Ageing Society: Are We Losing Interest?

Our demographic time bomb is no longer a ‘new’ issue. As such, it falls prey to the issue-attention cycle. This concept, coined by Anthony Downs in the 1970s, describes how societal problems “leap into prominence, remain there for a short time, and then – though still largely unresolved – gradually fade from the centre of public attention.”

In the past ten years, the challenge posed by our ageing society has stopped being a low-key issue concerning a few experts and become a global phenomenon preoccupying politicians, journalists and change-makers the world over. Nearly 25% of the UK will be 65+ by 2039, with nonagenarians making up the fastest growing segment of the population. An astonishing one-in-three people born in 2015 will suffer from dementia. Getting old is all the rage, it appears.

The thing is, that while solutions remain elusive, our demographic time bomb is no longer a ‘new’ issue. As such, it falls prey to the issue-attention cycle. This concept, coined by Anthony Downs in the 1970s, describes how societal problems “leap into prominence, remain there for a short time, and then – though still largely unresolved – gradually fade from the centre of public attention.”

In 2007, UK news articles on our ageing society numbered 176. A journalist told us that, back then, these ‘depressing’ stories would end up on the editor’s spike. By 2012 this figure had exploded to 1,260, and it continued to grow by an average of 55% every year until 2015. Then, in 2016, we saw a dramatic deceleration. Though the absolute volume of news articles remained high at 5,040, we saw growth of only 9% on the previous year. For us, it begs the question: is the issue beginning to recede? (Click on image below to enlarge.)


Media coverage can be a crude measurement and the mere volume of stories shouldn’t be used as a proxy for public interest in or opinion about a topic. But the press is a potent force that both reflects and shapes public perception, and in this early pattern we could be seeing a trend in line with Downs’ issue attention cycle.

A closer look at the nature of news stories over this time period reveals an interesting evolution in our understanding and treatment of the issue. We realised the immense pressures of an ageing population (2012), recognised the urgent need to act (2013), and followed up with a flowering of responses designed to address the challenges (2014 and 2015).

But notice how sentiment (judged by prominent keywords) has changed alongside these stages. At first, the challenge is unsustainable, overwhelming. Then it becomes a challenge we must prepare for. Thereafter positive opportunities begin to emerge, before bleaker horizons creep back in and the problem becomes unsustainable once again.

Zoom in on 2016, however, and some positive wording re-emerges. Society must change and adapt to better understand and benefit from healthy ageing. We saw older fashion models grace the catwalks. The rise of Mary Berry and her ilk. And initiatives such as Financial Times columnist, Lucy Kellaway’s Now Teach. Instead of immobility, isolation, mortality, we heard about experience, opportunity, and freedom.

So, how can we communicators continue to generate interest in an issue that’s been in the public consciousness for some time? How can we capitalise on a change in sentiment towards older people and ageing? And how can we communicate with this vast swathe of the population more successfully? We recently brought together a group of interested people to reflect on and respond to this challenge. Here’s what they said:

Existing evidence can help debunk age stereotypes. Stereotypes of older people persist despite the fact that people are now living longer, healthier and more productive lives. Conversations need to keep society abreast of the new reality of ageing, remove stigma and prepare people for longer, fuller later lives. Help audiences to resist automatic ageism by highlighting how our moods, relationships and overall sense of well-being actually can improve with age, as can wisdom and certain types of intelligence.

Ageing looks very different now compared to a generation ago. According to the Social Mobility Commission, 31% of families have nothing left to put in the bank when the month is over, while 4% save less than £10. As we divide into a nation of haves and have nots, the culture of saving is being abandoned and future generations of retirees are expecting to work until they drop. Whether you’re in the public, private or third sector, we all have a part to play in addressing the impacts of lower economic growth and higher debt: start conversations with your customers about preparing for older age, sooner.

Older people are not a homogenous grey market. Just as we should stop using the blanket term ‘millennials’ to cover a vast range of nuanced individuals, we need to start thinking about the many and varied tribes of older people. The 50+ bracket that often appears in research is an over simplification. It’s also an insult to millions of “pensioners” who make an active contribution to the economy and society. Evaluate how you categorise and talk to your older customers and inject more nuance into your communications.

The people you’re talking to are continually changing. Older people are becoming more diverse in terms of race, culture, identity and socio-economic background. We need fewer depictions of grannies on motorbikes and more real-life images that describe their varied motivations.

Older tropes are no longer relevant. The current war-time generation will soon give way to a “new old” who have lived through the digital revolution. You may be communicating with your older customers through traditional channels at the moment, but it won’t be long before that will have to change.

We may instinctively feel that bad news dominates the headlines. True, disaster is more compelling than incremental improvement. It also makes for simpler stories. But doom and gloom about ageing is overdone, particularly as we recognise a more positive swing in mood. Organisations need to drastically update how they engage older generations on a one-to-one basis and re-frame how they project themselves in the wider world – or risk side-lining an issue that’s critical to society and alienating an increasingly important demographic.

Jessie Nicholls
Senior Consultant

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Jessie plans and delivers thought leadership campaigns for a range of clients. Prior to joining Linstock, she spent six years in the social sector.

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