SALT LAKE CITY — The facts about older Americans are often at odds with how they are visually portrayed in the media.
Those age 50 and older make up a third of America’s work force, with nearly half of the 110 million employed. They contribute vast sums to the economy: AARP’s Longevity Economy 2016 report said people 50 and older generate $7.6 trillion in annual economic activity — and by 2032 they will be responsible for at least half of America’s gross domestic product.
So for those looking to sell goods and services, older Americans are a robust consumer market.
Yet media portray older adults very differently, more often as patients in medical settings or sitting alone on park benches staring into space than engaged in jobs, using technology or vigorously interacting with people and surroundings. The New York Times this week described America’s post-50 demographic as “shunned and caricatured” instead of embraced as engaged and skillful people with financial resources.
Negative portrayal based on age is ageism. AARP and the World Health Organization are among the organizations decrying ageism as costly and harmful, the wreckage measured in billions of dollars as well as lost joy and productivity. How older people are portrayed affects how people treat them, what they expect of them and how seniors see themselves, with ramifications to their health, quality of life and even affluence.
This week, AARP released a report on ageism and announced a partnership with Getty Images to change the picture — the actual picture. Getty enlisted photographers to shoot older Americans in ways that show what the two organizations call a more accurate view of aging. They’ve amassed 1,400 stock photographs of older adults who work, play and generally live with gusto.
“It’s definitely time for the creative industries to update their mindset about the 50-plus demographic.”
“This stereotype-shattering collection reflects the reality of what aging looks like today. The collection shows the 50-plus in the workplace, traveling, entertaining and living active, healthy lives,” Martha Boudreau, AARP head of marketing and communications, told media. “It’s definitely time for the creative industries to update their mindset about the 50-plus demographic. This age group drives our economy and makes new demands on product development and marketing in virtually every industry sector.”
Some seniors need to update their views, as well.
A poor depiction of older Americans is nothing new. It’s been nearly 20 years since The American Psychological Association called age an “important element of diversity” and adopted an anti-ageism resolution.
The AARP and Getty collaboration began after AARP analyzed more than 1,000 images selected by popular media and product brands to depict older Americans. Often, older adults were left out of the picture entirely. Though they make up nearly half the population in the United States, they were shown in just 15% of photos.
Just 4% of those younger than 50 were presented negatively, compared to 28% of those over 50. Negative images included those evoking isolation or dependence. Older adults were shown alone, with a partner or with a health care provider in 70% of pictures, rather than working or being active and engaged like the under-50 crowd. Those over 50 often looked like they were being cared for by younger, more hale companions, the report said.
Despite the fact that those 50 and older are projected to spend more than $84 billion on technology by 2030, they were shown with technology just 5% of the time. Those images often featured a helpful younger person demonstrating how to use the technology or simply doing it for the older adult.
And though data shows adults 50 and older overall have greater net worth than younger demographics, that wasn’t the message in the images.
Oxford Economics did a state-by-state analysis for AARP in 2017, comparing percentages of people in different age groups with their contribution to state GDPs. While people over 50 make up 35% of the U.S. population, they contribute 43% of the total U.S. GDP. The pattern holds true in the vast majority of states, including Utah, which has a younger population than most. While one-fourth of Utahns are at least 50, that group accounts for 37% of state GDP.
Changing the picture
In 2016, the World Health Organization announced the first stage of its own global anti-ageism campaign and invested a half-million dollars in research on ageism. The global health group will publish the results at the end of this year, looking especially at the health costs, said a New York Times report.
The World Health Organization said ageism can reduce an older person’s social interactions, harm their health and reduce their lifespan. And ageism may become self-directed, with an older person adopting a dim view of aging. Those with negative attitudes about aging recover more slowly when injured or disabled, live an average of 7.5 fewer years than those who embrace aging and are more likely to be isolated and lonely. Yale researchers who reviewed existing studies on ageism for the World Health Organization said older people with a negative view start questioning their abilities. They may stop trying.
“As we get older, we experience ageism from others, but also from ourselves, because of the unconscious internalization of society’s negative attitudes and stereotypes towards older people,” the World Health Organization said. “This helps to explain why older people often try to stay young, feel shame about getting older and limit what they think they can do, instead of taking pride in the accomplishment of aging.”
The review of studies showed those with positive views of aging are more likely to take care of themselves by eating well and exercising. They are less prone to depression or anxiety than people with a negative view.
Negative thinking can have devastating results, Dr. Becca Levy, a social psychologist who led the review, told the Times. “With negative stereotypes, older people have a higher risk of dementia. They have greater accumulations of plaques and tangles in the brain, the biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease.”
Levy’s own ageism research in The Gerontologist in 2018 set the one-year cost of ageism at $63 billion, or $1 of every $7 spent on eight of the most expensive health conditions Americans 60 and older often get. That research said ageism led to more than 17 million cases of those conditions, including cardiovascular disease, chronic lung problems, musculoskeletal disease, diabetes and injuries, among others.
A lived experience
As ageism contributes to ill health, it also creates barriers to good health policy. Ageist attitudes shape the framing of problems, then shape or discourage solutions. The World Health Organization said age is used to justify unequal treatment that limits an older person’s opportunities.
Older workers feel the impact. In an AARP survey last year, 61% of older workers said they had seen or experienced age discrimination at work. Three-fourths of those surveyed who were unemployed said they’d encountered age discrimination. Bias in employment hit women more often than men.
Ageism is being battled on multiple fronts and some 700 companies have now joined AARP’s Employer Pledge Program. Participants promise to recruit employees from all age groups and consider applicants equally, without bias.
A large part of overcoming ageism involves changing the mental picture that people have of older adults. Rebecca Swift, who heads creative insights at Getty Images, told Fast Company that great care was taken to include a range of subject matter, as well as ages of those being photographed, including people clear into their 90s and 100s.
“We then made sure we covered leisure, business, family, education and travel,” she said. “But we also took steps to ensure that we pulled out images that are all at once less expected and more active.”
The collection of images is brand new, even if efforts to combat ageism aren’t. If it works, we can all expect to see images of older Americans engaged in a broader and perhaps brighter range of activities. That will be, according to AARP, a more complete vision of what it means to grow older in America.