Dennis A. Olsen
April 21 2021
In light of the rapid ageing of Western societies—characterised by low birth rates and longer life spans—research into the effects of older societies has become increasingly relevant to a number of stakeholders, including politicians, health care providers, and businesses.
Within the last fifty years, the population pyramids of most European countries have seen clear changes in age structure, with Italy and Germany amongst the oldest societies in the world. Looking at the United Kingdom, the median age has risen noticeably over the last two decades, from 37.5 years in 2000 to 40.2 years in 2019. The share of persons aged 65 and over now stands at almost 19% of the UK’s total population, and is projected to grow further over the coming years, showcasing a trend common across almost all industrialised countries. We face a future of greying societies, which given current demographic trends are likely to be predominantly female.
Advertising older adults: ideals and realities
One of my current research projects analyses the portrayal of older adults in British advertising to explore the public perception of ageing and old age in the UK, particularly the interconnection between gender and ageing. Mass media communication is widely recognised ‘as playing an important, perhaps key, role in the policy process, as both purveyors of information and as ciphers for competing ideas.’ The media have the power to shape perceptions and persuade societies to change attitudes of and towards social groups, and their contemporary omnipresence allows ample opportunities for media content to influence individuals and impart ideas and stereotypes—both positive and negative. Advertising often comprises well-crafted short stories, featuring condensed characters within easy-to-follow storylines; and as one of the most readily available forms of media content, plays an important part in the formation of mental images, reflecting society’s prevailing attitudes within its narratives. It is therefore a useful tool for assessing the current public perception of all manner of issues, including how society views old age and gendered ageing.
Having analysed over 6,000 prime-time TV commercials aired in September 2020 for my research, it’s clear that the British public associates being 65 years or older with retirement – particularly in terms of its female population. Promotional narratives never attach older women to a place of work, even when in their 60s. Instead, advertising primarily shows affluent and capable older women enjoying their leisure. This, however, does not reflect real life experiences in the UK, which see many women required to stay in work, even after reaching state retirement age, to avoid living in pension poverty due to insufficient financial and social security. The realities of an ageing, female workforce — faced by most ageing societies and encouraged by current UK government policies — are not echoed in present media discourse.
Nevertheless, these positive images of affluence and capability may offer some resources in terms of providing ideas of fulfilment that do not rely on work as the only source of life’s meaning, or define a person’s worth in terms of economic productivity. Rather than mourning departure from the workforce, life after retirement is seen as a chance to redefine oneself. Older women pro-actively take advantage of the newfound space for autonomously-led personal projects and interests, enjoying their lives either in the company of others or by themselves. We can find prominent examples of this in commercials for the television channel Sky Sports and the holiday destination Parkdean Resorts, where older women find enjoyment in leisure activities, by spending time with a long-time friend at a football game, or their loved one(s) during a picnic in the park.
Current ideas of ageing and life post-retirement are therefore multifaceted, but often have largely positive connotations, challenging ideas surrounding women’s domesticity, or their apparent needs to maintain a young appearance and stave off the ageing process. Compared to previous research, it appears that the British public are harnessing a desire for a reality which allows for fulfilment and enjoyment in one’s autumn years. Listening to women in their 60s and 70s suggests that these might even be ‘the best decades of life’. The challenge is to make this post-work vision an achievable reality for all older people, both women and men—and, indeed, to extend this decoupling of work and value across the whole population, regardless of age.
Dr Dennis Olsen is a Senior Lecturer for Advertising and Branding at the University of West London. His interdisciplinary work is framed by sociological, cultural, and psychological perspectives. Before joining the University of West London, Dennis worked for several years as a strategic planner in Germany and as lecturer in advertising psychology at universities in Germany and Austria. His research interests revolve around ageing societies—particularly the study of stereotypes in the media, DEI campaigns, and shifting consumer behaviours. Dennis has presented his work at numerous national and international conferences, and in his recent paper in Emotions and Loneliness in a Networked Society (2019, Palgrave), he explores loneliness in older age as an activation strategy in narratives of contemporary advertising.