This article explores the gendered dimension of “age wars” narratives in the media. It traces the symbolic role played by older women in these representations of generational inequity, stemming from old tropes and images associated with the struggle for selfhood that lie at the heart of psychosocial development. It suggests this age-wars theme is pronounced in a younger generation that desperately fears aging yet struggles to fully grow up. But such modern mythmaking is harmful, shaping societal perceptions of older women that underpin inequality and disadvantage, suggesting the urgent need for the circulation of counter-myths and stories of generational cooperation and solidarity.
age wars, sexism, ageism, generations, third age, fourth age
As a professor of sociology at the University of Liverpool, I direct the Centre for Ageing and the Life Course. For the past decade my research has focused on the intersections between gender, age, and well-being, theoretically and empirically. Recent research includes ongoing funded projects on frailty and ethnicity, and on menopause and ethnicity, as well as theoretical studies of the interplay between age theory and gender theory.
Visual and narrative representations of old age in North American, European, and U.K. media, for the main part, are divided into two main categories, one associated with the third age and one with the fourth. Broadly speaking, the third age is the aspirational category, associated with successful aging, health, and wealth. By contrast, the fourth age is associated with undesirable qualities—ill health, senescence, and dependence.
One factor the representations share is that they are often gendered. It is the privileged older woman depicted enjoying an exotic holiday or other expensive leisure activity who stands for the third age, contrasted with the frail, bent-backed old lady hunched over her walker in ankle socks and an old-fashioned frock representing the fourth age. Increasingly, in media depictions of the age war—or intergenerational strife (an increasingly popular trope through which to discuss social issues/problems)—both the third and fourth ages are targets for charges of generational inequity.
In some cases, there are specific grievances directed at one or another category; in other cases, no distinction is made between them, and it is the “old” who, in multiple ways, are depicted as oppressors of the young (Toynbee, 2023). Again, it is the figure of the older woman who becomes, in multifaceted ways, the symbol of generational unfairness, though one also is struck by the frequent presence of young women representing youth who are angry at injustice.
While this is not a new phenomenon—there are deep structures to such representations including in myth and fairy tale, which problematize gendered old age as the threatening Other—the particular forms this phenomenon takes today suggest a powerful combination of ageism and misogyny associated with a number of social trends. For example, there is a fierce “split” between two generations of feminists, with the older generation characterized as “Karens” by Generation Z (Stern, 2019) and the younger as “snowflakes,” in ways that obscure ongoing intergenerational solidarities (Bindel, 2021; Smith, 2023). At the same time, young women have become symbolic of the “promise” of neoliberalism, epitomizing the entrepreneurial subject who works continually on self-improvement, and are posited as key to the economic success of the West (Gill, 2007; Scharff, 2016).
In this piece I will explore the gendered nature of the age war and consider why it occurs. I will draw upon a variety of diverse frameworks to explore how we talk about older women, gender, and aging, including feminist theory, (feminist) psychoanalytic theory, and cultural and media studies. I will ask: why are older women associated with generational unfairness? How, and through what themes and imagery, is this expressed in popular discourse and representations? The final section will explore the possibility of resisting this harmful trend.
Old Age: The Third Age, the Fourth Age, and Their Representational Regimes
The concepts of the third and the fourth ages were introduced into the English-speaking world by Peter Laslett (1987). Laslett’s specific focus was on the third age, his aim being to redeem and reconceptualize “old age” by decoupling it from outdated connotations of sickness, poverty, and dependency. The third age developed in the cultural imagination in part via articles in the news and popular media in the three decades that have followed, with an increasing association with activity, entrepreneurship, and opportunities for self-development (Shimoni, 2018).
Meanwhile, the fourth age has been developed in ever more negative terms, a repository for all the aspects devalued when emphasizing the youthful self. In line with this negativity, medical categories, including frailty, developed at the same time, signaling the entry-point to the fourth age (Gilleard & Higgs, 2011a).
‘Privilege’ sometimes indicates wealth or social capital and sometimes suggests a generation taking more of its fair share of societal goods.
