Veteran consumers

Images of Ageing
November 17, 1995

Older people are only beginning to be a focus of sociological enquiry. Previously they were relegated to the area of social problems along with the poor, disabled and lonely, the concern of academic writers being to highlight these problems and provide recipes for their amelioration. We are in danger of turning full circle and, as in this book, coming to see older people through the images of advertising, as consumers whose primary concerns are to remain fit and active, to ward off the signs of ageing for as long as possible while indulging in overseas travel and investing wisely.

The theme of this collection of essays is that images of ageing are socially constructed. The meanings we give to the biological processes of ageing, and the evaluations we make of people as they grow older, vary between different societies and within the same society over time.

The 1990s are a time of transition, with the dominant image shifting to one of positive or healthy ageing. In postmodern society the body has become a signifier. The appearance of the body now signifies fundamental characteristics of the inner self. Postmodern self-discipline enjoins us to keep the body ageless.

Within contemporary western society old age is often popularly associated with childhood. In this collection Hockey and James explore how images and practices transform older people into metaphorical children. This ideological aspect of the imaging of second childhood uses a range of metaphoric strategies to create distance between the worlds of adulthood and old age - the hegemony of adulthood remains unchallenged. Since childhood embodies dependency and lack of responsibility, but rights of protection, the symbolic power of the image of "the child" is to recast stigmatising dependency as a positively perceived social status, yet it is one which is resisted by older people.

The collection focuses on representations produced by the media and other cultural products, though there is an absence of older people's views about such representations.

The cultural images portrayed, both in this book and in the media, are gendered and classist, focusing primarily on older men and older middle-class couples enjoying a "well-earned retirement together". The reality is that the majority of older people are women, half of whom are widowed. Countless studies show how older women have very limited financial resources, with over half solely dependent on the state pension, which is currently below the means-tested income support level. So the images of older people usually marketed can have little resonance for most of them.

Gender should be pivotal in any research on ageing. Jeff Hearn's chapter hints that ageing may be more problematic for men, because of the connections between the masculine body and strength. Any weakness, dependency and passivity may be seen as feminine. And older men may be more socially redundant than older women, in terms of both paid work and family responsibilities. However, older men such as television presenters and politicians are portrayed as ageless and sexless, whereas women of all ages continue to be evaluated in terms of whether they maintain a sexually desirable image and youthful body.

The uncritical use of the term "the elderly" throughout this book reinforces a conception of older people as a homogeneous group who are separate and different from the rest of society, that is, from adults. Most contemporary writing on later life decries such usage, advocating reference to "older people" rather than "the elderly" to emphasise the continuities and connections between the generations, rather than perpetuating an "us" and "them" image.

This collection gives insights into a wide range of areas, though some are of peripheral relevance, such as the potential use of virtual reality by older people. While providing detailed accounts of cultural representations, we learn little about the realities of everyday life or the concerns and priorities of older women and men themselves.

Sara Arber is professor of sociology, University of Surrey.

Images of Ageing: Cultural Representations of Later Life

Editor - Mike Featherstone and Andrew Wernick
ISBN - 0 415 11258 3 and 11259 1
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £13.99
Pages - 299

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