When we think of industries projecting a positive image of older adults, it’s hard to imagine that entertainment would top the list. Isn’t this a business that defines youth culture and reinforces ageist stereotypes? Music gave us The Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper” and its refrain, “what a drag it is getting old, “and The Who’s “My Generation,” with the lyrics, “I hope I die before I get old.” Movies portrayed Gloria Swanson’s tragically aging Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” and showcased Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in “Grumpy Old Men,” and again in the sequel, “Grumpier Old Men.”
Can entertainment be the industry that’s changing aging culture for the better? Just maybe.
The 57th annual Grammy Awards show is a case in point. Who would have expected music’s fresh outlook on older artists and intergenerational collaboration? The Grammy’s featured powerhouse teams like Eurythmics’ veteran Annie Lennox and Hozier, a millennial sensation. Tony Bennett was paired with Lady Gaga and Jessie J performed with Tom Jones. Paul McCartney formed a trio with Rihanna and Kanye West. The message about the artistic potential of intergenerational teams could not have been clearer.
The movie business is doing its part, too. “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” reaching theaters this month, continues the narrative introduced in the first “Best Exotic” film about the possibilities for older adults and the value of intergenerational collaboration. The widely praised documentary, “Keep On Keepin’ On,” is the story of the late, great jazz trumpeter Clark Terry’s mentorship of blind piano prodigy Justin Kauflin as Terry’s young protégé prepares for an international competition. Many other films have portrayed older mentors with dignity, including “To Sir, With Love,” “The Blind Side,” “Good Will Hunting,” “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “The Karate Kid,” “Lean on Me,” “Stand and Deliver,” “Dead Poets Society,” and “Star Wars,” to name just a few. Hopefully, more such films are on the way.
As the U.S. and countries across the world confront a massive demographic shift resulting from lower birthrates and increasing longevity, there’s an opportunity for new thinking about purposefully engaging older adults. Research demonstrates the value of intergenerational relationships for older and younger people – and for effectiveness. The creativity and innovation can inspire. The energy, learning and mentorship flow both ways. If older adults can be recognized for their value and intergenerational models can work so well in entertainment, they can certainly work in technology, manufacturing, health care, financial services, education and other domains.
Not all older adults have the vitality of the 70-something Stones (it turns out it wasn’t such a drag for them to get old). But an emerging message from the entertainment industry is worth consideration. Presented with opportunity, older adults can continue to contribute successfully, and both young and old can benefit from enhanced understanding about the power of intergenerational engagement.
Paul Irving is chairman of the Center for the Future of Aging at the Milken Institute and a scholar in residence at the University of Southern California Davis School of Gerontology.
This article first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.