In With the Olds! Why Aging is No Longer a Dirty Word

With help from activists like Paulina Porizkova, a new Gray Pride movement is taking off across the country as people over 50 have gained economic and cultural clout. So why do Hollywood, the media, and Madison Avenue still obsessively cater to the young?
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Paulina Porizkova remembers the precise moment she disappeared. It was six years ago, during a trip to Las Vegas with her then-husband, Cars front man Ric Ocasek. “We were staying at one of the big hotels,” she says, “and we were going out for the night, and I got really done up: tight black dress, plunging neckline, red lips, really high heels. I was walking through the casino, and I thought I looked really hot, like I was sauntering down a runway. But I wasn’t getting noticed. In the past, there’d always been this tiny bit of friction when I walked through a crowd—this infinitesimal moment of awareness. But that night in Vegas, for the first time, there was none of that; it was like nobody even saw me. Finally, one guy started walking toward me, and I thought, ‘OK, this is it.’ He asked me if I knew were the restrooms were.”

And that was when the 56-year-old Czech former supermodel—a woman who has appeared on no fewer than 21 Vogue covers and frolicked in countless bikinis in the pages of Sports Illustrated, who through much of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s was heralded as one of the most exquisitely beautiful humans on planet Earth—realized she was getting older. “It was,” she says, “my first brush with invisibility.”

Of course, Porizkova is anything but invisible, especially in that golden Dolce & Gabbana gown she wore to the Academy Awards in April (her date was some guy named Aaron Sorkin). But even a few days earlier, dressed far more casually in jeans and a cardigan, scarfing down an egg platter at Bardonna on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, she’s pretty hard to miss. These days, there’s a sprinkling of crow’s-feet around her sky-blue eyes and a trace of crinkling around her neck. But it’s exactly that all-natural, let-it-all-hang-out look that’s been making her a star on Instagram, where for the past year she’s been creating an online ruckus by posting unretouched photos of herself sans makeup. Sometimes sans clothing. Her candid selfies and accompanying ruminations on recent life events—the challenges of losing not just her husband (Ocasek died in 2019, although their marriage had already fallen apart), but also her home (Ocasek froze her out of his will, forcing Porizkova to sell the New York townhouse where they’d lived for 30 years), and above all else, her youth—have turned her IG account into something far more meaningful than a mere fan site. It’s become the front line in an incipient but growing battle against ageism in America.

“Most of the reactions have been overwhelmingly positive,” she says. “But the negative ones have been so mean. They’re like, ‘You’re so desperate,’ or ‘It’s time to retire, grandma.’ But I looked at those pictures of myself without makeup or without clothes, and I just thought, ‘Hey, I look pretty good for my age.’ ”

paulina porizkova
Paulina Porizkova has become a hero of the gray revolution

Jill Greenberg

You don’t have to be a former supermodel, or even follow one on Instagram, to know that getting older in America is a drag. It always has been. But in recent years, even as life expectancy and quality of life have improved, it’s become a depressing and isolating slide down a demographic sinkhole. All over the nation, in just about every business, from tech to media to manufacturing, boomers and Gen Xers are being squeezed out of the picture. Corporations are culling them from their payrolls, Hollywood is writing them off the screen, advertising is completely ignoring (or humiliating) them. Ageism has become the last socially acceptable form of discrimination, with over-50s being shoved onto ice floes and sent drifting into cultural irrelevancy. “It’s crazy,” says Porizkova. “It isn’t right.”

Actually, it’s worse than crazy. It’s stupid. Just do the math. In 2021, with Xers now entering their fifties and boomers living longer than ever, older people make up 30 percent of the workforce. Folks over 50—and there are 113 million of them in the U.S.—own 70 percent of the wealth, purchasing an estimated $5.6 trillion a year in goods and services. Together, boomers and Xers—let’s call them Xoomers—buy more cars, spend more on luxury travel, and own more electronics and homes than any other age group, accounting for a whopping 40 to 50 percent of all consumer spending. And their dominance over the marketplace is only expanding—sometime over the next decade or two, people over 65 will start to outnumber children under 18 for the first time in U.S. history.

