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Communication plays a substantial role in influencing understandings and self-presentations with regard to age. While increasing chronological age is at the heart of life-span development issues, our age group identifications and the age groups into which we are categorized are not deterministically organized by chronological age; they are malleable, and divisions between age groups are negotiated and open to socio-communicative construction. Negative age stereotypes and prejudicial (ageist) attitudes are common (despite the fact that most of us will get old), which provides unique opportunities for identity scholars. A detailed overview of many of these processes is provided in Harwood (2007).
One approach to age identification and communication has been to examine intergenerational processes drive by age categorizations. Grounded in social identity theory and communication accommodation theory, this work examines how age stereotypes lead to patronizing or baby-talk speech from young to old; this speech appears grounded in stereotypes of deafness or mental decline. This talk is often dissatisfying for older adults, and can yield negative outcomes, particularly as the older recipients of such speech are assumed to be incompetent by those overhearing it. Ryan et al. (1986) present core theory on this topic (the ‘communication predicament of aging’ model). Kemper and harden (1999) describe disentangling the elements of this speech that are functional vs. counterproductive. Intergroup age stereotyping processes are closely related to age identities. Other intergenerational processes are tied to life-span identifications: storytelling; attribution; reproaching; disclosing painful experiences, and intergenerational conflict. Much of this research is culturally limited and more work should examine cultural variability (e.g., laodao is a specifically Chinese pattern of repetitive complaining from old to young).
Age identities are raised, manipulated, avoided, and negotiated in naturalistic language use or discourse (Coupland & Coupland 1990). This includes work examining the disclosure of chronological age (DCA) in older adulthood (i.e., when and why older adults tell others exactly how old they are). Age categories are invoked in other ways too. An age-related role can be mentioned (widow, student, retiree), or descriptions of changes over time can be made (comparing past to present). Raising age in discourse serves particular discursive and identity purposes.
Age identities are shaped by media. Older people are underrepresented and devalued on television (Robinson et al. 2004), as are very young people (children and adolescents). Quantitative analyses also show that older people are often portrayed negatively. Some qualitative work examines age representations in websites, skin care and tanning discourses, internet chat rooms, and on specific television shows such as The golden girls. Further work should examine how aging is used in cosmetics advertising (e.g., anti-wrinkle creams), news stories, extreme counter-stereotypical activities (sky diving), and advertising. Aging is often treated as synonymous with ill health and decline (Hummert & Nussbaum 2001). Anti-ageist medical philosophies are sometimes invoked by physicians in dealing with older patients. These philosophies are well intentioned and may help some patients, however others may find comfort in attributing health problems to age.
- Coupland, & Coupland, J. (1990). Language and later life: The Diachrony and decrement predicament. In H. Giles & W.P. Robinson (eds.), The handbook of language and social psychology. Chichester: John Wiley, pp. 451–468.
- Harwood, (2007). Understanding communication and aging: Developing knowledge and awareness. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Hummert, M. L. & Nussbaum, J. F. (2001). Communication, aging, and health. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Kemper, S. & Harden, T. (1999). Experimentally disentangling what’s beneficial about elder speak from what’s not. Psychology and Aging, 14, 656–670.
- Robinson, J. D., Skill, T., & Turner, J. W. (2004). Media usage patterns and portrayals of seniors. In F. Nussbaum & J. Coupland (eds.), Handbook of communication and aging research, 2nd edn. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 423–450.
- Ryan, E. B., Giles, H., Bartolucci, G., & Henwood, K. (1986). Psycholinguistic and social psychological components of communication by and with the elderly. Language and Communication, 6, 1–24.