Elderly lady in a yoga pose

Ageing and society

Attitudes to ageing tend to be negative. Older people tend not to be valued highly, and are more often seen as a burden rather than an asset

Why do we have an obsession with looking younger? Perhaps we don’t like to be reminded of our impending mortality – each age-related decline is a sign that the end of our life is closer. Perhaps a stronger motive is a desire to disguise our decline from others.

It may reflect a more general need to present a healthy face (and body) to potential mates or competitors – an extension of our use of cosmetics when younger.

A by-product of improvements to health

One argument is that negative attitudes emerged relatively recently, in the 18th century. Before then elderly people were so rare they were held in high regard (even at the beginning of the 20th century, only around 5 per cent of the population were over 65).

But as they became more common, employers found elderly people were holding on to jobs that younger, fitter people could do. Rather than being admired for their longevity, older people became a nuisance. This shift was reflected in the appearance of new words (e.g. codger) or shifts in words’ meanings (e.g. ‘fogey’, which originally meant a wounded war veteran).

Other social changes may have had an impact too. In several countries urbanisation may have led to a decline in multigenerational families living together. In such cases elders lose their social roles and are less valued.

It is often suggested that non-Western cultures have retained a greater regard for the elderly. In some African cultures older people are revered because, through oral history, they keep hold of their families’ traditions. Yet negative stereotyping is also common outside the West, and the social changes that drove attitudes in the industrialised world may now be spreading to developing nations.

And negative stereotypes are self-perpetuating. ‘Old codgers’ may be old codgers because they think they ought to be old codgers.

Lead image:

N Durrell McKenna/Wellcome Images CC BY NC ND


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘How We Look’ in June 2008 and reviewed and updated in November 2014.

Statistics and maths, Ecology and environment, Health, infection and disease
How We Look
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development