The digital space is the gateway to age-freedom

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The proactiveness of the over 40 is an indicator. We’re recording a sort of social synergy aimed at “clearing” the over 60, freeing them from a destiny of sedimented seniority

Giulia Ceriani, semiologist, founder and chair of Baba Consulting, a market research company based in Milan, Italy

Giulia Ceriani is a semiologist and, as such, she’s an expert on signs and symbols. With her team at Baba Consulting, the market research company she founded and chairs in Milan, Italy, Giulia analyzes the way things, spoken and unspoken, shape our perception and our world. 

Every year, in particular, she releases a trend forecast that casts a light on the most subtle and intimate changes happening in our social conscience. Historical, economical, social, and technological events leave their fingerprints on our lives and it’s by looking at these thin, sometimes blurred lines - in the form of media content, advertising, entertainment, products and services - that Giulia reconstructs the meaning of our time and gives us an idea of how the future is shaping. 

I asked her if she could “read” our relationship with aging: here’s where we are and, most of all, here’s where we’re heading to.

The notion of aging is a social construct. As a semiologist, what can you tell us about the way our society views, perceives and feeds this idea?

Our society does everything it can to narcotize the idea of aging. This is not a novelty and, in my opinion, it is a position closely related to the advancement of technological innovation. When we realized that technology is able, depending on the case, to contain, increase, defeat human and biological fallibility, a new set of ideas emerged, including the possibility of making age irrelevant. 

The result is that we take for granted a dichotomy: society should promote neutral and perfectly transversal concepts and, at the same time, advance almost magical antidotes to avoid the age-related identification. 

We see this polarization at play with visual representation techniques, places of entertainment, clothing and advertising concepts, cosmetics and make-up, but also food, beverage, and mobility. The contemporary communication industry identifies its targets according to attitudes and behaviors, rather than appearances, which are independent of one’s date of birth.

In your analysis, do you notice any type of change in the concept of aging and its attributes?

Age has always been at the core of market segmentation. It presents forms and contents linked to the attributes of a given age: the infantilism is invariably connected to the relationship with children; the irreverence is related to young people all the way up to the supposed power of mature age. 

We have been immersed in a series of conditioning stereotypes that today, finally, seem destined to give way to “perenniality,” a state that can allow us to find appropriate and specific forms of relationship that are not passively related to the matrix of age.

This year, the leading theme of your annual forecast is #Outofthedark!. It seems we’re facing an emerging need to make decisions. In which scenario would the desire to rethink aging find its place?

The desire to rethink aging can be identified by a trend that I have called “Float” that happens at the intersection of two “forces:” “to want” and “more,” in antithesis to “to know” and “less.” “Float” is a trend that represents mobile and oscillatory identities that can afford not to consist and are free to ignore an over-determination of reality. 

Float means managing effects of reality, simulation, vagueness. It is the possibility to move one’s point of view and the one of the onlooker in a fluid and free-from-prejudice way.

Using the same framework, can you look at a more remote future: what impact will the age-related concepts have?

I expect that in a more advanced future, we would get over the variable of age. We will be “augmented” by the interaction with the machines. We will be more similar to the machines that have no sex and no age. Who knows, we might even have updates. One thing is certain: age will not be such a fundamental pillar of the social action in the future. 

Your study shows that the traditional age-based categories are becoming less predictive. Are you noticing unprecedented open-mindedness, curiosity and willingness to discuss the status quo in the over 40, whereas a bigger share of the younger generations tends to be more conservative than before? 

Yes, the proactiveness of the over 40 is an indicator. We’re recording a sort of a social synergy aimed at “clearing” the over 60, freeing these women from a destiny of sedimented seniority. 

Women are called to be active longer, they want to achieve this goal the best they can and with the support of the social sensibility. As for the younger generation, it is too easy to say that their conservatism is due to a big concern for the future, a very big lack of confidence in the revolutionary power of their forces.

Contrary to men, aging for women has been linked to diminishing concepts by the media. Any ideas or suggestions for a narrative that goes beyond the youth-based image?

Under the media spotlight, we have examples like the French presidential couple. This can certainly help, as well as an entertainment industry capable of producing imagery that overturns old stereotypes. It is necessary to dismantle a custom, not an irrefutable scientific truth and I think that, albeit with further investment of time and energy, we’re going to make it.

The need to fight ageism is increasingly recognized. What forces are fueling this awareness? The #Metoo Movement? The growing number of female breadwinners? An aging labour force?

Surely, the observation that our society is increasingly made up of older people plays a part. But it is not only this. A context as marked as ours is by technological interfaces has consolidated the virtual dimension of our being. It is important to connect, to share, to interact, but it doesn’t matter where you do it nor from which identity; at least, as long as you stay in the virtual “broth.” 

But even when you get out of it, it is difficult to return to the old division of roles, the ones that assigned to the elderly management skills and experiences, and the visionary powers and action to the younger generation. Today, the competence is self-attributed and, while the juvenile vision appears at least suspended in the face of tremendous uncertainties, there’s more dynamism at the opposite end of the age spectrum.

To oppose the age-based discrimination is a matter of social justice. If you had to draw a parallel with previous historical movements that fought other types of discrimination (think about race) what are the common denominators or the differences?

It is evident that the great battles for civil rights are not top of mind in our contemporary society that, on the contrary, seems to support a heavy reversal of acquired rights. I think of the struggles for homosexual rights, feminist battles and certainly also the anti-racist front. 

The will to consolidate an equal society should be the common denominator, but we prefer to deny the anxiety that arises from confronting an “other” who has equal forces but who is not equal to. 

What has changed is that the age discrimination finds its roots in a very specific association - even if completely outdated - between seductiveness and fertile age, functional to procreation. As we know, procreation has become separated from the biological process, leaving seductiveness free to float by, engaging in age-free related dimensions.