Ferals and fossils

Observations on stereotypes

Hoodie or wrinklie? Feral or fossil? Pick up a newspaper and you will discover that teenagers are hanging around in gangs, armed with knives, and old people are either sitting about complaining or keeling over from dementia. In other words, the two groups have something in common: both have been subject to distorted, negative stereotyping by the media.

But while older people now have a dedicated champion in the elegant form of Joan Bakewell, the government’s recently appointed Voice of Older People, the young have nobody to speak up for them – not yet, anyway. However, at a conference held in early March by the campaigning group Women in Journalism, there were calls for a Young People’s Tsar who could give teenagers a voice.

The summit, which focused on the demonisation of teenage boys by the media, presented a study by Echo Research, a company specialising in brand analysis, into the language the press uses to describe young men. Common terms include yobs, thugs, feral, hoodies, heartless, inhuman and threatening.

Older people are subject to equally derogatory stereotypes. The International Longevity Centre in New York has a long list on record, from biddy and codger to crone and fossil. But while older people – according to Bakewell – are “scarcely noticed” by the media, teenage boys have the opposite problem: the press pays disproportionate attention to atypical and negative behaviour by adolescents. Echo Research found that, during the past year, more than half of all British newspaper stories about teenage boys were to do with crime.

Bakewell says the most important thing about her new government role is that she understands older people’s concerns from personal experience: “For most journalists, older people are ‘them’.” But, for many in the media, teenagers are the ultimate “them” – and their voices are rarely heard in the press. A 2005 study found that fewer than one in ten articles about young people actually quoted young people, or even included their perspectives in the debate. And it’s not just words that stereotype: the teenage boy “brand” is now so toxic that a group of lads in hooded tops has become the standard image used by newspapers to convey menace or social disintegration.

Bakewell notes that there is still work to do on the portrayal of older people. “Whenever the BBC are doing a story about older people, they use this library footage of a couple doing a waltz in an empty hall.” But with the Voice of Older People keeping an eye on stereotypes, such clichés will surely fade in time.

Without a similarly outspoken champion, who will pull the media up on the stereotypes it peddles of the young?

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The end of American power