PORTRAYING AGEING : British Library Conference

Jane Grant reports on a Conference

Portraying Ageing: Cultural Assumptions and Practical Implications This excellent conference was held at the British Library on the 28th of April 2014.  Although I didn’t agree with everything speakers said, each was worth hearing.

The day got off to a late start so Lynne Segal’s opening presentation was shorter than she had planned and she was unable to cover a section on ‘affirmative ageing’. The emphasis of her talk was instead about the orchestration of public opinion against ageing that relies on the pervasive alarm the subject raises as well as the toxic and misguided arguments against the baby boomer generation. She said these issues made this a culturally difficult time to explore age.

The other talks fell into two general categories – those about the representation of ageing and those about policy.

David Cutler from the Baring Foundation (http://www.baringfoundation.org.uk/) spoke about the arts programmes supporting creative ageing that the organisation has been funding since 2004.

Julie Twigg from the University of Kent presented her research on the portrayal of age in 3 magazines aimed at women over 50. She also spoke about Vogue’s traditions for addressing style and fashion for older women: running an ‘ageless style issue’ in July (lowest sales are in July so it doesn’t matter), their fictional ‘Mrs Exeter’ was unrepentantly old and wrote a column discussing latest fashion – she was ‘killed off’ in the 60s.

Hannah Zelig from London College of Fashion talked about how the metaphors used to describe dementia feed our fear and dread – the ‘silent tsunami’, a ‘rising tide’, the ‘millennium demon’ – it is huge, ancient, beyond our grasp and understanding. Dementia has replaced cancer in public imagination. She argued that telling stories about dementia was important and cited a number of recent examples in film and memoir.

Jackie Reynolds from Staffordshire University told us about a project which brings residents of North Staffordshire together with creative writers and storytellers to reflect on experiences of health, illness and medicine in the region. (http://www.andthedoctorsaid.org).

Wendy Martin from Brunel University spoke about research which used photographic diaries and interviews to explore the experiences of everyday lives of men and women 50 years and older. (http://sites.brunel.ac.uk/photographingdailylives)

Deborah Price from King’s College London presented a wonderfully clear and cutting critique of governments policies on ‘funding later life’. This was a very popular session! I won’t try to summarise this but urge you to watch her on You Tube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANxq7VViPjY).

James Lloyd from the Strategic Society Centre spoke about the way the representation of old people has shaped policy and he challenged a number of myths. The power of the ‘grey vote’ – the greatest power lies with voters ranging from 45-54 years old not with the retired. ‘Wealthy pensioners’ – the wealthiest group is in the 55-64 year olds and there is significant financial inequality in the pensioner group. He agreed that the ageing population could be a drain on state pension funds, the NHS and local authorities but that this was not inevitable and he suggested policies to address this, including raising the state pension age and new types of taxation. (http://strategicsociety.org.uk/) Worth a look.

Angus Hanton from the Intergenerational Foundation was the only downside of the day. This wasn’t so much because much of his talk was repellent (which it was) but because his was the last presentation. The title ‘Have older generations overplayed their hand?’ pretty much gives it away. He argued that we (older generation) have shaped the market to suit ourselves and the results have been catastrophic for the economy and in particular for young people. One of his recommendations was to use means testing for universal benefits. His talk was met with a number of angry audience responses. (http://www.if.org.uk/)

The day ended with a short panel and discussion with Gilly Crosby (Centre for Policy and Ageing – http://www.cpa.org.uk/) Jo Angoury (University of Warwick) and Simone Bacchine (British Library). Apparently the entire conference was filmed and will be available at some point online.

The only disappointment of the day, apart from the scheduling of Angus Hanton, was the fact that the conference hall was only about one-third full. There was a short Q & A on how the day was marketed.

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