British academy

The British Academy Debates

Too Old and Ugly to be Useful? Challenging Negative Representations of Older People

Tuesday 25 March 2014, 6pm
University of Sheffield Students' Union, Western Bank, Sheffield, S10 2TG

In March we held the second of the British Academy Debates on Ageing. It was introduced by Professor Mary Beard via a short film.

The event featured Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor Pat Thane, Dr Lorna Warren, Professor Tim Parkin and Dr Ilona Haslewood.

Has there ever been a golden age of ageing, or is that golden age now? In the past, representations of older people in literature, art, the media and everyday life have been highly diverse; stressing their positive roles in their families and communities as much as their frailty. As the numbers of older people grows, how can we promote and celebrate their positive contribution, and challenge the pervasive negative stereotypes of later life?


Representations of Older People, Past and Present
Professor Pat Thane (King’s College, London) challenges the widespread beliefs that in ‘the past’ it was rare to live to old age; that older people were nurtured by their families and communities; and that they were widely respected as, allegedly, they are not in modern Britain. Instead, she argues, representations and experiences of older people have always been highly diverse, with some dependant on welfare while others made an active contribution to the economy, society and their families. Now, the latter group are increasing because people live longer, more active lives. If there was ever a ‘golden age’ of ageing, it is now.

Media Images of Women and Ageing
Dr Lorna Warren (University of Sheffield) shows how the media play a critical strategic role in the transmission of images – positive and negative – of older people, particularly of older women. The physical signs of ageing are frequently stereotyped or become the butt of humour, influenced by the narrative of the anti-ageing industry – and sometimes they are simply air-brushed out of existence. These presentation techniques are key to understanding not only why the older face doesn’t ‘fit’, but also how more positive representations may be successfully launched through the visual.


Professor Tim Parkin is Professor of Ancient History at the University of Manchester and has written on the history of ageing in classical antiquity, notably Old Age in the Roman World: A Cultural and Social History.

Dr Ilona Haslewood (Joseph Rowntree Foundation) leads the research and development programme, A Better Life, at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. This explores how to achieve a good life in older age. In addition to publishing research reports, the programme has used images, stories and music to help illuminate findings and challenge stereotypes.

If you have any questions about this event please call the Events Team on 020 7969 5200 or email