An invisible and internalized ageism thrives in contemporary society. Although the term ageism has now come to be defined as “the stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination against people on the basis of their age” (WHO, 2020), the classic definition of ageism was coined by Robert Butler in 1969, when he explained the term as: “a process of systematic stereotyping or discrimination against older people because they are old” (p. 35). In this way, ageism allowed younger people to attach negative labels to older adults that enabled them to distance themselves from the older generation. In the process, older people gradually slipped into invisibility, while the younger generation, no longer feeling a kinship to the older generation, ended their identification with them as humans like themselves (Butler, 1975). According to the World Health Organization in 2020: “Ageism is widespread across the globe and in most societies such as Canada’s it “is the most socially ‘normalized’ of any prejudice and is not widely countered – like racism or sexism.” Media has helped to foster ageism through the negative stereotyping of older people, resulting in age discrimination in the workforce, and the marginalization, and even exclusion, of older people in their communities, which in turn “have negative impacts on the health and well-being” of the older population (WHO, 2020). An earlier Canadian survey produced for the International Federation on Aging, The Revera Report on Ageism (2012), reflected the information provided by the World Health Organization 2020-2021. It also found that while any age group can be the recipient of ageism, the two groups most affected by ageism in 2012 were the young and the old, but with the greater proportion of ageism still focused on older adults (Revera Report, 2012).
Various theories have been put forward to explain the ageism that dominates our society which include: 1) a North American fear of death in which older adults representing mortality bring that fear to the surface (Greenberg et al., 2004; Higgs & Gilleard, 2019); 2) the social separation of young and older adults in modern industrialized society (Hagestad & Uhlenberg, 2005, 2006; Cadieux, et al, 2019); 3) anxiety generated from information on demographic changes in population aging (Donizetti, 2019); and 4) stereotypical and negative images and information on aging and older people that are circulated in media and popular culture reinforcing and promoting ageism (Blaikie, 1999; Chivers, 2011; Gullette, 2011).
I am committed to an investigation of the deeply ingrained ageism in Canadian society that has far-reaching negative affects – from individual interactions to long-term care policy. Although the roots and impact of ageism have been examined through many lenses for a number of decades, I believe that the impact of media and popular culture has been largely underestimated and minimized, despite the fact that we live in a world saturated with ideas and images from popular culture and Western media, including film, television, the Internet, magazines and newspapers, as well as social media such as Facebook, Twitter, etc.
The primary goal of my research has been to identify our perceptions of the representations of age and aging circulating in Western media and popular culture (broadly defined). Specifically, the research asked: What image(s) of age and aging are projected by Western media and popular culture? The following specific questions directed my research:
- What are the interpretations old age in contemporary society as typically depicted by media and popular culture (broadly defined)?
- What does old age look like, irrespective of what media and society depict as old age?
- Could (or should) old/older age be portrayed differently in media and popular culture?
The secondary objective of my research was to create a website that while functioning as the dissertation format, would have a primary purpose of being a teaching tool to promote critical thinking that could generate a positive change in attitudes towards aging, with an outcome of helping to reduce ageism in contemporary society. Participant photographs, text, and audio clips from participant interviews have been included on the website along with a discussion and analysis of the selected themes. The website format provides the platform for the information that will enable discussions in community and educational venues with the promise of raising awareness and changing societal perceptions about aging.