Alex Noel unpacks our society’s attitudes towards ageing, and suggests the Church is uniquely placed to tell a better story

Every day, in subtle and overt ways, we experience society’s attitude towards ageing. Felt in the media, the workplace and in multiple other settings, our western culture celebrates youth (and youthfulness) over old age. So much so that it’s used to describe success, sell products, drive storylines, create aspirations; defining beauty, health and fashion. 

The role of the media

The media is influential in shaping our values (and reflecting them back to us). When TV show, And Just Like That hit screens in late 2021 it received mixed reviews. A spin-off from Sex and the City (the HBO series popularised in the late 1990s) it continued the story of a group of fashionable friends, first seen in their 30s as independent, carefree women living it up in New York. Now in mid-life, the show challenged established tropes by portraying these women over 50 as confident, sexy and fulfilled. In an interview, show runner Michael Patrick King said that despite “positive reactions…one bitchy response online was people sharing pictures of the Golden Girls.” He said: “I was like, ‘Wow…either you’re 35, or you’re retired and living in Florida…there’s a missing chapter here.” It can be helpful to laugh about ageing, but we’re so uncomfortable with the idea of it that we try to avoid it, disguise it and in the end shut it away. 

The term ‘ageism’ (first coined by activist and ‘ageing pioneer’, Robert Butler in 1969) speaks to the preconceived notions, systematic stereotyping and subsequent discrimination against people because of their (old) age. He pointed out that it is comparable in its nature to racism and sexism.

We’re so uncomfortable with the idea of ageing that we try to avoid it, disguise it and in the end shut it away

In 2020, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media conducted the first global study, The Ageless Test to “systematically analyse representations of older adults, with a specific focus on women aged 50+ in entertainment media”. It examined the top-grossing films of 2019 in Germany, France, the UK and the US to see how ageist depictions, stereotyping and erasing over-50s have contributed to a majority (77 per cent) of older adults experiencing ageism. The study explored to what extent this age group was presented as having “fully realised lives rather than serving as scenery in younger people’s stories”. They found zero per cent of female leads, and 25.3 per cent of all female characters to be 50+ (more likely to be shown as senile, homebound, feeble or frumpy). 

In 2021, academic Reuben Ng conducted a study into age stereotypes in the US and UK media. It utilised a 1.1 billion-word media database, drawn from multiple media genres, to compile a comprehensive view on ageism in society. Negative descriptions of older adults outnumbered positive ones by six times. Words like ‘frail’, ‘infirm’, ‘demented’, ‘disabled’, ‘spinster’ and ‘vulnerable’ were among the top ten descriptors in the UK. Magazines had the highest levels of ageism, followed by the spoken genre, newspapers and fiction. Across the board, narratives, stories and portrayals reinforced stereotypes.

What did you call me?

A study of social media by the Centre for Ageing Better found that words used for ‘old’ were highly gendered too. Language matters. Older women were disparaged as ugly and unpleasant, (eg ‘old hag’, ‘past their prime’), or minimised (eg ’little old lady’). While ageing men might be ‘distinguished’, they were often described as stuck in their ways (eg ‘old codger’) or creepy (eg ‘dirty old man’). 

Ageist Britain, a 2019 study by SunLife, found that over a seven-day period 2,400 ageist terms were used across social media channels. However, there remains little challenge from social media companies. It also found those in their 30s to be most ageist, a time where ageing stereotypes loom large, announcing a future vision of ourselves we’re not willing to embrace.

But stereotypes, by their very nature, are not representative. On social media, ‘Elder TikTok-ers’ are challenging perceptions of the over-60s. Similarly, ‘Queenagers’ are reframing middle-age ‘irl’ - in real life. Disposable incomes plus fewer time constraints have companies waking up to the spending power of this untapped market. But the label still feeds stereotypes: “Far from being empowering, it feels somewhat pitying” said Andreea Papuc, Bloomberg Opinion Editor, in the Washington Post, “most of us are not entitled queens or temperamental teenagers”.


