When it comes to age, we’re getting it all wrong. Starting, it seems, from the very words we use.
The Centre of Ageing Better carried out a report into the language used across society when it comes to discussing age and older people – and uncovered how much of this is cloaked in negativity. All too often, according to its findings, language relates to declining or ill health, with older members of society seen as frail and in need of help.
Anna Dixon, Chief Executive at the Centre for Ageing Better, said: “Open a newspaper on any day of the week and you’re likely to find articles which refer to the ‘crisis’ of an ageing population, ‘selfish’ boomers, or the ‘burden’ of older people on the NHS.
“Our new research highlights how pernicious these negative views of old age can be, with later life talked about most often in terms of decline, dependency, and vulnerability across a range of sectors and representations of age in public life that are drawn from outdated assumptions and negative stereotypes.
She added: “We’re all living many years longer than our parents or grandparents, so it’s vital that we find new ways of talking about ageing. Politicians and those working in the media have a huge amount of power to shape the way we discuss these issues, and a responsibility to represent the reality and diversity of later life.”
The truth is that the UK is an ageing society – and that we shouldn’t always see this as a bad thing. In 60 local areas in the UK, the average age of people is over 50 – and by 2041 a quarter of the population will be over 65. If we talk negatively about age, we risk driving divisions and denigrating a large proportion of the population.
Not only that, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that things aren’t all bad for the over 50s. Far from it in fact.
In The Happiness Curve, writer Jonathan Rauch explores how happiness is a ‘U-shaped’ – with optimism and positivity in our 20s and 30s dipping to lull in our 40s. Then, from 50, life satisfaction picks back up. There are many theories for this – but it appears as though with time and experience on our side we feel less stress and regret, are on top of our emotions, and are less pressured into needing status or recognition.
Rauch believes that presents a great opportunity too – with people over 50 having the right mindset and skills to make a big difference. He told The Guardian: “There’s a huge amount of untapped wisdom and potential to be unlocked. Because of the happiness curve, they’re often in a position where they want to give back. They want to be mentors, they want to be volunteers and they want to work at not so difficult jobs which allow them to use their skills.”
In fact, there are plenty of people launching exciting second careers in their 50s – channeling this potential.
Trafalgar noted how 82% of people in one American study had made a successful career transition post-45. It quoted South Australian Kathy Elliot – a travel agent who began a custom caravans business in her mid-60s. She summed the post-50 entrepreneurial sprit up nicely, explaining that people of this age: “Are likely to have gained vast experience throughout their working careers. They have dedicated their work-life to serving the dreams of others and see the time for a change.
“They see an opportunity to realize their own dreams and a means of keeping their minds healthy, creating new partnerships and social interactions. For some, it is the fear of being bored. People feel a sense of purpose when they start a new career that is on their terms.”
This contentment in life and can-do work ethic completely goes against the language outlined above. The positivity manifests itself in many other ways too. People over 50 are often settled and play a positive role in their community, for example.
During this year’s lockdown, over 50s were twice as likely to have done a favour for a neighbour than under 20s – according to a Legal & General study.
None of this is to criticise younger people. It’s simply to show that wise, experienced, skilful, positive, proactive, and content over the 50s can contribute a lot to society. It’s these words we should hear a little more if we’re to understand that properly.