And yet, despite all that, Nielsen statistics show that only 5 percent of advertising is directed at people over 50, and a lot of those ads involve Tom Selleck speaking in soothing tones about reverse mortgages. Only about 10 percent of movies are marketed to over-50s, despite the fact that Xoomers make up 30 percent of the prepandemic moviegoing audience (75 percent when it comes to art-house films). Only about 10 percent of TV shows feature older characters with speaking parts, despite the fact that the median-age viewer for even a youth-skewing network like the CW is currently 58.3 years old.

There is, in other words, a massive and growing population of older Americans with oceans of free time sitting on a mountain range of disposable income, waiting for the consumer culture to notice one glaringly obvious, completely un-invisible fact of economic life: gray is the new black.

Aging was not always a bad thing. Two hundred years ago, when life expectancy hovered just below 40, being older was actually quite fashionable. Why else would 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson have worn a gray wig when he signed the Declaration of Independence? He wanted to look hip.

But you don’t have to go that far back in history—pretty much any pre-World War II era will do. “When I open my father’s high school yearbook, they all look like little adults,” says 67-year-old Stanford professor Robert Pogue Harrison, who delves into historical attitudes about aging in his book Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age. “Their main concern was to grow up as fast as possible because all of the benefits and privileges and power lay with age, not with youth. Youth back then was something you wanted to navigate out of as quickly as possible. But then, after the war, there was this huge cultural shift. For the first time in human history, the young became the model of emulation for the older population rather than the other way around.”

There are still places where age is revered: India, Greece, Palm Springs. But in most of America, that all went out the window with the birth of the baby boomers. The children of the most affluent era in American history were an irresistible target for an exploding postwar consumer economy. Comic books, pop music, fast food—many of the major pillars of contemporary American society were originally targeted at teenagers. It was also around this time, the late 1950s, that advertising began sorting consumers into age buckets—proxies for assumed interests—in a system that continues to this day. Over the decades, that marketing strategy has become more refined, especially in the digital age, when every purchase is recorded in the cloud consciousness. But one element has remained stubbornly consistent: the consumer economy still considers the 18- to 34-year-old demo the most coveted, while over-50s are pushed off the marketing-awareness cliff.

Anybody with a functioning remote control can see the result for themselves. Just tune into HBO Max, where last spring the streamer launched Genera+ion, a dramedy about a bunch of Gen-Z friends in Orange County who sext each other during high school shootings and invent adorable ways of writing the word “fisting” with emojis. Its co-creator, Zelda Barnz, is all of 19 years old, younger than some of Norman Lear’s hats. And Barnz is actually one of the more mature players in Hollywood right now. Over at Hulu, a 17-year-old internet influencer—Charli D’Amelio, a super-famous TikTok dancer whom most people over 40 have never heard of—is about to get her own show, while at Universal, a 15-year-old actress recently got an executive producing credit and even landed a production deal. (That’d be Black-ish’s Marsai Martin, who was technically in ninth grade at the time).

Meanwhile, the most common images of older people on TV are the dithering geezers popping pills and dialing big-numbered cell phones in the commercials. The most blatantly ageist ads are easy to spot, like the Progressive ones in which “Dr. Rick” counsels young homeowners on how not to turn into their embarrassingly old parents (who can’t pronounce the word quinoa or figure out how to open a PDF file).

In fact, in 2019, AARP combed through thousands of media images and discovered ageist signals coiled pretty much everywhere. They found that when older people were shown in ads—which wasn’t often—they were almost always by themselves or with medical handlers. Younger folks, on the other hand, were depicted in happy, smiling, active groups. Older people were always shown sitting, never standing, and almost never in a workplace setting or portrayed using technology (despite projections that by 2030 over-50s will spend $84 billion on computers). As the New York Times noted when the study was released, once you turn 50, you’re “basically dead.”

The twisted logic behind all this is that younger consumers are supposedly easier to sell to. They can be hooked on a brand early on and remain devoted to it throughout their lives, whereas older consumers are presumed to be set in their ways and not worth targeting. The key word here is presumed because it turns out there’s no evidence any of the above is true. On the contrary, consumer studies conducted in the 2000s found that 70 percent of older Americans were keen to try new products, whereas younger consumers were the least likely to develop any brand loyalty at all. Even the very idea of age-based preferences is fairly meaningless in this day and age when 50-year-old men are just as likely to be spending their leisure time skateboarding than playing golf and women in their twenties are just as likely to be interested in investment portfolios as in bathroom cleansers.

“Yeah, TV advertising is still super old-fashioned,” notes Danielle Wiley, CEO of the Sway Group, an L.A. marketing firm that specializes in new-fashioned digital media. “It’s not based on any kind of reality in terms of what people are seeing and what they want to see.” It’s not exclusively a problem with old media either. “This morning, a request came in for [a product] that they said was for women 18 to 34—they only wanted influencers 34 or under,” Wiley says. “I was like, ‘Wait a second, I’m 47 and I use that.’ But I’m not going to fight with them and force them to take someone older. I’m trying to run a business and pay my employees.”

Another reason older people aren’t more positively portrayed in entertainment and advertising: Hardly any of them are working in those industries. Take TV, for example. A 2017 Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism survey found that only 5 percent of TV writers were over 60, while over-60s accounted for just 11 percent of producers, 13 percent of show creators, and 25 percent of directors. It’s little wonder, then, that with the exception of a few outliers—like Netflix’s The Kominsky Method, starring 76-year-old Michael Douglas and 87-year-old Alan Arkin; and the streamer’s Grace and Frankie, with 83-year-old Jane Fonda and 81-year-old Lily Tomlin—TV seems incapable of portraying older people with any more nuance than Grandpa Simpson. Not that this is a new problem.

kominsky method
Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas on the Kominsky Method

MIKE YARISH / NETFLIX

“My peers and I are portrayed as dependent, helpless, unproductive, and demanding,” Emmy-winning actress Doris Roberts, who passed away at 90 in 2016, complained to a Senate special committee on aging in 2002, when she was still starring as Ray Romano’s dependent, helpless, unproductive, and demanding mom in Everybody Loves Raymond. “In reality, the majority of seniors are self-sufficient, middle-class consumers with more assets than most young people.”

Hollywood may be the worst offender—it’s the one broadcasting the most odious ageist stereotypes—but the problem is hardly confined to the neighborhoods surrounding the 405. Technically, age discrimination has been illegal since Congress banned it in 1967, but who’s kidding who? Employers of every sort in all parts of the country have been scrapping older workers from their payrolls for decades, often using economic downturns (or, say, a pandemic) as cover. “It’s been going on since the 1980s,” says Brandeis University professor Margaret Morganroth Gullette, author of Aged by Culture and a slew of other books about aging. “Every time there’s a recession, companies start firing workers over 45 and hiring younger ones. It destroys a lot of lives.”

Again, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Whatever savings a company might accrue from trading older workers for bargain-basement youngsters are wasted when you factor in the loss of know-how and institutional memory. Plus, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that older workers are actually better workers. A 2018 study in the Harvard Business Review found that people over 40 were three times more likely than younger entrepreneurs to be successful at new business ventures. Other studies have found that while cognitive horsepower declines after 30, the loss is more than offset by knowledge and expertise, which happen to be the main predictors of job excellence. The scientific fact is, drive and curiosity remain undiminished well into the eighties, if not beyond. Case in point: Nobody doubts that Warren Buffet is one of the most brilliant and agile minds in the world of finance. This August, he turned 91.

“The first time I posted a photo of myself bare-faced and not that great-looking was New Year’s morning 2020,” Porizkova recalls. “I remember waking up, catching a glimpse of my face in my phone, and going, ‘Holy shit, who is that?’ I took another picture from a lower angle, and it was also beyond hideous. And then I started thinking, ‘Well, this is what you look like now. This is the truth, and you can’t pretend that it’s not.’ And I decided, ‘You know what? It’s not so bad.’ And I posted it.”

The picture set off “a huge boom” in the media, as Porizkova puts it, with The Daily News, Fox, and other outlets publishing shrieking headlines (“Makeup-free Supermodel Gets Real on Instagram”) as if she’d just unmasked herself as a lizard-faced alien from another planet. But there was an upside—“Suddenly, I had 5,000 more followers,” she says.

In subsequent months, Porizkova would post more raw photos and videos of herself from her new rental apartment in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, showing off her gray roots and sagging skin (“I love my neck wrinkles! I think they’re awesome!”) as well as a whole lot of other body parts, as her IG account ballooned from 12,000 followers at the start of 2020 to more than 475,000 today. “I think people were craving that sort of authenticity,” she says. “Also, it was the year of COVID. Everybody was miserable and bored, and I was miserable and bored and posting pictures of what I looked like when I was miserable and bored. So I guess that was relatable.”

For a lot of folks, particularly of a certain age, it was also inspirational, a rousing Norma Rae moment of defiance. Or maybe more like a Howard Beale fit of frazzled exasperation. Either way, it put Porizkova on the vanguard of a nascent rebellion pushing back on the culture’s assumptions about aging and beauty and even sexuality. “I don’t like being invisible,” she announced in a video posted in April. “I don’t like being dismissed because I’m a certain age. The only way that we’re going to cure being invisible is to not take it.”

A few other celebrities have joined the battle, like 55-year-old Elizabeth Hurley, who posted her own seminude selfie in January. Predictably, it hasn’t been without backlash. When 50-year-old Helena Christensen showed up at Gigi Hadid’s birthday party wearing a lacy black bustier, a former British Vogue editor shamed the ex-supermodel in the Daily Mail for not dressing her age. “There comes that point in every woman’s life when, however reluctantly, you have to hand over the fleshpot-at-the-party baton to the next generation,” she said.

Still, baby steps. And even in Hollywood—epicenter of all youthquakes—there have recently been small signs of a potential awakening. In fact, a whole new independent production house, the cheekily named Landline Pictures, has just sprung up, with big plans to shoot and market a bunch of movies aimed at the over-50 audience.

“Whenever a new studio regime comes in, the last thing they announce is, ‘We want to make a bunch of movies for an older audience,’’’ says Landline’s CEO Amy Baer, a former Sony suit who has worked on such grown-up movies as Something’s Gotta Give (the 2003 Nancy Meyers rom-com in which then-66-year-old Jack Nicholson has a heart attack in then-57-year-old Diane Keaton’s Hamptons beach house and the two fall in love). “They want to do something sexier and splashier. But when you dig deeper, you’ll find that movies made for older audiences almost always make money. It’s shockingly consistent going back 20 years. If you make them, they will come.”

The film industry has always been a smidge more accommodating than TV to older audiences, and even older actors. Stars like Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and Sandra Bullock, all now over 50, continue to play big, aspirational parts as their older fans continue to follow them into theaters. Nearly 50 percent of the audience for 58-year-old Tom Cruise’s last Jack Reacher action movie were over 50, and that’s hardly the sort of picture that gets screened in assisted-living facilities. Historically, male actors have had longer shelf lives in Hollywood (Harrison Ford is still cracking a whip at 79, with another Indiana Jones film due next year, while 66-year-old Denzel Washington is about to play Macbeth in Joel Cohen’s upcoming screen adaptation), but older female stars can sometimes find work, too. (Sixty-four-year-old Frances McDormand, who picked up an Oscar for Nomadland last April, will be playing Lady Macbeth.)

Nevertheless, the film industry still has a long way to go. Exhibit A: Dirty Grandpa, Lionsgate’s 2016 raunchy, R-rated comedy in which 77-year-old Robert De Niro, one of the world’s finest screen actors, was reduced to playing a horny senior who thrusts his private parts in Zach Efron’s face, spews homophobic jokes, and spends most of the film trying to get Aubrey Plaza into bed. “I won’t be making any movies like that one,” Baer promises.

Maybe the film industry should take some notes from the music biz, which seems a bit more adept at dealing with older audiences—or at least at finding ways to take their money. Remember “Oldchella,” the 2016 festival in which the Rolling Stones, the Who, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and Neil Young rocked out in the Indio desert? It sold 150,000 tickets and took in $160 million, nearly twice as much as the younger-skewing Coachella grossed that year.

The long arc of history may indeed bend toward justice, but if you’re over 50, chances are it’ll snap back and whack you in the nose.

Granted, it’s tough to make the case that older people are a marginalized demographic. For one thing, they’re about a third of the population. For another, pretty much everyone, no matter what their race, orientation, or background, will one day find themselves a member of this particular sidelined tribe (and sooner than they may think; a Medium article went viral last spring after dismissing 40-year-olds as “geriatric millennials”). Still, discrimination is discrimination, and unlike every other oppressed group, older people don’t have what could rightfully be called a movement of their own. Yes, there’s AARP, which is great for counting incidents of ageism in advertising and collecting other statistics. And, yes, technically the Gray Panthers are still in business, although they haven’t made a peep in years. But neither is capable of mounting the sort of culture-shaking, groundswelling social crusade needed to alter the public’s attitudes about aging.

