Professor Asghar Zaidi, expert in issues on active ageing and international social policy, comments on the new advert’s depiction of older age.
The John Lewis Christmas advert is now firmly rooted as an annual British institution – provoking smiles and tears from some, but cynical sighing and eye-rolling from others. Whether we like it or not though, it has turned into a symbol to describe our consumerism and measure our preoccupations.
This year, the ad brings all its emotional manipulation to help address an important issue in society – the isolation of the elderly during the festival season. But under the surface of plucking at our heart strings, what messaging is it really giving about older people and is it as positive as it could be? Well, its heart is in the right place, but at least in part, it delivers what is increasingly a defunct impression of a diverse generation.
Centring on a young girl who spots an old man living on the moon – the advert follows her efforts to send him presents, eventually successfully delivering her gift of telescope – so they can both connect with each other on Christmas Day.
On the one hand, the advert delivers the important message that we need to appreciate the loneliness of our older generation and make plentiful efforts to address this issue. The importance of supporting connections across generations is very valuable and the efforts of children forming firm relationships with older parents and grandparents can improve wellbeing for the older generation. So in this sense, it is a positive offering.
However, on the other hand, it makes the biggest mistake the media (and policymakers) are often guilty of: the assumption of homogeneity of the older generation. In this, we overlook the idea that the new generation of older people are also a powerful resource for their families, communities and economies when they live in enabling, age-friendly environments. As a healthier group, with increasingly longer life, they have the untapped potential to contribute to not just their own well-being, but also to sustain a greater economic and social richness for their families as well.
The research carried out at the University of Southampton for the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe and the European Commission in the Active Ageing Index project (2014-2015), shows that active ageing among older people is on the rise in the majority of the European Union countries during the recent past – despite the crisis and austerity during 2012-2014. Here, active ageing means growing older in good health and as a full member of society, feeling more fulfilled in jobs and also in social engagements, more independent in our daily lives and more engaged as citizens. But this can’t continue without further changes in our perception of older people and in enhancing our support for them from younger generations.
Active ageing strategies based on social investment principles prevent the loss of valuable expertise, preserve the wisdom of older people and strengthen society’s human and structural resilience. Read here which countries in the world make the most of their older people and who lags behind?
Appropriate social policy priorities and responses, including social protection and universal social services, are needed to support the growing number of older citizens and mitigate the negative implications of population ageing. For example, as early as the 1960s, Japan – the only country in the world with over a third of the population aged 60 and above – invested in a comprehensive welfare policy, introduced universal healthcare and social pension, and a plan for income redistribution, low unemployment rates and progressive taxation. This investment has paid off: Japan is currently one of the healthiest and wealthiest countries in the world.
What does all this mean for our man in the moon? Well, more efforts should be made (in such ads, and other media) to also highlight the good examples of those who are active and engaged, despite frailty and other challenges of old age. The advert runs the risk of considering all older people as living alone, in desperate need of connection and support.
So, whilst it is wonderful that the old man and the young girl finally make a connection as the film draws to a close – building a bridge between generations and raising his spirits – they are still doing it from afar and our pensioner is still stuck on the moon, with a high degree of isolation.
A truly positive take on old age – emphasising actively engaged citizens with a real sense of wellbeing – might see our old man blast his way back to earth in a rocket, become the life and soul of the Christmas party and enrich the lives of the next generation by sharing diverse experiences from his long, fulfilling and active life.
Maybe next year?