The Youth Lab

Aging Heroes: Youth & Elderly Icons

When fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld died at the age of 85, hoards of young models, designers, actors and musicians posted tributes to his life on social media. The phenomenal youth response to his passing (despite not all sentiment being in his favour), paired with the strong youth reaction to 77 year old Bernie Sanders’ US presidential candidacy announcement, got us thinking about young people’s reverie for individuals of an older vintage.


Older icons on youth’s radar today are challenging depictions of the elderly as frail or resistant to modern life.

There are two major films released this year about the life of Notorious RBG, Ruth Bader Ginsburg - RBG and On The Basis of Sex. Eighty-five year old Ginsburg is a judge in the United States Supreme Court who spent a lifetime fighting for women’s equality before the law. Just as Noam Chomsky (90) and Gloria Steinem (84) attract attention for their thought leadership and action in the political sphere, RBG’s youth currency holds strong, easily acknowledged via formative intelligence and activist grit. Popular retail giant Urban Outfitters was even inspired to sell tshirts with her face on them, and SNL recently aired a spectacularly original RBG Rap.

Many recognise that the life’s work of people like Ginsburg and Steinem has paved the way for them to be able to live as they do today. As modern political leaders (or thought leaders representing popular liberal ideals - like the beloved Irish president Michael D Higgins, aged 77), there is a sense that some older individuals act in a less self-serving way that is more beneficial to young people:

There’s a lot to be said for making policy makers older people - they know so much and don’t really have a big stake in the game anymore!” Fin, 25.

In the world of fashion Iris Apfel (97) and Baddie Winkle (90) attract youth’s admiration with their bold, age-defying attitudes. Apfel once called a wrinkle a “a badge of courage.” It’s also been noted that, especially when it comes to fashion, young people don’t have the same biases as older people do. So, they are more open to the success of older people who don’t necessarily fit into current "categories" or trends.

Film and music industries are also full of iconic older role models who youth turn to for inspiration:

“When I was younger I was obsessed with Alan Rickman. I would rent out one of his movies every week. I think there’s a big discovery opportunity to go back and learn more about what they did before I knew about them. A new celebrity the same age as me - you could read them like a book. I watch interviews with Michael Cain and he’s telling these amazing stories about meeting John Wayne. They’re just of a totally different era and it’s so interesting. Also, people think of themselves getting older or not able to work and then you can look to these people who are so successful, doing such interesting things on a daily basis - and I think that’s a bit of a relief.” Jess, 28

Actresses like Goldie Hawn (73), Jane Fonda (81) and Lily Tomlin (79) are also redefining traditional ideas of older women. Fonda and Tomlin star alongside Martin Sheen (78) and Sam Waterston (78) in Netflix’s hit show Grace and Frankie. In it they invent geriatric friendly vibrators. The storyline challenges stereotypes brilliantly, especially when it comes to sex and pleasure, which makes it eye opening and aspirational for young viewers.

Elsewhere, environmental icons like David Attenborough (92) and Jane Goodall (84) show young people that making your passion your life’s work is possible. They are now speaking out, alongside many young people, in the name of climate justice. Greta Thunberg (16 year old climate activist) met Goodall recently and posted about it on her Instagram with the tagline “True Hero”.


Many young people remember moments when they reassessed their attitudes toward older people - seeing them not as a chore or a threat, but as extremely worthy of their precious time. Aside from the attraction drawn via an older celebrity, older individuals (relatives or family friends) have become influential for youth who see conversations with the elderly as a means of gaining valuable insight on life itself. Especially because they’ve actually lived lived through historically significant times:

“Older people teach us about the world we live in. If I’m going to take someone’s advice, I want it to be from someone who’s an expert in whatever they’re talking about. Older people are unapologetic experts at life. They open your eyes to what life is like in decades that you haven’t experienced yet.” Laura, 27

All older individuals also have the ingredients of youth celebrity within them because they are, in their essence, symbols of change. Physical, emotional, political or cultural change. Change that has happened and change that can happen with time. And change is one of the most topical drivers of conversation in 2019:

"Despite the divergence in trust between the informed public and mass population the world is united on one front—all share an urgent desire for change. Only one in five feels that the system is working for them, with nearly half of the mass population believing that the system is failing them" Edelman Trust Barometer 2019

As long standing figures of change and defiance, people like Keith Richards (75), for example, are signifiers for youth that there can be hope amidst chaos, and that great success can come by leading an unconventional life. In this context, older people help young people to assess their personal ambitions, by setting their uncertainty at ease and providing welcome education opportunities.

The elderly icon appeals to young people today because they’ve have been around the block (they’re resilient), they know their shit (they’ve seen it all and there’s something to learn from them), plus, they’re different and confident in who they are (they make zero apologies for not necessarily being ‘on trend’).

Older people are experts in living. Turn to them for insight and inspiration on how you could educate, tell a story, or provide a discovery opportunity for young people.

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