure, with Italy and Germany amongst the oldest societies in the world. Looking at the United Kingdom, the median age has risen noticeably over the last two decades, from 37.5 years in 2000 to 40.2 years in 2019. The share of persons aged 65 years or over stands now at almost 19% of the UK’s total population, resulting in an old-age dependency ratio of 28.9%—meaning that there are about three persons of working age for every adult that has reached retirement age. The UK’s ageing population is projected to grow further over the coming years, showcasing a trend that is representative for almost all industrialised countries. Ahead of us lies a future of greying societies.
An ongoing research initiative at the University of West London has analysed the depiction of older adults in British advertising to explore the public perception in the United Kingdom. Mass media communication plays a key role in formation of people’s ideas. The media have the power to shape perceptions and persuade societies to change attitudes of and towards social groups. The omnipresence of the media nowadays allows for ample opportunities for media content to influence individuals and impart ideas and stereotypes—both positive and negative. Advertising often comprises well-crafted short stories, featuring schematic characters within easy-to-follow storylines that reflect the prevailing attitudes of society as part of its stories. It is therefore a useful tool for assessing the current public perception of all manner of issues, including how society views old age and ageing.
In the perception of the British public, being aged 65 years or over comes with several benefits and downsides. Promotional narratives seemingly never attach older persons, even when in their 60s, to a place of work or a business environment. The public’s idea appears somewhat to still be oblivious to the realities of an ageing workforce that counterbalances the increasing old-age dependency ratio—a reality every ageing society faces. A lack of narratives revolving around workplace productivity, however, does not necessarily mean that older adults are denied competency or have lost their status within society. Within their social networks, such as amongst family members or friends, advertising occasionally equates advanced age with wisdom gained through life experience. In a spot by the Skipton Building Society, for example, an older man is seen winning a game of chess against his son. They are deep in conversation, likely about a financial topic, and the younger protagonist carefully listens, as the older character shares his knowledge.
Skipton Building Society
Rather than mourning their departure from the workforce, life after retirement appears to be a chance to redefine oneself. No longer constrained by the demand for economic productivity, older adults pro-actively take advantage of the newfound space for personal projects and interests. Accordingly, they are seen enjoying their lives in advertising, either in the company of others or by themselves. Examples for this are commercials by used car website Cazoo and holiday destination Parkdean Resorts. In both adverts, older adults find enjoyment in pursuing leisure activities, by practicing sport, or simply spending time with their loved one(s).
Of course, not all ideas of ageing are as positive. Age-related afflictions, such as potential health impairments or loneliness, can also be found in advertising—though they are not very common. A commercial by online grocer Ocado, for example, touches upon older people’s social isolation during shielding—a public health directive to protect the most clinically vulnerable in the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic. In an advert for the People’s Postcode Lottery, older adults are taking part in singing therapy to promote wellbeing and social connections.
People’s Postcode Lottery
Whilst the current ideas of ageing and old age appear to be multifaceted and largely have positive connotation, they are still far from being a full reflection of real life. Compared to previous research into this matter, however, it appears that the British public are becoming more informed about the different social roles and capabilities of older adults.
Nevertheless, the rare portrayal of expertise and skills in older people inside and outside of work settings is disconcerting from a socio-political point of view. Public discourse is largely shaped by the media and thus by advertising. Public images can assign a specific place within society to individuals and create conditions that lead to the confirmation of that image—like a self-fulfilling prophecy. They can also cause compliant behaviour, by the mere fact that the group members concerned are aware of the existing public perception. In ageing societies, such as in the UK, maintaining an open mind regarding the multiple potential social contributions of older people is crucial and should be in the interest of businesses, politicians and the wider society.