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Grey dawn or the twilight years? Let’s talk about growing old

All hail the ‘silver surfer’. But other terms used to describe older Australians are not so complimentary. Shutterstock

Grey dawn or the twilight years? Let’s talk about growing old

The most recent National Press Club forum on aged care has once again put the spotlight on the “longevity revolution” and attitudes towards Australia’s ageing population.

Australia as a ‘youthful’ society

The word ageism – “prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age” – made its first appearance in 1969 in the Washington Post. So it’s an American invention. But what about the concept it refers to – does the concept of ageism have any Australian roots?

Social history research like that by Graeme Davison suggests a resounding “yes”.

Ageism appeared in the early colonial period, and was fuelled by Australia’s perception of itself as a “young society”. The use of young was doubly justified: it contrasted with old in “the Old Country” (as Britain was commonly referred to), and it also emphasised the high percentage of young people in the population. Nuclear families in early colonial Australia consisted of parents and their children, where the latter often grew up not ever knowing their grandparents.

Characteristics associated with youth – both positive (energy, vigour, optimism), and negative (immaturity, unruliness, disrespect for elders) – became accepted as national traits. By the end of the 19th century, Melbourne-based journalist John Stanley James made note of the ageist tendencies of Australian contemporary society:

Neither privately nor publicly have the Old Folks that consideration shown to them here [in Australia] which is evidenced in Europe and Great Britain.

So how are “the old folks” viewed more than a century after James? We’ve been trawling through Australian newspapers to find out how the media portrays “ageing Australians” today.

A problem that ‘isn’t going away’

It’s common to read about older people being a “burden” on both carers and social services (hence the impending “aged-care crisis”), as well as on the economy as a whole. The National Press Club forum’s title says it all:

The Aged Care Conundrum: Meeting The Care Needs of an Ageing Population Without Blowing the Budget.

And as moderator Katharine Murphy pointed out, “this problem isn’t going away”.

The growing proportion of older people within the total population, described as “grandpa boom” (or “elderly boom”), places intense “pressures” on both individuals and families, and also threatens to “bankrupt” society (in the form of a “social Armageddon” – to quote a yet-more-extreme phrase).

In this scenario, older people are essentially viewed as frail and ill. They’re often abused (hence the term “elder abuse”), and need legal protection in the form of “elder law”.

In this scenario, older people are unable to care for themselves and thus create an “elderly burden” that can be combated by extending the “retirement age” and establishing “granny crèches” (adult daycare centres). This is so that the “sandwich generation” (those stuck between having to care for dependent parents and dependent children) can keep on working.

‘Zuppies’ and ‘zoomers’

It’s a grim scenario contrasting with Australia’s zuppies and zoomers, two recent colloquial expressions for the ageing and active baby boomer. (Zuppy means Zestful Upscale Person in their Prime, while zoomer is anamalgam of boomer and zip, also playing on zoom.)

“Gerontolescence” does away with the image of the frail and dependent “ageing Australian”, and instead depicts the “senior boom” as a “grey revolution”. Older people are seen as a “greying army” or “grey brigade” – a formidable entity who fight for “grey power” (also the name of a political party representing older people’s rights).

The image of active and self-conscious seniors is also implied with the use of expressions like “healthy ageing” and “positive ageing”. These emphasise the individual’s responsibility in “ageing well” – something best achieved by maintaining a “portfolio lifestyle” that is divided among family responsibilities, volunteer work, and personal hobbies and interests.

The “new aged” can opt to live in “over-55s resorts” (the latest euphemism for a “retirement home”) and experience the “golden years” (the years of retirement) as a second chance at life. They are the “grey nomads” who travel around the country in their caravans and the “silver surfers” who are tech-savvy (and might even take up surfing as a hobby).

Cashed-up working boomers

Another scenario in ageing articles focuses on the highly valued skills and expertise of older people, which can be exploited in earnest in the workforce. This is the rise of “grey labour”, which helps diminish the labour-shortage crisis that is hitting Australia.

Within this discourse the elderly are respected for the knowledge they have accumulated over the years, hence the expression “mature-aged worker”. And yet plenty of workplaces are still not “mature age-friendly”, overlooking anyone above 55 years.

Longer employment results in more money that can be spent by “older consumers” (the “not-so-young shoppers” or the “cashed-up baby boomers”). These are the forgotten customers of the “grey market” who have plenty of “grey dollars” to dispose of and have significant influence on investment patterns.

Senior sunset or greying dawn?

What these words and expressions show is that alternative scenarios exist side-by-side in the media about older Australians. They are not necessarily compatible.

After all, somebody described as a “silver surfer” is hardly frail and in need of care. Conversely, the “economic burden” of the ageing population is at odds with the image of a “mature-age workforce”. These expressions are powerful. They can evoke the whole scenario they belong to, backgrounding other alternatives.

Undoubtedly, ageing has biological, social, political and economic aspects, but how we think (and feel) about it also boils down to how we talk about it: is it the start of the twilight years or the beginning of a grey dawn?

Here’s a list of ageing-related expressions, collected from the Australian media from 1987. And if you’ve got ten minutes and are interested in completing a questionnaire on ageing and stereotypes in Australian English, please visit this link.