Is Poking Fun at Birthdays a Harmless Way to Celebrate Them?

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By Sheri R. Levy, PhD, & MaryBeth Apriceno (Stony Brook University)

 

Have you ever noticed that the tone of birthday cards for children is upbeat with messages like, “way to go, you’re another year older”? Whereas that is rarely the theme in cards for adults older than 21, at least in the United States.

 

Next time you find yourself in a card store, read through a few birthday cards for adults. You might find one or two cards with an upbeat and pro-age sentiment like “Fifty and fabulous.”  More likely you’ll encounter a lot that reiterate false and negative stereotypes of aging and older adults — cards that exaggerate the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, depict dramatic age-related physical changes, portray older adults as very unattractive and cranky, as well as cards that suggest older adults lack sexual interest or have inappropriate sexual interest.  Nothing appears to be off limits.

 

Likewise, the aisles for adults at party supply stores are often devoted to party supplies and gifts poking fun of older adulthood. Here you’ll encounter a lot of “over the hill” themed party supplies such as balloons and serveware. You’ll also likely see favors and gifts that refer to ageist stereotypes, like signs that say “CAUTION, slow senior zone,” over the hill potty night lights, over the hill emergency diaper kits, and over the hill canes equipped with a horn, plastic chattering teeth, and a mini fine-extinguisher.

 

Funny or foul?

 

Birthday cards and gifts that poke fun of older adulthood are communicating negative ageist stereotypes found in society, including negative depictions of older adults in books, movies, and television. Together, these negative stereotypes and images take a toll on older adults.  Negative ageist messages may be internalized over the course of a lifetime and cause older adults to adopt an older self-image.  Older adults may then tailor their behaviors to these learned stereotypes, resulting in more sedentary lifestyles, decreases in cognitive functioning, decline in overall health, and a shorter lifespan (see Levy, 2009). Such effects may be amplified in women who face ageism as well as sexism (see Chrisler, Barney, & Palatino, 2016).

 

Widespread sale of birthday cards and supplies poking fun of older adulthood indicates the accepted nature of the stereotypes they communicate and the pressing problem of ageism. In fact, the World Health Organization (2015) has noted, “Ageism may now be more pervasive than sexism or racism.”

 

Ageism affects society. It can limit intergenerational contact and undermine intergenerational harmony. It contributes to age discrimination in the workplace, worse health care and poorer health for older adults, as well as financial and physical abuse of older adults.

 

“The world is in the midst of a unique and irreversible process of demographic transition that will result in older populations everywhere” (United Nations, 2014).

It is more important than ever to take steps to reduce ageism, and this includes no longer tolerating cards and gifts that poke fun of aging and older adults.

 

If you would like to learn more about this topic, the following might be of interest to you:

 

Chrisler, J., Barney, A., & Palatino, B. (2016). Ageism can be hazardous to women’s health: Ageism, sexism, and stereotypes of older women in the health care system. Journal of Social Issues, 72(1), 86-104. doi: 10.1111/josi.12157

Demos, V., & Jache, A. (1981). When you care enough: An analysis of attitudes toward ageing in humorous birthday cards. The Gerontologist, 21, 209-215.

Levy, B. R. (2009). Stereotype embodiment: A psychosocial approach to aging. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(6): 332-336.

Levy, S.R. (2016). Toward reducing ageism: PEACE (Positive Education about Aging and Contact Experiences) Model. The Gerontologist. 10 AUG 2016, doi: 10.1093/geront/gnw116

Levy, S.R., & Macdonald, J.L. (2016). Progress on Understanding Ageism. Journal of Social Issues, 72(1), 5-25. doi: 10.1111/josi.12153

United Nations (2014). Retrieved from http://www.un.org/en/globalissues/ageing/

World Health Organization (WHO; September, 2015). Ageing and Health. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs404/en/

 

Biographies:

 

Sheri R. Levy, PhD, is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University, USA. She earned her PhD at Columbia University in New York City, USA. Levy studies factors that cause and maintain prejudice, stigmatization, and negative intergroup relations and that can be harnessed to reduce bias, marginalization, and discrimination. Her research focuses on bias based on age, ethnicity, gender, nationality, race, sexual orientation, and social class.  With Jamie L. Macdonald and Todd D. Nelson, Levy co-Edited a special issue of Journal of Social Issues on “Ageism: Health and Employment Contexts” (Levy, Macdonald, & Nelson, 2016). Levy’s research has been funded by the National Science Foundation, and Levy publishes her research in journals such as Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Child Development, Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and Social Issues and Policy Review. Levy was Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Social Issues from 2010-2013 and is a Fellow of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (Division 9 of American Psychological Association).

 

MaryBeth Apriceno is a graduate student and teaching assistant at Stony Brook University. She received her BA in Forensic Psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her research investigates factors that affect ageist attitudes, aging anxiety, and self-stereotyping.

 

Image source: Flickr user tawest64 via Creative Commons

 

 


Filed under: Aging, Health Disparities Tagged: age discrimination, ageism, aging, stereotypes, stereotyping
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