David Ray Papke, Ageism In American Culture

Ageism in American Culture

David Ray Papke*


Ever since their discipline took shape over a century ago, cultural anthropologists have delighted in reminding us how different the world’s cultures are from one another.  This variability is superbly illustrated by different cultures’ perceptions and understandings of age.  While people biologically age regardless of their cultures, cultures treat older people differently and accord them different degrees of respect.  These differences derive less from societal affluence, distribution of wealth, and legal systems than they do from a culture’s values and stereotypes.[1] Asian cultures, for example, tend to revere older people, and in some Asian cultures ancestors are literally worshipped.[2]  Chinese culture, in particular, venerates the elderly and recognizes an obligation to care for elderly parents.[3]

One study has explored the pronounced role elders play in the advertising of Chinese consumer goods.  According to Fei Xue, the ads acknowledge the wisdom of the elderly and portray them being “asked for advice, opinions, and recommendations . . . .”[4]  Even though the consumer economy is growing rapidly, Fei adds, “veneration of elderly people remains a typical feature of Chinese culture and a common theme in Chinese advertisements.”[5]

In the United States, by contrast, beliefs in autonomy, hard work, and success are deeply ingrained, and mainstream Americans tend to define personal worth in terms of financial achievement and control over one’s actions and space.[6]  Not surprisingly, Americans routinely cast older people as cute and inconsequential or – even worse – as bothersome and burdensome.  This understanding is integral in the culture.  In contrast to Chinese advertising, advertising in the United States rarely includes sage advice from a wise senior consumer but rather features younger consumers enjoying their purchases immensely or, at least, boasting that they saved money making those purchase.[7]  In obvious ways, “Advertising has its foundation in culture.”[8]

Ageism can be observed and decoded in many parts of American life, but three particularly revealing parts are pop culture, consumer goods, and informal, daily conversations or exchanges.  While daily conversations or exchanges are mainstays in all cultures, pop culture and consumer goods perhaps play larger roles in the United States than they do anywhere else in the world.  Then, too, these three mentioned parts of American life inevitably overlap and intertwine, reinforcing one another in the process.  Along with assorted laws, forces, and institutions, American pop culture, consumer goods, and daily conversations or exchanges symbolically and literally promote ageism.

As for pop culture, it might be thought of as the goods and experiences produced by the culture industry for mass audiences.  Pop culture in this sense is not merely popular, as jogging or cooking are, for example.  Instead, the various branches of the culture industry shape and market goods and activities as entertaining and sometimes educational.  Ageism disturbingly rears its head in these goods and activities.

In music and mass sports, for example, older characters rarely appear.  To be sure, some of rock ‘n roll’s biggest names continue to perform in their sixties and even seventies, but rock ‘n roll music itself rarely features older figures or concerns the activities of older people.  Venerable rockers such the Motor City’s Bob Seger or a surprisingly sentimental Neal Young might reflect back on the friends and events of their youths,[9] but boisterous tributes to and for the young such as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or Good Charlotte’s “The Anthem” greatly outnumber any senior reminiscences.[10]  Almost all rock ‘n roll songs are about younger people.

Mass sports, meanwhile, are decidedly a young man’s game.  The oldest figures in professional baseball, basketball, football, and hockey are coaches on the sidelines, and more and more of them are not that old.  The “Champions Tour” exists for golfers over 50, but the Tour’s tournament winners take away only one-fifth to one-sixth as much as winners on the regular Professional Golfers’ Association Tour.  The senior professional basketball league has earned the support of retired National Basketball stars Allen Iverson, age 42, and Kenyon Martin, age 40, and it has an ambitious schedule.  Yet the league’s organizers do not want to sponsor an athletic “oldies” show.  In order to play in a league for “older” players, one has to be a whopping 30.[11]

Problems also exist in film and television when it comes to roles for older actors.  In Hollywood movies, such roles are not unknown, and the film industry has in fact produced a string of what might be considered “senior buddy movies,” including but not limited to “Cocoon” (1985), “Grumpy Old Men” (1993), “Secondhand Lions” (2003), and “The Bucket List” (2007). Yet research at the University of Southern California found that only 11 of the 100 top-grossing films of 2015 had speaking parts for actors age 60 or older.[12]  What’s more, the portrayal of older characters is subtly ageist; most are quirky, vexatious, and – worst of all – terminal.  One study found that in recent Hollywood films with leading or supporting characters who were 60 or older, over 40 percent had ageist comments in them.[13]