Workplace discrimination

While women are labelled at every age, in the workplace they encounter most age-based discrimination. A study of female leaders in the Harvard Business Review identified the ‘gendered ageism’ that sits at the “intersection of age and gender bias”. A ‘double whammy’ for many professional women, they consistently experience a “never-right” age bias. Women over 60 are passed over for advancement, expected to step aside to allow younger employees to take the reins. Under-40s have their credibility questioned. Women aged 40–60 “fared no better”, regarded as difficult to manage or a risky hire – due to family responsibilities and menopause (though a growing public dialogue is changing this). “Women are [either] young or old, we get no prime time” said the authors, “but we can stop stigmatising women’s age – benefitting not just women, but the whole organisation.”

Ageing brings greater pressure to either appear youthfully attractive, or be put out to grass. British broadcaster Libby Purves spoke out about this ‘lookism’ in 2020, following several established female presenters leaving the BBC. She said: “What is this? Does [the corporation] have a problem with older women? Are we written off as old trouts while men become revered elders, sacred patriarchs, silver foxes?” It’s difficult not to cave in, to ‘rewind the clock’, or at least halt it. A survey by the Crown Clinic found that “82% of women immediately pluck their first grey hairs. And within a year of the onset of greying, 74% are dyeing their hair to disguise [it]”.

Hidden in plain sight

Ageism is rife. It is the most widespread form of discrimination in the UK. And it’s not just in the UK where ageist attitudes exist. In 2021, the World Health Organisation reported that “every second person in the world holds moderate or highly ageist attitudes”. This presents a problem, especially as we are living longer – the demographics of entire nations are shifting towards older age. By 2030, one in six people around the world will be over 60. By 2050 that number will have doubled, and the number of people over 80 will have tripled. 

Internalised ageism can translate into negative expectations of old age

The UK now has more people over 65 than under 19 years of age. Though good news, greater longevity doesn’t make for plain sailing. People are spending longer in old age, which has financial, social and political implications. Our infrastructure, policies and social fabric will have to alter to accommodate this new reality. Anticipating these challenges; 72 organisations, including Age UK and Independent Age, are calling on the government to legislate for a ‘Commissioner for Older People and Ageing’ to ensure that older people are not overlooked by decision-makers. Despite proven success of similar roles in Wales and Northern Ireland, the government is yet to appoint someone in England and Scotland. 

Though age is a protected characteristic under the UK Equalities Act, ageism remains endemic to our society. For Dr Carole Easton OBE, chief executive of the Centre for Ageing Better, it’s the right time for their national anti-ageism campaign, which asks: ‘Are You Ageist?’. In an interview, she explained why: “Ageism…[is] hidden in plain sight [and] even accepted as normal by many of us who are older. It is often dismissed as being harmless, but…ageist ideas or beliefs can be incredibly damaging for us as individuals and for wider society.” It causes people to be misunderstood, disrespected and sidelined.

Fighting back against ageism

The anti-ageism movement is gathering pace. A growing appetite among consumers for wider age-representation, has led the fashion industry to respond. Last year, high fashion brand Loewe featured Maggie Smith (88) in its AW23 campaign; while Harriet Walker (73) was photographed for British Vogue. Retail campaigner Mary Portas OBE responded enthusiastically on Instagram, saying: “[it’s] Simple – Wisdom. Intellect. Sex appeal. Power…that’s exactly what the world is crying out for right now. Less vacuous skin deep beauty. More deep & meaningful life journeys.” 

This year, fashion designers continue to prioritise age-diversity. At Paris Fashion Week, Balmain’s all-age models were hailed as “improving the whole collection”, and Helmut Lang’s over-50 castings were applauded. At London Fashion Week, the 1990s supermodels (now in their early 50s) were busy, and Joanna Lumley (77) had a starring role. At New York Fashion Week, designer Batsheva Hay made a statement of her own by only casting women over 40 (including both street castings and professionals). 

