Ageing and representation

Simone Bacchini (The British Library, London, UK)
Gillian Crosby (Centre for Policy on Ageing, London, United Kingdom)

Working with Older People

ISSN: 1366-3666

Article publication date: 9 March 2015



Bacchini, S. and Crosby, G. (2015), "Ageing and representation", Working with Older People, Vol. 19 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Ageing and representation

Article Type: Guest editorial From: Working with Older People, Volume 19, Issue 1

It is one of the paradoxes of our time that on the one hand we hail the advances that will allow many among us to live longer lives while, on the other, we increasingly frame an ageing population as at best a challenge and, at worst, as an impending catastrophe. Hardly a week goes by without an ageing-related story making the news; often it is not good news. A search with Google N-gram – which charts the occurrences of words among a corpus of over 5.2 million books digitised up to 2012 – shows a clear upward spike in the use of the term “ageing” since the 1970s. Confirmation that we talk (and write) an awful lot about it.

It was against this background of a clearly increased (and increasing) interest and ambivalence towards the subject that, within the department of social sciences of the British Library, we decided to prioritise ageing as topic. We were particularly interested in the ways in which ageing was portrayed. Not only by news outlets but also by the entertainment industry, as well as in political and public discourses.

“Portraying Ageing: Cultural Assumptions and Practical Implications” was a one-day conference that took place at the Library on 28 April 2014. The event was co-organised by the British Library, the Centre for Policy on Ageing, and by the School of Languages, Linguistics, and Film at Queen Mary, University of London. Open to the general public, it aimed to bring together people working in different fields and institutions, such as academia, thinkthanks, and – crucially – the general public, to discuss and give examples of the ways in which ageing is (and isn’t!) portrayed in modern-day Britain and the practical implications, as well as the assumptions, that this has on us as individuals and as a society.

Speaking, as the French scholar and feminist Luce Irigaray wrote, is never neuter; the way we talk and write about something is always value-laden and never consequence-free. Change often begins by becoming aware of the many ways in which we portray phenomena, and of their consequences. It is not coincidental that so many “liberation movements” (civil rights, feminism and, more recently, LGBT lib.), devoted so much attention to language. Of course, communication is not only verbal. Images are powerful tools in the communication, perpetuation and, crucially, the challenging of ideas. This is true not only in the figurative arts but also in the more mundane iconography about older people that we see, for example, in road signage. You too may have been puzzled by, or heard objections to, the “elderly crossing road” triangle, which depicts an older couple, man leading woman, both hunched, in an attempt to warn incoming vehicles of these potential “dangers”. Campaigns by Age Concern and Help the Aged charities (now merged into Age UK) are reported to have failed to get the sign design changed in 2008, after they argued that it does not accurately depict the varying physical capabilities of older people. More recently, pensions campaigner Dr Ros Altmann called for the sign to be banned from use after being displayed on British roads for 33 years, arguing that it perpetuates a “damaging stereotype” that deters employers from recruiting jobseekers over the age of 50.

There is, of course, another side to the issue of how ageing is portrayed and this is how older people portray themselves. Portrayal by those ageing is just as important in the larger picture as portrayal of those ageing. Too often older people are talked about, even talked over, and thus effectively silenced. Once again, parallels with other empowering movements can be drawn. “Nothing about me without me” has become a slogan of disability rights campaigners. Old age, of course, is not a disability (although impairment, single or multiple, can be part of it) but the demand to be heard, to be part – as much as possible – of the decision-making process that affects one's life, such as the decisions that, at various levels, have the potential to benefit or disempower older people, is vital too. From the care home employee to the social worker and up to the higher echelons of government, the competing discourses on ageing perpetrate, as well as embody, certain cultural assumptions that do have, it is worth repeating, practical implications. We are not claiming that these implications have not been addressed before and are not being addressed elsewhere. However, one thing that we do claim is that it is important that various perspectives and insights, each drawing upon different experiences, diverse professional and academic backgrounds, are brought together and their relevance is discussed. Theory and practice can and should influence each other but there should be more mutual exchange, and this is what the conference was about. In our target-driven society, where “impact” appears to be the main driver behind every policy decision, we strongly believe that the linguist and the art historian, the policy researcher and the social worker (just to name a few actors) can and should learn from each other and influence each other's work.

We were heartened by the response to the conference, and especially by the many so-called ordinary members of the public who came. The debates that followed each talk, sometimes moving, sometimes passionate, never dull, were proof to the organisers that this road is certainly worth going down.

For this themed issue of Working with Older People, five of the original conference speakers and a contributor, Sheila Gewolb, who was not part of the original line-up, have prepared revised versions of their talks.

Professor Lynne Segal, the conference keynote speaker, writes passionately and movingly about the “pleasures and perils of ageing”, a theme also explored in her latest book (Segal, 2013). Dr Hanna Zeilig sheds light on a condition that is very often talked about, but perhaps not that well understood: dementia. Angus Hanton, an economist and entrepreneur from the Intergenerational Foundation, discusses the controversial issue of the cost of an ageing population. Sheila Gewold, a linguist and PhD candidate, uses original data to illustrate how older workers and retirees talking about ageing. Dr Jackie Reynolds's article on “creative ageing” offers yet another perspective on one of the benefits of ageing: creativity. Another aspect of the “cost” (and benefits!) of an ageing population is taken up by Dr Debbie Price, who problematises the financial capability in later life agendas.

We do hope that you will enjoy this themed issue of the journal and hope you too will be part of the conversation. Ageing is too important a topic to be left only to others. Plus, it happens to us all.

Simone Bacchini

Social Sciences Curator, based at the British Library, London, UK

Gillian Crosby

Centre for Policy on Ageing, London, UK


Segal, L. (2013), Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing, Verso, London

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