Old enough to know better

Sylvain Chomet created the animated films Belleville Rendez-Vous and The Illusionist. His earlier successful short film was called The Old Lady and the Pigeons. Art and entertainment often draw on the skilful manipulation of stereotypes, and their exaggeration. Skilful animators such as Chomet make their characters sufficiently recognisable and true to type, but with a twist. There’s something alien about them. The harmless little old lady turns out to be not so helpless, and that makes us laugh — if not discomforted.

Porto Station: Mother, small child, and old lady with stick boarding a trainRepresentations of old age are relevant to the current social climate. It’s well known that people are living longer. Populations are getting older. Older people are no longer an eccentric minority. Do the old stereotypes still apply?

A leading think tank on ageing and longevity released a report this week on how older people are coping with digital technologies. It seems that computer users are under-represented among people over the age of 70. In the survey accompanying the report, it seems that non-Internet users were less likely to say that they “often felt lonely,” a negative way of asserting that access to the Internet probably provides a means of softening the effects of isolation felt by many older people. People who use the Internet seem to be more sociable, join associations, and have a greater quality of life. The report suggested that society needs to nudge reluctant older people into the world of the Internet.

Here’s another idea (not in the report): Older people represent a growing, talented, wise and potentially productive sector of the population. In 20 years time there will be a much larger number of people over the age of 65 who are accustomed to travel, are adept users of digital technologies and communications, and are able to harness self-help opportunities, as do many people now across the generations. People in old age will be characterised less as a dependent minority. Many of yesterday’s leaders in the arts, sciences, business and politics will move into old age. Larger numbers provide an increased talent pool that will include those who can be articulate about and influence the welfare of the general population. For how much longer will we hang on to the cartoon characterisations of old age: sweet old ladies, grumpy old men, wise old sages, dotty aunts, aged eccentrics, and undereducated technophobes?


  • This month the Rolling Stones performed at their 50th Anniversary Concert in the O2 Arena, London. Lead singer Mick Jagger was born in 1943.
  • Other famous old people in history, fiction and legend: Methuselah; King Lear; Merlin; Gandalf; Obi-wan Kenobi; Albus Dumbledore; Granny, keeper of Tweety Pie (Warner Bros); Grampa Simpson; Carl Fredricksen (Up, Pixar); Miss Marple (Agatha Christie); Compo Simmonite, Norman Clegg, Cyril Blamire, Foggy Dewhurst, Seymour Uttherthwaite, and Herbert Truelove (Last of the Summer Wine); Abby and Martha Brewster (Arsenic and Old Lace); Louisa Alexandra Wilberforce (The Ladykillers); Statler and Waldorf (The Muppets); the first Dr Who; Old Man (Logan’s Run); Violet Crawley, Countess of Grantham (Downton Abbey).
  • Gerontocracy: See the Economist for an interesting chart of the age of national leaders relative to the average age of their populations (in February 2011). Not surprisingly, the gap is widest in countries with autocratic governments. This is another old people stereotype: dynastic, wizened, intransigent autocrats enjoying privilege and status and sucking the life from the fruits of youthful labour.
  • Karl Jung identified the importance of the “wise old man” archetype. Also see the way Joseph Campbell identified this and other archetypes in explaining characters in narrative.
  • I stumbled across the following on the Internet: “Old people tend to act in a certain way. Are they like that because that’s what old people are like, or are they like that because that’s what young people were like 60 years ago?” (Wakela, Simple Machines Community Forum, http://forum.escapeartists.net/index.php?topic=4675.0).
  • Shakespeare’s poem All the World’s a Stage assumes that we all revert to childhood at the seventh “age of man” before the end: “Turning again towards childish treble, pipes; And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all; That ends this strange eventful history; Is second childishness and mere oblivion; Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
  • Colleagues and I have also been researching issues of ageing and mobility in the outdoor environment, seriously.
  • Sylvain Chomet returned to Edinburgh this week to receive an honourary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh. Here’s what I said at the laureation: Six years ago I stumbled across an animated feature film like no other. It involved an old lady, a crazy cyclist, a dog and a scary sea journey. The lady and the dog eventually met three retired singers who fed on limp and leggy dead frogs blasted from a swamp and made into soup or turned into kebabs. This was the award winning, Oscar-nominated animated film, Belleville Rendez-Vous, from the creative imagination of the film director and animator Sylvain Chomet, who we honour today. Sylvain is a Parisian who has worked in London, Canada and of course, Edinburgh. He worked on commercials, print comics, short films, and at Disney before producing his feature-length, hand-drawn animated films. As a consummate teller of stories, Sylvain has stories to tell about his experience in Scotland related in interviews with the Scotsman newspaper, the Guardian, the art press and on video. The Edinburgh story begins with Sylvain falling in love with the Scottish landscape, it’s sky and capital city. It also involves a script. The daughter of the famous French filmmaker Jacques Tati handed Sylvain a copy of a script written by her father but never produced as a film. The script involves a magician in the 1950s whose Paris audiences are dwindling as stage variety entertainment is supplanted by rock ‘n roll. The magician is forced to travel looking for an appreciative audience. The original script called for an adventure in Prague, but luckily for us Sylvain located the odyssey in Scotland. Under Sylvain’s pen, the magician arrives in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, where he is pursued by a star-struck young girl, whose life is untouched by the effects of electricity, let alone rock ‘n roll. She believes the magician’s illusions. The pair come to Edinburgh, and it’s this backdrop that excites contemporary Edinburgh residents and visitors watching Sylvain’s spellbinding film, The Illusionist. The city plays a major roll in The Illusionist, and much of the production, involving over 30 animators, took place in the city of Edinburgh itself. It’s largely in appreciation of your love-letter to our fair — and only sometimes damp — city that we honour you with this degree. Edinburgh, lovingly hand drawn, coloured and animated — but with some digital modelling and rendering thrown in — is Edinburgh for many of us in the creative sector. The graduates before us represent award-winning animators, film makers, digital media specialists, designers, sound designers, artists, architects, musicians, creators and critics. What excellent company to be among as we celebrate the human imagination, and your colourful, artful, highly skilled, musically rich and altogether wonderful contribution to the creative arts.
  • Also see Why cartoons have animals,  Exaggeration, Mass media schedules and generation Y, and Shojo manga morals.


