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Seen But Not Heard: Age Prejudice and Young People

Age-based prejudice toward young people is so rife and so naturalised that even advocates for young people often have trouble recognising it. Professor Bessant casts a sceptical eye over the stories we tell about ‘youth’, throwing light on where they come from and how they work.

Prejudice is at its most powerful when it becomes so naturalised that it goes unnoticed and indeed is taken for granted. When it becomes internalised, such prejudice can in turn shape the identity and lived experience of those at whom it is directed.

Age is one basis for this kind of prejudice. Many of us fear it or seek to hide it. Have you watched one of those ‘reality’ TV shows designed to scare you into taking up a healthy lifestyle? The ones that feature ordinary people with histories of partying too hard who are offered make-overs by celebrity doctors and lifestyle coaches. These shows use digital technologies like age progression equipment to produce morphed images of their rapidly ageing faces and bodies, or statistics on the party-goer’s health in ten, fifteen, or forty years. Similar techniques have been used by governments in public health awareness campaigns like Britain’s ‘National Care service’ involving a campaign aimed at promoting ‘the secrets of ageing well’. During the initial rollout of the campaign, Britons could access online software that generated sneak peak photos of what you would look like in 10 or 20 years.

What this technology underscores is what we all know — wrinkles, saggy skin, or white hair are negatives, markers of decline that many people will want to disguise or even remove surgically. Conversely, youthful wrinkle-free faces or blooming skin tones are typically read as attractive and desirable. This preoccupation with age and ageing is not just about the culture and psychology of modern life. It is also a major political and policy issue. And it produces an odd, even contradictory effect.

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