Aging in Media, as Viewed Through 20-something Eyes

Scrolling social media on the phone, perusing channels on television, skimming forum pages and news sites—our lives are inundated with content every second of every day. And, in an almost natural, human reaction, we all let out the same deep sigh when a commercial break interrupts the onslaught of content. It can be a dreaded YouTube ad that can’t be skipped or a massive pop-up that greets you like door-to-door salesperson. We just want to get it out of the way, and rightfully so, it’s not what we came for.

But often, when you’re stuck watching, you quickly pick up on certain cues. One ad that recently caught my attention was from Hyundai. The car company debuted commercials highlighting the all-electric IONIQ 6, featuring actor Kevin Bacon and his daughter Sosie Bacon.

Kevin Bacon’s portrayal of the classic dad figure comes off as comical and plays wonderfully against Sosie’s reactions to his antics and jokes, which may be something she deals with daily. Yet, threading through all the fun conversations and selling points, is the issue that Kevin, at his age, is supposedly clueless about or lacks interest in other types of technology—accessing email, ordering drinks, even subscribing to Hyundai’s YouTube channel.

So, while not completely sold on switching out for a new electric car, the commercial did stir the cauldron in my mind that boils over when aging is portrayed the media.

‘We have come to fear what comes next, and this stress only compounds over time.’

Aging often is framed as a personal affair. We experience the passage of time every day and can feel its impact when we move, converse, and go about daily errands. But, when we absorb it via the media, it can hurt our perception of aging if we don’t keep a keen eye out for it. We see this ageist mentality, whether intended or not, appear in almost every form of our media—and at most any age.

President Joe Biden has been a common target in the political world for his age. Looking at headlines across media sources hint at a sense of fear and concern for the President: The Atlantic ran an article, “Step Aside Joe Biden,” whereas on CBS news it was, “Biden's ‘grandfatherly appeal’ may be asset overseas at NATO summit.

In the world of sports, there’s a constant struggle against age. Basketball player Lebron James was reported to have “shown his age” in his recent playoff run with the Los Angeles Lakers, which resulted in a 4–0 series defeat against the Denver Nuggets. Sports journalists hinted that James’ age—as he nears 40 he is one the oldest active players—made him unable to bring the Lakers even one win before they were eliminated from the playoffs. ESPN’s Alan Hahn said, “[James’] battery is drained. It’s like an old iPhone. When you plug it in and try to charge it up, it never gets back to 100%.”

Other sections of news and media are no better—ageism is pervasive. Singers and actors are ridiculed for being past their prime after hitting age 30. Products are branded as “anti-aging” or creating a sense of “youth.” Older adults in commercials are seen struggling with medical conditions and needing medications to alleviate their symptoms.

One could say that these examples are based in some truth—older athletes may not have the explosiveness or recovery ability of their younger counterparts and many older adults do rely upon prescription medications for health conditions. However, these negative projections of older adults impact our perception of an inevitable and natural process. We have come to fear what comes next, and this stress only compounds over time and seemingly manifests in an unhealthy reality.

Through these hurtful stereotypes, many look at aging with disdain and assume the current cohort of older adults embodies all the same issues. And so, the cycle continues.

‘Growing up, I’d make a beeline straight to the nursing home where my mother worked.’

It’ll take an abrupt reality check to fix these issues. And that doesn’t mean we need to get nitpicky about every instance of ageism we find, or that we should hound people on forums about their word choices. It’s hard to change such a long-standing stereotype in one day, and the media profits off quick, hard-hitting content that plays into these projections to stir up an audience.

But these instances of animosity and antagonism only fuel existing stereotypes and hinder the fight to eliminate ageism. It’s important to note, though, that members of the media have made great strides in improving the quality of reporting on age.

The Associated Press has encouraged writers and reporters to refrain from using the word “elderly,” and to provide as much context as possible when referring to age-related programs. Outlets like Next Avenue continue to create content for and about older adults by providing holistic, age-friendly information.

There’s even a glimmer of hope for positive framing around becoming older. For one, the president is now leaning into the public’s perception of his age, twisting it into a positive at the recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner, one facet being wisdom gained. James, despite age criticism, surpassed Kareem Abdul Jabar in scoring the most points in NBA history—a record many thought would remain unbroken.

I hope these perceptions of age change not only for the benefit of my parents or me as I age. Rather, I know it’s possible to reframe aging as a process that we relish and enjoy—where older adults are recognized as valuable rather than vulnerable.

In the experiences I’ve had with older adults in work, class, service and everyday conversations, it has become abundantly clear that aging can be exhilarating and well-worth the wait.

I never had the opportunity to meet and spend time with my grandparents. But growing up, I’d make a beeline straight to the nursing home where my mother worked and spend hours on end running amuck and befriending residents. Since then, I have gained a profound appreciation and respect for older people and an excitement for studying aging.

We need to educate others and advocate for better media projections by sharing our personal experiences. Through these learned experiences we can better discern stereotypes and in turn improve our quality of life in the long run.

Lois Angelo is a graduate of the University of Southern California, where he studied human development and aging as well as occupational science. His work has been published in the USC Daily Trojan, the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, Age Equity Alliance, and Aging in Media. As an aspiring geriatrician, Lois hopes to continue studying intergenerational relationships and ways to effectively combat ageism.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Ljupco Smokovski

Oct. 7 is Ageism Awareness Day, find out how to engage with ASA here: