Stuart Greenbaum
Stuart Greenbaum

Who better to tell Hollywood to “wise up” than the California Commission on Aging, the state’s leading advocate for healthy, purposeful longevity? 

The goal of the commission’s new initiative, titled “Hollywood Takes: On Aging,” is to encourage the entertainment industry to produce TV shows and films with more authentic, non-stereotypic storylines and portrayals of older adults.

The commission launched the effort by convening authorities from the fields of entertainment and aging on March 1 in Los Angeles. Research and strategies shared by roundtable participants showed how accurate aging-related content on TV and film can improve the health of society and the economics of Hollywood.

Presenters communicated two prominent themes: 1) Hollywood needs to show older adults more often and realistically to ensure they are part of the progress being made for diversity and equality; and 2) The move for “age-appropriate” representation makes sense both socially and economically, considering older adults are the fastest growing population and viewing audience.

“There is an epidemic of invisibility,” cautioned Katherine Pieper, research scientist with the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which studies the role of aging and older people on film and TV.

To positively influence cultural change, Pieper observed, “We need to increase the quantity and quality of storytelling about older adults.” USC research reported that older adults make up about 20% of our population but less than 10% of speaking roles on film and TV. “It is so important to show younger generations what is possible,” Pieper added, underscoring the initiative’s generative potential.

Hollywood, Health & Society, a program of the Norman Lear Center at USC, provides entertainment industry professionals with accurate and timely information for storylines on complex cultural concerns, such as aging

“We study and shape the impact of the entertainment industry on society,” explained Kate Folb, director of HH&S, which, between 2012 and 2017, has consulted on more than 1,100 storylines by advising content creators.

Still, changing cultural bias is difficult to do, Folb noted, even for Norman Lear, considered by many to be the greatest TV comedy producer of all time. She then used the platform to announce the newest venture for Lear, 95, to produce an older-adult themed TV series, “Guess Who Died.”

Arielle Burstein, associate director of the Milken Institute’s Center for the Future of Aging, called for storylines that more accurately present the aspirations and abilities of today’s older adults to help “normalize aging.” She referenced the Center’s 2016 report, The Power of Purposeful Aging, which states “Media portrayals must transcend age as the principal defining characteristic.”

The Milken report also emphasizes the business rationale for advancing the new direction, citing Oxford Economics research that shows as a group, “the over 50s control almost 80 percent of the aggregate net worth in the United States and are responsible for a disproportionate amount of consumer spending.”

Additionally, veteran child actor and current aging advocate Paul Peterson, and former actor and current USC associate professor of gerontology George Shannon, both encouraged the entertainment industry simply to show the truth: Older adults are unique, interesting, experienced and productive.

Stuart Greenbaum leads the “Hollywood Takes: On Aging” initiative for the California Commission on Aging.