Intended for healthcare professionals

CCBYNC Open access
Research Christmas 2009: Young and Old

Retrospective analysis of attitudes to ageing in the Economist: apocalyptic demography for opinion formers

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 08 December 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b4914
  1. Ruth Martin, registrar,
  2. Caroline Williams, registrar,
  3. Desmond O’Neill, associate professor
  1. 1Centre for Ageing, Neuroscience and the Humanities, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland
  1. Correspondence to: D O’Neill doneill{at}
  • Accepted 13 October 2009


Objective To investigate the description of older people and ageing in a major weekly newspaper, influential in political and financial circles, to see whether it reflected ageing in a balanced manner, and to what extent it indulged in apocalyptic demography—the portrayal of population ageing as a financial burden rather than a scientific advance.

Design Electronic search of the digital archive of the Economist of articles published between January 1997 and April 2008.

Main outcomes measures Categorisation of articles as portraying population ageing as a burden or a benefit or with a balanced view.

Results Of 6306 identified articles, 262 were relevant. Most featured pensions, demography, and politics. Of these 262, 64% portrayed population ageing as a burden and 12% as a benefit; 24% had a balanced view. Most articles therefore showed a predominantly ageist view of older people as a burden on society, often portraying them as frail non-contributors. Recurrent themes included pension and demographic “time bombs” and future unsustainable costs of health care for older people.

Conclusion This negative view of older people might be influential in shaping the attitudes of readers, who include opinion formers in political and economic circles. Gerontologists (including geriatricians) need to engage with influential media, as well as helping to promote a professional development of journalists that is informed and knowledgeable about the negative impact of ageism on the wellbeing of older people.


  • Contributors: DON generated the concept for the paper and is guarantor. RM, CW, and DON generated the search strategies and analysis scheme. RM and CW undertook the analysis and classification of the articles, with DON as an arbiter for those papers where there was not concordance. All authors took part in the writing and subsequent revisions of the paper.

  • Funding: This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Ethical approval: Not required.

  • Data sharing: No additional data available.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial License, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non commercial and is otherwise in compliance with the license. See: and

View Full Text