At the same time, a trend toward anti-aging and turning back the clock has developed in parallel. This is important in understanding the degree to which youthfulness is prized. While High Street pharmacy chains now offer Botox and cosmetic surgery is enjoying a boom (Wilson, 2023), the most radical approach, available only to the super-rich, is that of attempting to stop or reverse aging altogether. As many women have commented, the availability of technologies to modify aging appearance increases the pressure to use them Such cultural attitudes suggest that the gap between the perceived desirability of youth and old age is increasing (Åberg et al., 2020).
Although there is a long history of problematizing old age in arguments about social inequality, which precedes the third/fourth age division, the dominant theme in older arguments has concerned the perceived burden placed by old age on the (younger) population. However, the trope of the privileged older person has reasserted itself in media representations with remarkable vengeance, especially in the U.K. since 2008, where it has emerged in news coverage of issues such as austerity following the financial crisis, Brexit, the election of a Conservative government, COVID, and the cost-of-living crisis that followed the pandemic’s end (Pickard, 2019).
These two formulations of anti-aging bias—older adults as a burden, and older adults as unfairly privileged—now proceed in parallel and occasionally merge, with “privilege” sometimes indicating wealth or social capital, and sometimes suggesting a generation taking more than its fair share of societal goods of any kind, including welfare.
The Gendered Dimension of Age Wars
What is notable, yet rarely remarked upon, is the gendered dimension of this depiction (Pickard, 2019). Both depictions—whether of old age as a burden or as privileged—are frequently illustrated in international news media by photographic images and discourses featuring older women. These comprise seemingly patriotic older women with bunting and symbols of empire such as the Union Jack and the Jubilee; older women enjoying the privileges of wealth (yachting trips, snorkeling in tropical waters, and other examples of carefree, expensive leisure); as well as older women in need of care, backs bent over walkers. These images are often juxtaposed with those of younger women, frequently presented as protesting in large groups about generational injustice. One example is that of a young woman holding a banner proclaiming: “You’ll die of old age, we’ll die of climate change” (Shafik, 2021).
On the one hand, these articles proclaim that third agers have taken too much from the economy, leaving nothing for the young, a view put forward in an article in The Times. The article makes an argument about intergenerational inequality by counterposing “Caroline,” in the privileged position, and her daughter “Sadie,” who is young and oppressed (Duncan, 2023).
Called “The OK Boomer—when privilege gets dangerous,” nearly all of the accompanying photographs illustrating this “privilege” are of older women, including the ubiquitous figure of Margaret Thatcher. Caroline is a “rentier” capitalist, according to journalist Emma Duncan, not because she is a member of the super-wealthy leisured class, but because she has paid off her mortgage after 42 years of work and can now afford to go on “nice” holidays.
Twenty-six-year-old Sadie says, “They’ve taken all the property and the money … and left us with all the debts.” Who “they” refers to is unclear as the article also documents Caroline pledging to sell the house and give half the equity to her children now. (To be clear, it is not the merits of these arguments I am debating here, but rather the manner and tropes through which they are fashioned.)
On the other hand, poor, vulnerable old women are also dangerous because of their need for healthcare and pensions. Images illustrating these articles can evoke pity, for example the image accompanying an article headlined “UK elderly suffer worst poverty rates in western Europe” (Doward, 2019) is of an old woman placing a penny carefully into a cloth purse, suggesting the need to, literally, count every penny. However, the subtext suggests that such neediness swallows up resources that would otherwise be directed at younger generations and is thus every bit as threatening as greed and rapaciousness.
What makes older women symbolic of generational inequity? Is it ageism, sexism, or a toxic combination of both?
In reportage in 2020–21 in relation to care homes and the COVID-19 pandemic, and in photographic images accompanying newspaper articles from as far apart as the Daily Mail, The New York Times, and The Guardian, the figure of a fourth-age old woman, rather than an old man, recurs strikingly. Study supports that older women do not decrease in competence in the eyes of younger adults based on the acceptance of help, whereas older men do (Sublett et al., 2022). Of course, it is also more culturally acceptable for older women to acknowledge their vulnerability and accept the help and care of others.
If feminine age is a problem, by contrast, COVID had a hero in the form of an old man. Captain Tom Moore was a 99-year-old man who, though frail and reliant on a walker for mobility, nevertheless pledged to complete 100 laps of his garden before reaching his 100th birthday, raising more than £1 million in the first year for the National Health Service (Carney et al., 2022). His achievement was celebrated with a knighthood given to him by Queen Elizabeth II, in July 2020. Though vulnerable, he continued to exhibit agency, strength, and productivity, which distanced him from the feminine aging associated with the fourth age and its risks.