  • Banks, J, J Nazaroo, and A Steptoe. 2012. The Dynamics of Ageing: Evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. London.
  • Jung, Carl G. 1986. Four Archetypes: Mother, Rebirth, Spirit, Trickster. London: Ark. First published in German in 1934-1956.
  • Campbell, Joseph. 1993. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. London: Fontana. First published in 1949.
  • Marmot, M. 2010. Fair Society, Healthy Lives: The Marmot Review. Strategic Review of Health Inequalities in England post-2010.
  • Mason, Mark, David Sinclair, and Craig Berry. 2012. Nudge or Compel? Can behavioural economics tackle the digital exclusion of older people? London: International Longevity Centre.
  • Sugiyama, T., and C. Ward Thompson. 2007. Older people’s health, outdoor activity and supportiveness of neighbourhood environments. Landscape and Urban Planning, (83)168–175.


  1. Lian Tang says:

    Old stereotypes once were quite ubiquotous, however, since the ageing population, it’s time for us to include old peole in when it comes to emergent stuffs especially in a digital society. They need to be tied with every step the society made forward. In fact, many elder people have strong desire to absorb, to learn, to create. Though new technologies may seem not that easy for them to master with, once they get used to those devices, say, smart phones, digital cameras, or websites, they may utilise them better and go further than their descendants. Old people tend to concentrate and focus on things they are interest in. All they need is some guidances and assistance to help them keep up with the spinning world.

    1. I agree that it’s time to be more inclusive of older people … so does the Archbishop of Canterbury this week:

  2. qingzhao says:

    I always think this question; I think the older business have a huge market potential, because I think in the future more people can use digital tool, my aunt always shopping and play games online. Almost people have to use computer, we can’t absent it, if I forget take phone, I will very anxious. But my grandfather and grandmother are 88 years old. Not only they don’t know how to use computer and digital tool, but also they don’t have interesting to study it, they like cooking everyday. They are very happy. I am worry about with digital age has begun; the digital disease is becoming more and more popular indeed. Such as “mouse hand”, ”screen face”, “keyboard wrist”,” cervical spondylosis, asthenopia and so on. I think with the digital technology development, some produces can solve this questions are very important, how to healthily use the digital tool, this is the problems of sustainable development.

  3. S. ZHANG says:

    In the film the straight story, When Alvin•Straight is asked by a young man what the worst thing is about being old, he replies ‘remembering when you was young.’ There is also one character of old age which impresses me is Grumpy Carl Fredricksen in Pixar’s Up. Although Carl was cranky after his wife’s death, he was still a kind person who was capable of salvation. I believe we will ‘hang on to the cartoon characterisations of old age’ for a long time. Because the society is aging. Besides, Old people are wise and experienced. The most important reason is they make efforts to integrating back into the society by keep learning digital technologies. My grandparents are learning how to use computer in order to chatting with me online. Just like Carl, old people are worthy of special respect because of their fulfilling of hope.

  4. Zhe Wang says:

    I don’t think it’s a good idea to separate the elderly from others. Indeed, they may not be quite “involved” and it is not that easy for some of them to keep pace with the changing technology and society. However, they have much more experience than most younger people do, especially those in technology field. They are stronger in mind than the younger generation and maybe more willing to study new things than we do, which means, we should never consider them as a minority or someone that are not capable of or good at learning new stuff. It is better for us to treat them as social wealth and give them more guides when they have problems with acquiring new stuff ,say, smart phones, SNS, etc. , encouraging them to convey valuable experience to the next generation.
    Meanwhile, I cannot agree more with QingZhao and consider there is huge potential on elder business. It reminds me of my grandfather, who had been a scientist that researching physics in a university before he retired. Even though smart phones are quite unfamiliar to him, he was still eager to learn, to acquire knowledge of new digital tools. Last year, he asked me to teach him using smart phone because he wanted to communicate with his student through texting and WeiChat. He learned everything very quickly and was quite happy to be capable of utilise smart phone. In this way, I believe many elder people are enthusiastic to learning new things and being involved as my grandfather is. Therefore, there may have many thing we can utilise to promote development of elder business.

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