How is ageing portrayed in the media and by policy makers? What assumptions are they making? And what are the practical implications?

These were some of the questions covered at Portraying Ageing: Cultural Assumptions and Practical Implications – organised by the Centre for Policy on Ageing and Queen Mary University of London in late April 2014. Here are some of the points raised.

How do policy makers see older people – with what consequences?

Historically ‘pensioners’ were equated with poverty. This perception had a foundation in fact. In 1961 more than a third of pensioners in the UK were living in poverty after housing costs – according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. However, much has changed since then. By 2011 – 12, less than one in seven pensioners were living in relative poverty.

This may explain why, when Help the Aged and Age Concern merged they chose the more neutral title Age UK.

Three key themes seem to be emerging i.e.

  • An increasing perception that many older people are now active and healthy.
  • Growing awareness of the UK’s ageing population i.e. that people are living longer, so there are more retirees and they are a higher proportion of the population.
  • Unprecedented levels of wealth among some older people, driven in part by higher rates of owner occupancy and higher property prices.

This in turn is leading to a number of assumptions, in particular:

  • The power of the grey vote
  • Wealthy pensioners
  • An ageing population is unaffordable for the state

These are compelling narratives but the reality is often more complicated.

For instance the biggest group of voters are those aged 45 – 54. They have 6.3 million votes. In contrast  65 – 74 year olds are only the fifth largest group, with 4.7 million votes.  

Nor are pensioners the wealthiest group in society. Both 55 – 64 year olds and 45 – 54 year olds are better off financially.

And an ageing population isn’t necessarily unaffordable. There are various policy options open to government, from raising the state pension age to changes to the way services are provided.

The perceptions of wealthy, unaffordable pensioners is leading some politicians to question benefits like the Winter Fuel Allowance. However, this could prove a false economy, as older people are more vulnerable in cold weather. Any savings achieved would probably be less than the increased cost to the NHS of treating cold related illness.

(James Lloyd, Strategic Society Centre)

Financing later life – making citizens ‘financially capable?’

People need to become informed consumers of financial services. That’s the key to their long term financial security and also a way of encouraging competition within financial services. That’s a message we’ve been receiving for more than a decade from governments and financial bodies (like the former Financial Services Authority).

This message implies that if people do then fall into financial difficulty, for instance as they get older, it is because they didn’t seek, take and act on the financial information and advice available. 

However, this ignores a range of other factors that help determine how well off we will be in old age, like:

  • Social class at birth
  • Health and care systems
  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • Highest education level attained
  • Number of children
  • Employment history
  • Mental history
  • Health
  • Design of the State Pension at the time we retire 

It also assumes that having informed consumers who apply growing consumer pressure will provide a solution to structural problems and issues with markets and financial products. 

In practice, the risks to our money are often outside our control, like: 

  • Stock Market fluctuations
  • Interest rates
  • Currency rates
  • Recession
  • Unemployment
  • Personal ill health 

Who can predict in their 20’s and 30’s what the financial situation will be in their 60’s and 70’s? 

This is illustrated by today’s ‘Abandoned Savers’  – who have been hit by record low interest rates, providing a poor return on savings, while finding their homes potentially at risk if they need social care in later life. 

Governments and financial institutions need to take their share of responsibility, not seek to present this as just an issue for individual citizens. 

(Dr Debora Price, Institute of Gerontology, King’s College London)

How are older women portrayed in the media?

Fashion and Age is a research study which explored how fashion for older women was presented in three magazines for older readers – Woman and Home, Saga and Yours.

It also explored how far older age was integrated into fashion magazine Vogue.

The research suggested a number of assumptions were at work i.e.

  • Fashion has traditionally been designed and intended for younger people
  • Fashion is a visual treat – but age disrupts this
  • Magazines consistently present themselves as aiming at audiences who are younger than is actually the case – for instance assuming they are aiming at over 35s but actually bought primarily by over 50s

The way the magazines acted on these assumptions was interesting. For instance:

Older models are never used in Woman and Home (whose readers are over 50’s) or in Yours (whose readers are over 60’s and which avoids the ‘problem’ by featuring the clothes but not the people wearing them) and Saga, which has recently reduced its fashion coverage, only used glamorous looking older models.

Older people mainly tend to feature if they are celebrities who don’t look their age, like Helen Mirren.

Vogue has quite a few older readers, with high disposable income but for many years age was effectively effaced.

Vogue’s strategy in recent years has been to:

  • Publish an ‘ageless style’ issue each July (the month when sales are lowest).
  • Feature older women in ways which minimise the visual effect, for instance through lots of smaller pictures or through inclusion in pictures of a multi generational family or in features on what to wear in your 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s  – now adding your 60’s and 70’s.

So older women are featuring more but in a context where age is largely effaced. This suggests women’s magazines are ambivalent about how to present the type of women who represent many of their readers.

(Professor Julia Twigg, School of Social Policy, University of Kent, Canterbury)

Creative Ageing

Since 2010 the Baring Foundation has provided grants to support Arts and Older People projects, often in care homes.

Many artists (and architects) are in their prime later in life – but on retirement participation in the arts tends to decline rapidly.

However, art is potentially important as we get older, not least for community development. The arts can act as a catalyst for new relationships, helping combat isolation and loneliness in older people.

Later life is also an opportunity to return to art, not least for women who have had other commitments earlier in life and for those pensioners who are reasonably well off financially and now have more time than when they were younger.

The Age of Creativity website is a good source of examples here.

There are also some interesting initiatives, like the Albany in Deptford – which provides an arts alternative to the traditional day centre for older people.

(David Cutler, Baring Foundation, London)

Stories of Creative Ageing

A small scale study suggested significant benefits to engaging in creative activities as people get older.

A good example was a male voice choir. This provided a wide range of practical and emotional support through ‘comradeship’ – developing a strong culture of mutual support rather than dependency.

The collective act of singing also seemed to be a metaphor for community itself.

People identified the health benefits linked to engagement in the arts, although ill health could also be a barrier to participation.

And the doctor said is another interesting project. This uses creative approaches to reflect on health, illness and medication.

(Dr Jackie Reynolds, Staffordshire University)