Roles for older women are in the shortest supply.  Female actors sometimes complain about the “silver ceiling,” and some try desperately to improve their looks and increase their sexiness in order to be cast as women younger than they really are.[14]  One study from the beginning of the twenty-first century found 70 percent of the television roles for older actors were for men.[15]  Actress Kim Cattral, who played Samantha Jones in the HBO series “Sex and the City,” has been the most outspoken critic of sexist ageism on the small screen.[16]

Pop music, sports, film, and television are of course available for purchase in various forms and from countless sellers, but these commodities are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to consumer goods.  It seems sometimes that just about everything is for sale in the consumer sector of America’s market economy, and sophisticated advertising touts the virtues of countless consumer goods.  Some consumers sadly become so attracted to one consumer good or another that they develop unseemly and unhealthy fetishes regarding them.

Some consumer goods marketed to older people seem age-appropriate, and they include not only stair-masters and smart-medicine devices but also robotic companions and assorted virtual reality apps.[17]  Self-driving cars have attracted noteworthy attention among older Americans, and nursing homes and assisted-living facilities have become testing sites for a wide range of consumer goods.[18]  However, certain other goods marketed to and for senior consumers are insulting or, at minimum, problematic.  “Over the Hill” greeting cards or “Coffin Gift Boxes” containing prunes and anti-aging creams are funny at first glance but perhaps less so when reconsidered.  Furthermore, goods and services such as Viagra and Cialis; assorted creams and cosmetics; and Botox and cosmetic surgery rest on the assumption that old and aging consumers are to some extent unappealing, flawed, and deficient.

Most consumer goods and services, meanwhile, are designed and marketed for the young.  To be sure, it makes sense to market fitness programs and athletic equipment primarily to the young, but, even for goods and services used equally by people of all ages, advertisers direct their marketing pitches to the young.  Ten percent of marketing dollars target people age 50 or older, but one-third of the population is over 50.[19]  In addition, older people on average have more disposable income than younger people, and older people would presumably be willing to buy more goods and services and also pay more for the goods and services they purchase.[20]  Is there a logic driving all of this other than the obvious ageism?

Americans frequently refer to pop culture and consumer goods in their informal, daily conversations or exchanges, but the subject matter in these conversations or exchanges of course ranges far and wide.  The conversations or exchanges might include memories and histories, but most conversations or exchanges are unreflective and take place largely in the moment.  This is not to say, meanwhile, that the conversations or exchanges are random or arbitrary.  Informal, daily conversations or exchanges are repetitive and patterned.  Unfortunately, they can be and often are ageist.

Some of the ageist pitter-patter is a matter of language itself.  All languages include multiple terms for selected people and practices that are in some way awkward or troublesome.  A good number of the ageist terms for older individuals are something other than respectful:  “biddy,” “codger,” “coot,” “curmudgeon,” “geezer,” and the surprisingly common “old fart.”[21]     The terms grow out of and blend into negative attitudes about the elderly, and use of the terms is sometimes decidedly ageist.

Indeed, use of the terms and other unflattering references to a person’s age might amount to micro-aggression.  Older women will be familiar with the scene in which a clerk or salesperson coyly winks and reminds them not to admit their age and embrace senior rates and discounts.  Comparably lighthearted but problematic is the way waiters, barbers, and others like to ask a senior customer, “What can I do for you young man?” And do not forget the common characterization of somebody as “70 years young” or the cordial assurances that an older person actually looks so much younger than he or she really is.  For the senior citizen, everyday conversations or exchanges are full of prickly ageist moments.

Formal jokes are more shaped than most daily conversations or exchanges, but jokes as well can harbor and support ageism.  Gerontology researcher Erdman B. Palmore has collected some jokes that illustrate the point.[22]  Have you heard about the old man who was disappointed after he dropped to one knee, proposed to a younger woman, and was turned down.  “Well,” he said, “if you don’t want to marry me, the least you can do is help me up.”  Or perhaps you know the senior citizen who stared lustfully at a pretty woman as she walked past.  His wife witnessed the incident and remarked, “George has a wonderful memory for his age.”[23] Jokes in general have a serious side to them.  They make fun of something or somebody, if only to ease the tension about the subject.  Ageist jokes make fun of older men and women.

