This trend is also noticeable in a wide range of newspapers and magazines, while books designed to inspire people to view their “third act” as an opportunity to finally realise themselves have become instant bestsellers. Social media sites such as Twitter and Instagram have participated in this celebration of older people too, where many have transformed into social media stars, attracting thousands of followers to their dynamic and upbeat profiles. Across these media, ageing people are presented as happy, resilient self-starters.
The reality for many
This is clearly informed by the widespread understanding that they constitute potential consumers, often with considerable buying power. However, this positive representation cannot be understood simply as a reflection of commercial interests.
It is also aims to conceal the impact of neoliberal policies – which have eviscerated the social safety net through deregulation, privatisation and regressive taxes – on the vast majority of older people. As the ageing population has grown in size, the responsibility for health and wellbeing has been deflected from the state on to individuals through austerity measures and the erosion of social welfare.
Ageing people’s “third age” is presented in popular culture as a time to reinvent themselves, and as a phase of new opportunities. By depicting older people as self-reliant, popular culture encourages them to focus on their self-care and to constantly enhance their individual qualities, whether these qualities are aesthetic, emotional or professional.
In short, as market logic has led to reduced state investment in welfare infrastructure and the care economy, we have witnessed a cultural response that encourages ageing people to assume responsibility for their own health and happiness. This is a position that might be tenable for the more affluent, but it is unfeasible for the vast majority of elderly people.
It is precisely in this context that we need to understand the representation of older people in a time of COVID-19. The warnings delivered to the elderly since the coronavirus outbreak expose our culture’s ambivalence and profound denial of ageing. It also highlights the government’s refusal to acknowledge frailty since such an acknowledgement would mean admitting that years of slashing programmes designed to safeguard the elderly have amounted to an abdication of its responsibility.