We Will Be Different! Ageism and the Temporal Construction of Old Age

Håkan Jönson; PhD


Gerontologist. 2013;53(2):198-204. 

In This Article

The Dubious Trump Card of Antiageism

It is easy to understand why gerontologists, popular writers on aging, and organizations such as the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) have participated in the temporal construction of old age and older people. From a narrative perspective, such agents have gained legitimacy from "telling the truth" about older people to a society that is characterized by hostility and misconceptions (Green, 1993).

Seventy years ago, Gumpert (1944:vi) claimed that older people "look quite different" from older people a generation before, and "they will look younger and healthier still a generation from now." The problem, Gumpert stated in 1944, is that society is slow to react to change. It fails to abandon superstitions and traditions that no longer correspond to reality. Gumperts' book was quickly translated into several languages; in a review 1947 the magazine of the leading Swedish pensioners' organization saluted his description of a "new" old age and expressed concerns about the effect of lagging images (People's Pensioner, 1947). The problem described by Gumpert has later been referred to as a "cultural lag" or a "hangover from a previous era when such negative views of elders were more realistic" (Palmore, 1990:86). According to Calhoun (1978), the problem of lagging images was generally recognized among gerontologists during the 1950s. The revelation of the cultural lag has become a trump card within antiageism for the simple reason that it points to a credible cause and a positive solution to the problem: a misunderstanding that can be corrected with factual information. The health, mental abilities, financial security, social activity, and life satisfaction of older people has increased, but "most people have not heard the good news" (Palmore, 1990:86). The struggle to update images of old age has appeared in many arenas of society (Calhoun, 1978; SOU, 2003:91).

Critical gerontologists such as Cohen (1988) and Minkler (1990) have noted that positive images of old age as a period of independence and self-fulfillment may free the healthy majority of older people from the stigma of frailty, but at the cost of an increased stigma surrounding those who are truly dependent. The temporal construction of old age and older people has a similar capacity of creating dual images. In one version, present and future are brought together in categories such as "the new old," and society is urged to adjust and prepare by immediately introducing improvements. Older people of the past are cast as the true out-group, as people who were indeed frail, dependent, passive, humbled, and were part of a past society. Such claims have probably improved images of older people, making "them" more like "us."

In another version, older people of the present become representatives of a kind of a problematic "old age as it has been so far;" a population used as a negative reference group for the coming new old. A Swedish government investigation on old age policies (SOU, 2003:91) uses the present (2003) situation to pose questions about the aging baby boomer generation: "Will they adopt the "pensioner's role" that has been shaped, or will they rather just have a pension and live their lives in opposition to expectations on how one should act after retirement? And is society ready to meet their new demands and initiatives?" Images of baby boomers as demanding are not entirely positive (Hudson & Gonyea, 2012). Still, it could be argued that questions like these attribute problem status to pensioners and care users of the past/present, associating them with a restricting role and a lack of capacity to take initiatives.