What Accounts for Cultural Aversion to Older Women?
What are the reasons for this combination of visual and narrative ageism and misogyny that makes older women symbolic of generational inequity? Is it ageism, sexism, or a toxic combination of both? Feminist literature, gerontological or otherwise, has often looked at such issues through the lens of double jeopardy/marginalization/oppression, in which intersections add to the individual disadvantages to become something qualitatively different. However, intersectionality has little to say about the complex and contradictory associations we are discussing here, including their deep symbolic and emotional resonances.
To explain the generational ageism and misogyny, we need a different starting point conceptually, and Freud’s model of gendered development in childhood is a good place to star as it offers a more sophisticated explanation of the origins of these antagonisms. Here the break with the father and the break with the mother are portrayed as very different psychic events. Whether in terms of the primal horde or the family drama, the son’s battle with the father is a clean, swift struggle to take or assume power. The separation with the mother is of a different order. For boys, it takes the form of a robust rejection of femininity, the silent enemy that can undermine a man’s masculinity throughout his life and establish an enduring misogyny (Chodorow, 1978; Dinnerstein, 1976).
For girls, separation with the mother is prolonged and messy; not a struggle but a slow detachment, potentially never completed. Contemporary conditions, as compared to the time when Freud wrote, impede that separation further for many young people. Against the backdrop of societal changes, including an extended education and expensive housing leading to a delay in establishing themselves as independent adults, dependency on the mother’s care, emotional and financial, can stretch well into one’s 30s.
Furthermore, in the context of ongoing gender pay gaps and unequal domestic work and childcare provision, daughters may feel that their mother’s generation has failed to realize the goals of feminism, thereby letting them down (Smith, 2023). We thus have the push-pull of repulsion and attraction, the need for separation with an ongoing, stuttering dependency.
This psychosocial push-pull, however, has deep roots that can shed a little more light on this paradox. It is depicted in the archetype which Jungian scholars have termed the Great Mother, or Magna Mater. Represented in statues, paintings, and other images found across the world and through the ages, Jungian scholar Erich Neumann (2015) saw this figure as representing the struggle for individuation described above.
She comprises two aspects: the Good Mother and the Terrible Mother, which are intertwined (Neumann, 2015). The Good Mother, nurturing, selfless, to be consumed by her offspring, can also become the Terrible Mother, refusing to let go and thus blocking individuation. Meanwhile, the Terrible Mother—destructive, taking back what she gives—can become the Good Mother by encouraging transformation to a more mature consciousness through struggle (Neumann, 2015), displaying a complex and oscillatory dynamic.
At the same time, the good and terrible aspects are fundamentally combined, especially through the principle of generativity: the inseparability of the cyclical nature of birth and decay, suggesting that what is given in birth and prized in youth is taken back in senescence and death. Magna Mater is thus a deeply uncomfortable reminder of our own mortality, our own co-existence with the cyclical processes of the animal and vegetable worlds.
The figure of the older woman thus comes with a heavy weight of cultural baggage. These, to be clear are not actual women, but myths of womanhood and the feminine, as Simone de Beauvoir (1949/1997) described in The Second Sex, portraying not a reality but rather a conception of womanhood from the male perspective and against which women have to struggle in their lived experience at every stage of their life.
‘A similar distancing effect from old age can be achieved by means of the presence of old women in literature and movies who are killed or defeated.’
In her magnum opus, de Beauvoir outlines the link between the processes of Othering the female sex and old age, respectively, and interprets these myths as suggesting that to a large degree the Otherness of old age (in patriarchal society) derives from, and is an intrinsic part of, the alterity of the feminine.
These myths tell us: “Women … weave human destiny; but they also cut the threads” (de Beauvoir, 1949/1997, 170). And again: “What man thus cherishes and detests first in woman, lover as well as mother, is the fixed image of her animal destiny, the life essential to her existence, but that condemns her to finitude and death. From the day of birth, man begins to die: this is the truth that the mother embodies” (de Beauvoir, 1949/1997, 188).