The portrayals of and comments on older people in pop culture, consumer goods, and informal, daily conversations or exchanges are not crimes under the criminal statutes, and they do not rise – or sink – to the level of illegal discrimination.  “Coffin gift boxes” and ageist jokes about failing memories or declining sexual prowess do not provide causes of action.  However, ageist portrayals do grow out of, reinforce, and extend a culture’s negative stereotypes, and the stereotypes are not only harmful but also inaccurate regarding many of the people the stereotypes purport to reference.  Contemporary American culture, alas, is one of the most ageist cultures in the world.


* David Ray Papke is a Professor of Law at Marquette University, where he teaches a range of humanities courses and seminars concerning law.  Containment and Condemnation: Law and the Oppression of the Urban Poor, his next book, will appear from Michigan State University Press in December, 2018.

Copyright © David Ray Papke

[1] See Corrina E. Lockenhoff, et al., Perceptions of Aging across 26 Cultures and their Culture-Level Associates, 24 Psychol. Aging 941,     (2009).    

[2] See Samuel Issacharoff & Erica Worth Harris, Is Age Discrimination Really Age Discrimination?72 N.Y.U. L. Rev.  780, 780 (1997).

[3] Pan Zhondang, et al., To See Ourselves:  Comparing Traditional Chinese and American Cultural Values 216 (1994).

[4] Fei Xue, Advertising Communication Styles in Eastern Asia, in Advertising in Developing and Emerging Countries:  The Economic, Political, and Social Context (.ed. Emmauel C. Alozie) 159 (2011).

[5] Id.

[6] See Mayumi Karasawa, et al., Cultural Perspectives on Aging and Well-Being:  A Comparison of Japan and the United States, 73 Int’L. J. Aging and Human Development 73, 76 (2011).

[7] See Xue, supra note 16, at 160.   

[8] Emmanuel U. Onyedike, Is There a Common Thread in Advertising?, 315.

[9] See (or listen to?), Bob Seger, All of the Roads, on Ride Out (Capital Records 2014); Neil Young, It’s a Dream, on Prairie Wind (Reprise Records 2005).

[10] See (or listen to?), Nirvana, Smells Like Teen Spirit, on Nevermind (DGC Records 1991); Good Charlotte, The Anthem, on The Young and the Hopeless (Epic 2002).

[11] See Victor Mather, For Ex-Pros, Another Shot (From the 3- or 4-Point Line, N.Y. Times, Jan. 12, 2017, at B12.

[12] See Cara Buckley, Of Studios, Myths and Big-Screen Money, N.Y. Times, May 7, 2017, AR 41.

[13] See Ina Jaffe, In a Film Industry Focused on Youth, Older Characters Are Tough to Find, NPR Now, http://www.npr.org/2017/02/21/516477709/in-a-film-industry-focused-on-youth-older-characters-are-tough-to-finf (last visited Mar. 10, 2017).

[14] See Sally Chivers, Baby Jane Grew Up:  The Dramatic Intersection of Age with Disability, 36 Can. Rev. Am. Stds. 211 (2006).

[15] See Paul Kleyman, Images of Aging, in Encyclopedia of Aging 679-85 (David J. Ekerdt, ed., 2002).

[16] See Karensa Cadenas & Melissa Silverstein, Women, Aging and Hollywood, Indie Wire, http://www.indiewire.com/2013/06/women-aging-and-hollywood-209133/ (last visited Feb. 28, 2017).

[17] Constance Gustke, Seniors Welcome New Battery-Powered Friends, N.Y. Times, Jan. 22, 2017, at BU 5.

[18] Id.

[19] See Ageism in America Becomes Hot Topic, NBC News, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/5868712/ns/health-aging/t/ageism-in-america.  (last visited 12-27-2016)  

[20] See 5 Examples of Everyday Ageism, I Grow, http:igrow.org/healthy-families/aging/5-examples-of-everyday ageism. (last visited 12/14/2016).

[21] For a lengthier list of terms, see Howard Eglit, Elders on Trial:  Age and Ageism in the American Legal System 10 (2004)..

[22] See Erdman B. Palmore, Attitudes Toward Aging as Shown by Humor, 12 Gerontologist 181 (1971).

[23] See id.