The information that the world’s population is growing older than ever before will not break the internet. It is old news. But is this demographic shift also visible in the media – can we literally see it?
When we think about media coverage of elderly people, how does this coverage look like? When was the last time a over 65-year-old reported on new digital and fashion trends?
As with every discriminated social group, it takes stereotypes to feed misperception. The media likes to play on these stereotypes. The most common labels drawn up are the helpless victim, the bizarre oldie, the declining, unattractive and wrinkly elderly and the hateful group of pensioners; full of judgement of young people and their life choices (Walker, 2010).
The media environment has a large impact on how old people regard themselves and of how others regard them. A fair representation is therefore essential. Similar, to the chicken and the egg case, it is wondrous what came first: Society’s critical, isolated approach to the elderly or the media’s representation of them as such?
Particularly interesting I found the case study of Japan, as it is the country with the highest percentage of an elderly population in the world. Last year 26,7 percent of the 127,11 million Japanese were aged 65 or older. This demographic change is visible in society (Statistics Bureau, 2014). Does the media representation keep up?
A very clear change in the representation of old Japanese people in the media can be seen in one sector: the advertising industry. Advertising companies do not miss out on the ever-changing demographics of their target audience.
In marketing 101 we find a simple manifestation: a brand can reach its target audience best through making them identify with it. Advertising in television relies heavily on testimonials. Casting only testimonials in the standardized television social group would mean that 26,7 percent of the entire population will find that identification very difficult.
This response is an economic decision. A quarter of the countries purchasing power lies in the hands of people over 65. The increased use of elderly testimonials in adverts can therefore hardly be categorized as a conscious attempt of fair representation of the society in the media. Nevertheless, it reflects the current demographics better than other sectors in Japanese media (Prieler, 2009).
From the victim to the perpetrator
Another interesting change in the Japanese landscape of television is seen in news coverage about crime. The afore mentioned stereotype of the helpless, elderly victim of crimes will soon have to be replaced. More and more news outlets report on crimes in which old people were not the victim but the perpetrator. This is a definite reflection of the aging of Japan.
Thinking of a pensioners’ version of Bonnie and Clyde, wandering lawless through the landscape of Japan can be an entertaining imagery. But the reality convicted old people face, is far from entertainment. Their prison sentences are often served in sole confinement, since their relatives are either dead or too embarrassed to visit the criminal amongst their midst.
The increased crime rate among elderly is another result of the country’s shifting demographics. According to a government report around 70 percent of elderly crimes were acts of shoplifting by impoverished pensioners. The economy struggles to keep up with supporting the maturing population (Tharoor, 2015).
A fairer representation in the media would lead to a more realistic image of society. The currently warped mirror provided by Japanese media leaves out its biggest social group. Changes can be felt; maybe it is time they can be seen as well.
Statistics Bureau, (2014). Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication. Japan Statistical Yearbook: Population and Households.
Prieler, M. (2009). How Older People are Represented in Japanese TV Commercials: A Content Analysis. Keio Communication Review. 5-17.
Walker, J. (2010). Elder sterotypes in Media and Culture. Available from http://www.agingwatch.com/ [Accessed at 09 December 2016].
Tharoor, I. (2015). In Japan, the elderly are committing more crimes than teenagers. Available from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/07/17/in-japan-the-elderly-are-committing-more-crimes-than-teenagers/?utm_term=.5c36d3efd6cd [Accessed 11 December 2016].