In October 2010, demographer Philip Longman warned of a “’gray tsunami’ sweeping the planet.” The phrase summons a frankly terrifying vision of a giant wave of old people looming on the horizon, poised to drain the public coffers, swamp the healthcare system, and suck the wealth of future generations out to sea. Journalists jumped on it, and “gray tsunami” has since become widely adopted shorthand for the socioeconomic threat posed by an aging population.
I hadn’t used the phrase but I hadn’t given it much thought either, until I heard a fascinating podcast by Andrea Charise, Assistant Professor of Health Studies at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, about why it’s such a dangerous metaphor. (Link here; Episode 3.) “Is the progressive aging of society really equivalent to the instantaneous devastation of cities?” asks Charise. “What’s at stake when they’re held up as equivalent?”
Drawing on examples from three different Canadian media outlets, Charise points out that this language divides society into two opposing groups: the “needy old” and everyone else. Conflict grabs eyeballs, of course, and this frankly terrifying metaphor “traffics in the politics of panic” so successfully that all other narratives are effectively pushed aside. It wouldn’t be the first politically charged use of this kind of language. In the late 19th century the influx of Asian immigrants was referred to as the “yellow peril” or “yellow flood,” Charise notes. A “rising tide” was used to describe a whole host of diseases deemed threatening to society, from tuberculosis and syphilis in the19th century to HIV-AIDs in the 20th century and Alzheimer’s Disease in the 21st.
Language is not neutral. “Gray tsunami” rhetoric justifies prejudice against older people, legitimates their abandonment, and fans the flames of of intergenerational conflict. It also obscures the fact that what we’re facing is no tsunami. It’s a demographic wave that scientists have been tracking for decades and that society proved capable of accommodating when it was in diapers the first time around. It’s washing over a flood plain, not crashing without warning on a defenseless shore.
“What if we were to talk of a ‘grey bloom,’ or an ‘elder swell’? What about an ‘elder surge’?” Charise suggests. None quite hits the spot, but each makes space for a more balanced and realistic story about the implications of the longevity boom. This, she argues, is the perfect opportunity “for a concerted partnership between the humanities. medicine, and health policy—an active collaboration that might ensure that the language we use reflects the nuance of aging that makes geriatric such a compelling profession.”
For more from this provocative thinker, check out her dense and imaginative manifesto about the emergent nature of age studies for the new interdisciplinary journal Age Culture Humanities.