Time for society to see old people in a new light

December 10, 1999

An ageing population is cause for celebration and should not be equated with helplessness, argues Brian Groombridge

In the past few months the business press has agonised about the brain drain of older executives from the workplace, and the education press in both the United States and the United Kingdom has drawn attention to "the greying professoriate".

There is likely to be rather more than less of this discourse in 2000. Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, himself in his sixties, started 1999 by treating the ageing of the world's population as a cause for celebration.

Opening a global videoconference on the UN's International Year of Older Persons (slogan: Towards a Society for All Ages), he connected three "social revolutions" - the demographic revolution; globalisation; and technological advances in communications.

It was Julia Tavares Alvarez, the Dominican Republic's ambassador to the UN, who persuaded the organisation to nominate 1999 the IYOP, symbolising, she hoped, the end of an era, shedding old ideas and exploring new ones. It has become normal, not exceptional, for people to live into old age - an achievement to be celebrated.

Increases in life expectancy will lead more people to expect more from life, but real problems arise because our institutions and attitudes were formed under completely different demographic circumstances. We have to study and plan now to avoid damaging competition for resources between the generations.

The UN looks to the academic world, as well as to governments and civil society, to make its (largely interdisciplinary) contribution to the processes of adaptation to population change. Ms Alvarez, like anyone who looks at the figures and the projections, sees that the majority of older people are and will be women, most of them living in developing countries, more than half of them among the world's poor.

She comes close to academic concerns when she says: "Definitions have the power to determine reality. Too often in definition is defeat."

The popular media-led equation of "older people" with "elderly in need" makes it difficult, she says, "to speak about older people in terms of their contributions, social roles, and place in the economy... fantasised as outsiders who need to be acted upon for their own good by a benevolent society that deigns to help them". A recent three-day international symposium at the UN on the impact of globalisation on the images of older women, addressed these specific concerns. Women academics worked with media specialists and practitioners (men and women) mainly from the States and Europe, including the BBC's Nigel Kaye.

Research for the BBC and Age Concern by Guy Cumberbatch shows that older people, especially women, are seriously under-represented on British television and there is comparable data for the US.

Further research (involving older readers themselves) suggests that in Britain, the issues facing an ageing society are being aired in the press, but that older people are routinely depicted as victims.

Research by Anne Becker into the effects of television images of younger women (mainly through American programmes) on Fijian schoolgirls found that although introduced only in 1995, television had already begun to undercut and displace older women as role models.

The problem is not simply one of image: there is a problem with reality as well. Retirement is for many a form of exclusion. According to Alan Walker of the University of Sheffield, examining "the new politics of old age", over half the electorate in nine European Union countries (including Britain) will be over 50 by 2020 - yet "the majority of older people in Europe remain powerless politically".

Universities themselves must help by setting an example in relation to staff and students. Do present retirement policies make good academic sense? Do efforts to "widen participation" welcome older students effectively? At present, only exceptionally: one in five Open University students is over 50. The University of Strathclyde senior studies institute encourages older learners to move to mainstream courses, undertake research and become more employable. Learning to Grow Older and Bolder (National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, 1998) provides alternative models through which older students can be recruited for serious study.

We may need to heed Ms Alvarez: "There is a risk that any time you set aside a day or year for some group, they will be set aside once it's over. If all we do is rest on our laurels we will just end up with crushed laurels."

Brian Groombridge, professor emeritus of adult education at the University of London, has compiled Older Generations in Print, a report for IYOP (UK).

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