Porizkova’s Instagram postings are perhaps a start, the first embers of what could eventually blow up into a bigger campaign. But the fight for cognitive equity will have to clear one big hurdle before it can start changing the world: Old people. It turns out quite a lot of them are lying about their age, even to themselves.

“The words you are looking for are internalized ageism,” says Brandeis’s Gullette. “A lot of boomers identify as being younger than they actually are. So they want to see younger bodies on TV and in ads and movies. They take for granted that younger is prettier and sexier. Remember, their brainwashing began when they were in their teens.”

Hardly shocking, then, that $16.5 billion is spent every year in America on plastic surgery, more than the entire GNP of Haiti. A huge chunk of that money is coming from folks over 55, who account for two-thirds of all face-lifts and about half of all eyelid surgeries, according to a 2019 report from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Unsurprisingly, Los Angeles is near the top of the list of cities with the most aesthetic procedures (with 7.6 plastic surgeons per 100,000 residents), behind only Miami (8.3 per 100,000).

“I used to be very judgmental about it when I was younger,” says Porizkova, who has so far avoided the knife (although she has undergone collagen-enhancing laser treatments). “It’s so easy to be judgmental when you’re 30. But now I don’t blame anybody for wanting to look younger. I understand doing a bit of botox, a little bit of filler, to feel good about yourself because looking younger is more accepted by society. But, really, the way to fix [society’s attitudes about aging] isn’t to try to look younger—it’s to get the world to embrace older people the way we are.”

That’s a pretty heavy lift considering all the youth-worshipping cultural conditioning Americans have been subjected to over the past seven decades. But it’s not impossible. Standards of beauty fluctuate wildly across cultures and through time. A ghostly pale complexion was once considered knuckle-bitingly hot (back when only farmers had suntans), just as zaftig bodies were once the object of people’s desire (back when only rich folk could afford to eat too much). Not so long ago, most Americans thought nose rings were gross; now they’re worn by every slinky starlet shopping for broccoli sprouts at Erewhon. The point is, beauty is a moving target. And while nobody is suggesting that Abercrombie & Fitch will soon start hiring shirtless 70-year-olds as store greeters, it does seem plausible that aging could someday be considered attractive.

“That’s the aspiration anyway,” says the 56-year-old supermodel shoveling eggs into her mouth at Bardonna. “But to be honest, I don’t really know how to get there. It’s not really clear to me. I feel like I’m holding up this lantern on Instagram for people to follow, but I’m not sure where I’m leading them. Maybe off a cliff?”

Ironically, it may be the younger generation that ends up pointing that lantern in the right direction. Unlike Hollywood and Madison Avenue, a lot of today’s youth are already on board with Gray Power. It was millennials, after all, who turned the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg into the hipster icon known as the Notorious RBG, just as it was millennials (and their younger Zoomer brothers and sisters) who anointed 79-year-old Bernie Sanders the leading voice of the progressive movement and then helped elect 78-year-old Joe Biden to the highest office in land. By the time this unripe but enlightened demographic starts entering their fifties and sixties, age-related invisibility could very well be a relic.

“That’s the fight I’m fighting,” says Porizkova. “That’s the hill I’m dying on.”


CREDITS: PHOTOGRAPHED BY JILL GREENBERG; CREATIVE DIRECTOR: ADA GUERIN; PRODUCER: VILLANI PRODUCTIONS; STYLED BY ALISON BROOKS WITH EXCLUSIVE ARTIST MANAGEMENT; STYLIST ASSISTANT: ZOE ANASTOS; HAIR BY FRANKIE PAYNE AT OPUS BEAUTY USING ORIBE; MAKEUP BY GARRETT GERVAIS GARRET GERVAIS FOR MCH GLOBAL USING BODY BLING BY SCOTT BARNES; NAILS BY ERIN LEIGH MOFFETT FOR ART DEPARTMENT USING ORLY; PHOTOGRAPHED AT EDGE STUDIOS; ON PORIZKOVA, LARGE OVAL ETHIOPIAN OPAL RING SET IN 18K BY GABRIELLA KISS; OMBRÉ GREEN TOURMALINE RING SET IN 18K, OVAL BLUE BOULDER OPAL RING, AND LARGE AQUAMARINE RING BY LOLA BROOKS, ALL AVAILABLE AT AUGUST L.A. RED SHOES BY CHRISTIAN LOUBOUTIN


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