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Published: 7 March 2016 at 17:30

An older person wearing headphones

Study of popular music lyrics shows negative portrayal of older people and ageing

Researchers believe that a negative portrayal of older people in popular music lyrics could have a detrimental effect on the health of the elderly.

A new study, carried out by academics from Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Hull, examined song lyrics from the 1930s to the present day.

Published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing, the research found mainly negative representations of age and ageing in popular music texts, with most of the lyrics generated from a young person’s perspective and their imaginings of old age.

To be included in the study, the lyrics had to be in English and had to specifically relate to the phenomenon of age or ageing.  

Of the 76 songs that fitted this criteria 55, or 72%, were “negative” and covered topics such as frailty, loneliness and death.  The 1980s was the decade with the highest proportion of “negative” songs.

Lead author Jacinta Kelly, Senior Lecturer in Nursing at Anglia Ruskin University, said:

“With significant increases in life expectancy and a huge rise in the number of people aged 65 or older during the coming decades, ageing is a matter of national and global importance. 

“However, most research focuses on age-related disease at the expense of examining the social and cultural influences on the ageing experience.  

“The negative representations of age and ageing can be dispiriting, and can affect confidence and the esteem of older people.  Negative emotions experienced by older people are connected to poor outcomes in mental and physical health, particularly cardiac health.

“As popular music is a powerful mass medium that has both positive and negative effects on peoples’ emotions, we thought it would be useful to investigate how age and ageing is portrayed.  Unfortunately, from this study, we found mainly negative representations.

“While it may prove an impossible task, as well as an infringement on the freedom of expression, to censor negative portrayals of old age, it is important that awareness is raised and some efforts are made to reduce these negative stereotypes.” 

Songs with a positive portrayal of ageing and older people:

Dusty Springfield - Goin’ Back
Bob Dylan - Forever Young 
Sophie Tucker - Life begins at Forty
Jimmy Durante - Young at Heart

Songs with a negative portrayal of ageing and older people:

Green Day - The Grouch
Dexy’s Midnight Runners - Old
Mary Hopkins - Those Were The Days
The Beatles - When I’m Sixty-four