This oscillating movement is also captured by the concept of abjection. As extrapolated by feminist psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva (1982), this captures the need, in infancy, to expel the “Other”—or the body of the mother—in order for the self to be fully formed. But the Other is never fully expelled and hovers henceforth as a threat and temptation. Abjection also is associated with a cultural response to the fourth age (Gilleard & Higgs, 2011b), expressing a desire to keep one’s distance from the unwelcome changes associated with senescence, even while the latter haunts our pursuit of eternal youthfulness.
One way to hold abjection at bay is to turn one’s body into a citadel resisting change. An example of this is provided by the tech entrepreneur Bryan Johnson. Age 45, he employs a team of 30 healthcare experts committed to reversing the aging process in each of his organs. Led by regenerative medicine physician Oliver Zolman, the team devises a strict dietary, exercise, and sleep regimen to which Johnson must adhere, combined with dozens of monthly medical procedures aimed at improving the function and condition of his organs and tests to check for progress. Johnson explains, “This really is an impassioned approach to achieve age 18 everywhere” (Vance, 2013).
A similar distancing effect from old age can be achieved by means of the presence of old women in literature and movies who are killed or defeated. We are all familiar with the trope of the bitter, twisted old woman, such as Miss Havisham, Baby Jane, and Norma Desmond, and there has emerged an increasingly popular genre of “hagsploitation” movies (Billson, 2018).
Barbara Creed (1993) identified two distinct but interlocking threads in these representations, comprising woman-as-monster and woman-as-victim, evil and pitiful, bad and good. Both are equally threatening; both are framed within the male perspective. Creed observed that the horror film serves as catharsis, as a form of ritual expulsion, when defeating the monster allows the audience to reaffirm the boundaries of the self.
One nuanced contemporary example is the aging matriarch, Violet, of August: Osage County (Wells, 2013). Violet resembles a monster both through her wild and disheveled appearance and in her disruptive behavior at her late husband’s funeral. But she also is both victim and heroine, revealing long-buried secrets concerning her husband’s character (for example, he fathered a child with Violet’s sister), thus shattering his image as benevolent patriarch. She attempts to reveal truth regarding the double-standard of aging to her three daughters who are approaching midlife, as if to provoke them into understanding that while the family patriarch is dead, the patriarchy is thriving. Their own aging, she seems to tell them, will show them the rottenness at the heart of the sexual economy.
But Violet’s daughters do not want to hear this: they remain loyal to their menfolk and their main fear is that they will turn into women like Violet. As Victoria Smith (2023) has observed in her book on the vilification of middle-age women, critiques that older women are well placed to make against patriarchy, the gender hierarchy, and the sexual economy are dismissed by younger generations because they are no longer part of the sexual economy. Because of their age they are depicted not as enlightened but as bitter and jealous. Meanwhile, such an alliance between younger women and men against older women (whether or not the former claim to be on the side of “progress”) works to the benefit of patriarchal power.
Discussion and Concluding Thoughts
In this piece, I have identified some deep structures and myths in the cultural imagination that link (feminine) gender/womanhood and old age in a way that makes them the Other to the masculine self of late modernity. This alterity is associated with the need to separate from the mother and maps perfectly onto the so-called generational divide that is a popular cultural theme with a younger generation that desperately fears aging yet struggles to grow up. But, to paraphrase Lester and Ross (2003), both pictures and text can injure (Loos & Ivan, 2018) and not just reflect but also create and exacerbate antagonisms. These representations of older women are modern versions of much older myths and, as de Beauvoir noted, are more impactful than laws on the cultural imagination. The harmful elements of these discourses directly underpin the material disadvantages that affect older women more than older men, including the lack of opportunities in the workplace and the diminished social capital that comes with age.
These myths also help to obscure the huge intragenerational differences between older people, as well as the deep bonds of sympathy and solidarity they share with younger people (e.g., Duffy, 2021). Stories of generational harmony, along with sympathetic images of older women (neither greedy nor pitiful) reflecting diverse lives and situations are thus important countermyths. Likewise, any attempts, including frequent readers’ letters to news media, that challenge and deconstruct these stories (Cohen, 2002), to demonstrate the link between ageism and misogyny and advocate for different portrayals of older women and their value to society serve as key elements in alternative stories.
Susan Pickard, PhD, heads the Department of Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology at the University of Liverpool, in the U.K. She may be contacted at email@example.com.
Photo credit: Shutterstock/PattyPhoto
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