When people aged 21 - 32 were asked about their perceptions of 'old age' responses included 'old fogey, wizened, inactive, wrinkles, lonely, pills, biscuits, and bingo.' Presented with a photograph of an elderly couple kissing in bed, the reaction of one woman in her twenties was "I'm sorry but that's just wrong. I don't want to see that. Nobody wants to see that." Even so-called 'transitioners' aged 51 - 70 mentioned 'dodderies, fragility, neediness, crotchety, and fear'.
It's not hard to see how these ideas are spread and reinforced: travel no further than your local newsagent to see a long line of birthday cards jokingly but unrelentingly portray ageing as negative. Nearby a row of papers and magazines fixate on youth youthful beauty, pursuits and interests.
This extends into politics and public policy. As Brian Appleyard has written: "Like the cosmetics ads and the tabloid stories, the reporters of the 'demographic time bomb' seem consumed by the conviction that oldness is always and everywhere a bad thing."
This matters because it skews policy but it also shortens lives. One study found that people with a positive attitude to their own ageing lived 7.5 years longer than those who viewed it more negatively. Another study conducted over 23 years found a difference of five years.
These attitudes also explain why older people find it more difficult to get and keep jobs, why spending on research to tackle conditions that affect older people - like sight loss or dementia - receive far less funding, and why older people with mental health problems are treated far worse than younger sufferers.
Finally these attitudes underpin a pernicious lassitude in public policy about preparing for later life. Successive government's have taken a piecemeal and uncoordinated approach to our ageing society, driven by only the clearest looming liabilities (for example on pensions) or in response to crises (such as in social care). Reacting once problems have developed and managing crisis situations at great cost and often badly.
If, instead, public services, businesses, civil society and all of us as individuals were ready, both to take advantage of the opportunities and to successfully navigate the challenges of later life, we would experience a triple dividend - thriving later lives, costing the state less in acute services, contributing more through work, volunteering and social participation. Crucially, waiting until we are old before acting is leaving it too late. The seeds of a good later life are sown in youth and middle age - a healthy lifestyle, decent income, supportive friends and family, a community that looks out for each other.
The Early Action Task Force, which I chair, is publishing a report today arguing for a new vision for our ageing society. It offers nine suggestions to begin the process, including abolishing age-related benefits, banning doorknobs, and introducing a national network of Ready Institutes to drive local change. But the first on the list is to rewrite birthday cards, because until we tackle the presumption that poor health, increased loneliness, reduced mobility, or lower income are an inevitable consequence of getting older, by society and by ourselves as we age, then they will remain so.