Jacynth Bassett, founder of ‘The Bias Cut’ – an age-inclusive British fashion platform – and winner of ‘Anti-Ageist Activist of 2023’ commented that: “This moved away from the current trend of only casting older women if they’re celebrities or supermodels.” Her award-winning campaign, ‘Ageism is Never in Style’ fights ageism in fashion and beauty. One initiative encourages women to tag social media posts with ‘#ILookMyAge’, highlighting the validity of ‘looking yourself’ at any age.

Pulling out the roots of ageism

Ageism is somewhat contextual; when it comes to music, one article described Generation Z as ‘age-agnostic’. Singers like Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Kylie Minogue (in their 40s and 50s respectively) are enjoying huge popularity as they’re being discovered afresh. In the world of dating, too, women have reported that men in their 30s think nothing of dating them in their 50s. For now, attraction trumps age.

Still, we need to understand how ageism is first created. Early on in life we start to imbibe society’s beliefs about ageing and old age. Showing up in children as young as four years old, these beliefs are then reinforced across the life span. By the time these beliefs become ‘self-relevant’, they are unconscious. Internalised ageism can translate into negative expectations of old age. In time, they can even force our decline, reducing life expectancy by up to seven and a half years. Academic research has found outcomes to include reduced self-efficacy, depression and poor physical health – from effects upon the immune and cardiovascular systems – plus a greater risk of dementia. 

Positive expectations, however, produce improved wellbeing; a lower risk of dementia, less obesity and greater longevity. Dr Becca Levy, a scientific adviser to the World Health Organisation suggests we can move from “an age-declining mindset to an age-thriving one”. In her book, Breaking the Age Code (William Morrow) her ABC Method recommends how to strengthen ‘positive age beliefs’:

• Awareness: notice and identify where ‘negative age beliefs’ are found in society.

• Blame: understand how ‘negative age beliefs’ contribute to age-related issues (eg health and memory problems).

• Challenge: take action against ‘negative age beliefs’ to reduce their harm on others and ourselves.

Dr Fiona Costa, whose research looks into the fears associated with dying and old age, tells me that: “Ageism is definitely a reflection of a society that fears old age…We don’t want to get there, except that we do because we don’t want to die. We want to get there on our own terms looking gorgeous and whatever else…but we don’t want to identify ourselves as being old as it’s portrayed in our mind.” How can we overcome this? “I see it as an exciting opportunity for the Church”, says Fiona. 

While the Church has definitely absorbed ageism from society, Christians have a remedy. In the Bible, God promises to sustain us to our old age (Isaiah 46:4). Grey hair is not an indictment of our demise but a “crown of splendour” (Proverbs 16:31). Age is dignified – signalling wisdom, experience and sanctification. In the second half of life we build a legacy, as God works through us unhindered by youthful egos. Many congregations, churches and leadership programmes are stratified by ‘age and stage’. But we are uniquely positioned to create vibrant multi-generational communities, that foster intergenerational connections. A keen musician, Fiona hosts concerts with the purpose of bringing young and old together. Elderly visitors from local care homes join children, their parents and every age in between. It feels like a celebration.

Ageism is dehumanising. It forces age to define us, rather than our personal qualities, experiences and unique characteristics. My grandmother, who lived to be nearly 104, told me that she always felt like herself – but found that she was treated so differently the older she became. We can change that; as individuals, as churches and as a society. 

Ageism in numbers 

- Japan has the oldest population in the world: 30% of people are already over 60.

- In England almost 11 million people are aged 65 and over – 19% of the total population. This will increase to 17 million people in less than 20 years.

- Half of people over 50 in the UK experienced ageism in the last year.

- Declining health starts at 62.4 years of age for men and 60.9 years for women.

- 50% of people aged 35–49 fear financial insecurity in old age compared with 21.5% of 70–75-year-olds.

- 48% of 30-somethings admit to being ageist on a regular basis.

- 46% of people in their 20s discriminate based on age, compared with 20% of people in their 70s

Have you experienced ageism? We want to hear from you: