Older Americans and researchers studying aging agree: the media is ageist.
A striking 83% of adults ages 50 and older said in a 2021 survey from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and the NextFifty Initiative, “sometimes I feel the media/culture doesn’t realize how much they stereotype older people.”
And a 2021 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that negative descriptions of older adults in a 1.1 billion-word U.S. and U.K. media database “outnumber positive ones by six times.”
In addition, eight researchers wrote in The Journals of Gerontology that the pandemic led “an increasing portrayal of those over the age of 70 as being all alike with regard to being helpless, frail, and unable to contribute to society,” spreading those views in social media and the press.
As a journalist who has been writing and editing on aging for more than a decade, I’m troubled by these findings, but not terribly surprised.
In 2011, I was part of the launch team for Next Avenue, the PBS site for people ages 50 and older, and I served as its managing editor and Money and Work channels editor until unretiring in January 2022. These days, I write “The View From Unretirement” column for MarketWatch and write about personal finances for older adults for Next Avenue and Fortune.
Based on my experience and my research, I’d say the media—by that I’m talking about journalists, Hollywood and marketers—is generally less ageist than it had been in the past. But there is still loads of room for improvement in the way the media talks about, portrays, and sells to older adults.
Here’s a look at where things stand, how they’ve changed and how the media could be less ageist:
Although the media seems to be addressing the demographic issues of aging and there appear to be fewer stories these days about the war between younger and older generations and what writer Margaret Morganroth Gullette calls “the decline narrative of aging,” some journalists sadly continue resorting to demeaning tropes about older adults.
No doubt you’ve seen the phrase “silver tsunami” referring to the growing numbers of people ages 65 and older in the United States and around the world. But as Kathy Greenlee, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Aging, wrote in Generations Today, “a tsunami is a large wave that results in vast destruction and mass casualties.”
In other words, older adults are a natural disaster.
Phrases like “elderly” and “senior citizens” still show up often in articles about people in their 60s and older, though it seems not as much as in the past.
Credit the reduction in usage of those terms to style guides by the likes of the Associated Press, The New York Times, the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association and the Pew Research Center, which all discourage them.
The American Psychological Association Publication Manual urges writers to avoid othering terms that are “problematic” and connote a stereotype because they “suggest that members of the group are not part of society but rather a group apart.” This manual also recommends avoiding “negativistic and fatalistic attitudes toward aging, such as age being an obstacle to overcome.”
Allure magazine stopped using the term anti-aging in 2017.
The AP Stylebook recommends using the phrases older adult(s) and older person/people rather than senior citizens, seniors or elderly. It suggests journalists “aim for specificity when possible: new housing for people 65 and over; an exercise program for women over 70.”
The National Center to Reframe Aging, led by the Gerontological Society of America (GSA), has been offering guidance through its Reframing Aging “Communication Best Practices” guide. It recommends highlighting the diversity that exists in the older population, talking affirmatively about changing demographics, and noting that aging is a dynamic process that can benefit society.
The Leadership Council of Aging Organizations (a coalition of 68 prominent national aging advocacy organizations, including ASA), the GSA and the American Geriatrics Society have incorporated Reframing Aging principles in their publication guidelines.
Allure magazine in 2017 made waves when it announced it would no longer use the term “anti-aging” because, editor Michelle Lee said, the phrase was “subtly reinforcing the message that aging is a condition we need to battle.” (In 2022, the magazine folded and is now a website.)
The GSA and Columbia University also are helping journalists avoid ageism in their writing by offering fellowships to a select number of them annually. GSA has its Journalists in Aging Fellows program and Columbia offers the Age Boom Academy.
Political reporting, however, remains highly ageist—reporters commonly throw around the term “geriatric oligarchy,” describing older elected officials.
Articles and cable news discussions about the 2024 presidential election frequently maintain that President Joe Biden, now 80, is too old to run again. Some cite Biden’s recent fall off his bike, trip over a sandbag on a stage, and use of a CPAP machine for sleep apnea. There also have been stories, without evidence, claiming the president has cognition issues.
Donald Trump, now 77, is sometimes dinged for his age, too, but less frequently. The public doesn’t know as much about his health as it does Biden’s, however, because Trump has been less revealing.
But a 2020 report by the International Council on Active Aging said both men are likely to be “super-agers” who maintain their mental and physical functioning into late life and tend to live longer than the average person their age.
Photos and AI
Photographic images in articles frequently smack of ageism, too. A 2019 AARP study of online images found that adults ages 50 and older are portrayed in a positive light only 72% of the time; by contrast, people ages 49 or younger were shown in a positive light 96% of the time.
You’ve likely seen pictures of forlorn older women looking out windows or, as gerontologist Jeanette Leardi wrote on Next Avenue, wrinkled hands resting on a cane. Rarely, Leardi noted, do you see older adults’ hands using technology or operating a microscope.
Even AI imagery has ageist tendencies as a disturbing July 2023 article in The Conversation noted. It cited a six-month study of 100 photos provided by the text-to-image AI generator Midjourney.
Researchers asked for pictures of people in specialized media professions such as “news analyst” and “fact-checker” and non-specialized ones like “journalist” and “reporter.” For non-specialized job titles, Midjourney came back with images of only younger men and women. For specialized roles, any older people were always men. The women were “younger and wrinkle-free.”
But there’s some progress on the photo front, too.
An AARP/Getty Images’ partnership launched the Disrupt Aging Collection of anti-ageism stock images and the British Centre for Ageing Better has an age-positive image library of free photos. ASA has collaborated with the photo stock library Shutterstock on a toolkit on how to tell age-inclusive stories, and Shutterstock has responded with more diverse images of older adults in its collections.
The Centre for Ageing Better site also has age-positive image guidelines including: “Avoid photos that caricature later life,” and think of situations “that don’t only focus on the frailty and decline associated with older people.” It adds that age-positive doesn’t mean showing older people only in a euphoric state or positive situation since that “isn’t very balanced either.”
Movies and TV
Ageism is a mixed bag in movies and television.
On the one hand, David Gittins, executive director of Age Inclusion in Media, told me in a 2022 Next Avenue article that ageism in Hollywood was “the worst I’ve ever seen it.” More than 100 British actors and public figures last year signed an open letter calling for an end to the entertainment industry’s “entrenched” ageism against women older than age 45.
But the 2023 Oscar-winning Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress were all ages 50 and older (Brendan Fraser, Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan and Jamie Lee Curtis, respectively). A few TV series have spotlighted older actors, too, including Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie” and Max’s “Hacks.”
There have also been a few recent films showcasing older women, including “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” “Book Club” and “80 for Brady.” Older men are more likely to get the heroic treatment, though (Harrison Ford with “de-aging” special effects in the new “Indiana Jones” and Tom Cruise in “Mission Impossible,” for two).
A couple of film festivals specialize in movies about aging or feature older performers; the Legacy Film Festival on Aging and the Women Over 50 Film Festival.
Overall, however, the film and TV treatment of older adults—especially older women—is pretty lousy.
The 2021 report from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and NextFifty Initiative found that characters ages 50 and older represented less than a quarter of all characters in top-grossing films from 2010 to 2020. That study also noted that women only represented 1 in 5 of characters ages 50 and older during that time period.
The Centre for Ageing Better site suggested avoiding photos that caricature later life.
The 2020 report “Frail, Frumpy and Forgotten” from the Geena Davis Institute (with USC Viterbi School of Engineering and TENA) said female characters ages 50 and older in films from the United States, the U.K., Germany and France in 2019 were more likely than male ones to be “senile, homebound, feeble and frumpy.” It also discovered that just 1 in 4 films pass “The Ageless Test”—in which at least one ages 50 and older female character matters, is tied to the plot in a significant way and is presented in “humanizing ways and not reduced to ageist stereotypes.”
Similarly, women older than 50 are underrepresented on U.S. television, in 2021 garnering just 8% of screen time (despite representing 20% of the population, according to Nielsen. They comprise only 1 in 4 characters ages 50 and older on TV, the Geena Davis Institute said.
The Daily Beast called out the new season of “And Just Like That” (the “Sex and the City” reboot) as ageist, despite its main characters who are women in their mid-50s. “Ageism seems to be the hill the franchise will happily die on,” wrote Billie Walker.
Advertising and Marketing
Advertisers and marketers often view the world through an ageist lens—again especially regarding women—though there are a few notable exceptions.
Little wonder, then, that AARP found 86% of women ages 50 and older said they feel “women my age are under-represented in ads” and 91% said they “wish beauty and personal grooming ads had more realistic images of women my age.”
A trip to the drugstore can turn up shelf after shelf of “anti-aging” beauty products. The U.S. anti-aging market grew by 25% from 2016 to 2021, from $3.9 billion to $4.9 billion, according to Euromonitor International. Globally, the anti-aging market is $50 billion and expected to exceed $90 billion by 2032, based on a Precedence Research estimate.
But some marketers have created campaigns to show older adults in positive ways.
In his new book, “The Perennials: The Megatrends Creating a Postgenerational Society,” Wharton management professor Mauro F. Guillén cited these: A 2016 Nike ad showcased an 86-year-old Ironman triathlete world-record holder: Sister Madonna Buder, a nun. A 2015 ad for the fashion brand Celine showcased writer Joan Didion. Covergirl makeup, in 2017, made then 69-year-old model Maye Musk (Elon’s mom) one of its brand ambassadors.
In a Next Avenue article, gerontologist Leardi offered a few pieces of anti-ageism advice to marketers, including these tips: “Tell us a story that makes us care and with which we identify. Depict us as the complex individuals that we are. Address the reality of our challenges as well as our willingness and ability to overcome them. Include us older adults on your marketing teams.”
Will we ever get rid of what gerontologist and Agescapes blogger Martin Hyde calls “gerontocidal language?”
I’d like to think so.
Anti-ageism initiatives like “Changing the Narrative” and podcasts such as Stanford Center on Longevity’s “Century Lives,” The Center for Abundant Aging’s “Abundant Aging,” Susan Flory’s “The Big Middle” and writer Debbie Weil’s [B]OLDER are helping.
But there’s plenty of work to be done.
Richard Eisenberg is a columnist at MarketWatch and a freelance writer for Next Avenue and Fortune. He lives in New Jersey.
Photo credit: Bohbeh
Oct. 7 is Ageism Awareness Day, find out how to engage with ASA here: https://asaging.org/ageism-awareness.