They’ve been a popular gag gift for as long as anyone can remember: crassly humorous birthday cards that brand their graying recipients as “over the hill” and welcome them to the “old farts club.”
But a backlash is brewing against these mocking perennials — with their advice to “roll with the paunches” and their images of stooped men and wrinkled women doddering toward the bathroom or the liquor cabinet. Critics say they’re mean-spirited and reinforce negative stereotypes of aging at a time when large numbers of Americans are living longer.
With the approach of Oct. 7, which activists have designated Ageism Awareness Day, a group called Changing the Narrative is challenging America’s card makers to reframe their message and design a new collection of cards that celebrate, rather than denigrate, aging.
“Maybe birthday cards are a way we can educate more people about ageism,” said Janine Vanderburg, 69, director and chief catalyst of the nonprofit, who grew up in New Bedford and is now based in Colorado.
Invited to deliver a keynote speech to the Greeting Card Association last year, Vanderburg used the opportunity to call out toxic attitudes toward older people. Since then, Changing the Narrative has been marketing a line of about two dozen “anti-ageist” birthday cards designed by artists it commissioned. Their messages are more uplifting, if less catchy, than the purportedly funny cards: “Another year older, wiser, and more grateful,” and “You are not too old. It is not too late.”
But those upbeat offerings are just a pilot project, Vanderburg said. She’s now urging commercial card makers to follow her group’s lead.
“Our goal at Changing the Narrative is not to become greeting card producers,” she said. “It’s to encourage manufacturers and the people in the business to create more age-friendly cards, and to encourage those of us who are older to think about what are we saying to each other, and to ourselves, when we send those really awful birthday cards.”
Some card makers are taking heed, offering more cards with celebratory messages but not abandoning their caustic staples with disparaging images and “it’s all downhill from here” themes.
Vanderburg’s keynote “gave a lot of people something to think about,” said Nora Weiser, executive director of the Greeting Card Association, a trade group representing nearly 200 companies. She lamented that, in an era of heightened sensitivity to racism, sexism, and other forms of bias, too many think “ageism is the last acceptable ‘ism’ out there.”
The pushback is drawing support in Massachusetts, where even groups that provide services to older folks have been rethinking their messages in recent years. As one sign of that, the City of Boston changed the name of its Commission on Affairs of the Elderly to the Age Strong Commission in 2019 and launched a multimedia campaign against ageism.
“Aging still has negative connotations, and you see that in these [birthday] cards,” said Age Strong Commissioner Emily Shea. “But we’re all aging, and we should think more positively about that.”
And while the birthday cards pick on all older folks, many say they’re particularly insulting to older women, who are often depicted as frumpy or boozy.
“I can’t stand them,” said Barbara Anthony, senior fellow and health care consultant at the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank. “I would never give them to a friend or relative. I have no sense of humor about ageism, the same way I have no sense of humor about racism.”
Kathy Dalton, 66, manager of the Living Well Network in Cambridge, an advocacy group for residents 55 and over, said her feelings about the supposedly jocular birthday cards have evolved. Her mother kept a whole collection of “over the hill”-themed cards she planned to send to her friends. When she died recently at age 97, Dalton tossed them.
“I’m increasingly finding them offensive,” she said. “We get an idea about age when we’re very young, and we carry these stereotypes through our lives. And when we get older, we apply them to ourselves.”
That dynamic is explored in “Ageism Unmasked,” a new book by Tracey Gendron, who chairs the gerontology department at Virginia Commonwealth University. She explores the baleful influence of a youth-obsessed “anti-aging industry” that encompasses everything from television ads to beauty products to plastic surgery. Gendron applauds efforts by Changing the Narrative and a similar group in the United Kingdom to raise awareness and create alternative messages.
“Birthday cards are among the worse offenders when it comes to ageist rhetoric with their misguided attempts at humor,” she wrote. She summed up the cards’ takeaway succinctly: “Isn’t it funny that you are old, wearing a diaper, grumpy, and deaf? Happy birthday!”
Yet there are economic incentives for humorous cards portraying cranky and absent-minded elders: They remain reliable sellers even as greeting card revenue as a whole is shrinking, according to industry analysts. Ironically, they say, older folks are the top buyers of paper-and-envelope cards, while younger consumers have gravitated toward digital “e-cards” and social media memes, many with the same needling “you’re getting older” motifs for those as young as 30.
And while some see the over-the-hill cards as objectionable, “everyone’s take on what’s acceptable and what’s humorous is different,” Weiser said. Critics are raising awareness, she said, but “I don’t think all cards are going to be stripped of any humor that might make fun of aging.”
Hallmark, the largest US greeting company, is already designing more cards with a “positive aging” theme.
“The shift and the tone we are taking aligns with what people want to feel today — thankful, appreciative, wise, and accomplished to be ‘getting older,’” Hallmark vice president Nicole Hite-Heleniak, wrote in an e-mailed response to questions.
At the same time, Hite-Heleniak acknowledged “there are still consumers that like to purchase cards for others that tease them about getting older . . . For example, I may give my younger brother a snarky aging card because . . . it’s my brother and that’s our relationship.”
Others agree that matters of taste are bound up with a card’s intention and the sense of humor of the person receiving it.
“Are the cards appropriate?” asked Kevin Driscoll, 71, a Framinghammusical ventriloquist. “It depends on the person. They’re in business to make money. If people buy the cards, they’re not going to turn it down.”
Driscoll himself is sometimes hired to entertain at birthday parties dressed as the grim reaper, toting a puppet decked out in similar attire. “I have shoulder-length white hair, a natural white beard, and I arrive dressed all in black to deliver a birthday greeting,” he said. “It’s always funny, always lighthearted. It’s good we can laugh at ourselves.”
For others, there’s a growing feeling that the kind of sarcastic humor displayed in many birthday cards is itself getting old and tired.
“I’m not going to throw aspersions against people who want to buy those type of cards,” said Paul Lanzikos, 72, of Beverly, coordinator of Dignity Alliance Massachusetts, a grassroots coalition of aging and disability service advocates. “But I like the idea of a dignified alternative.”
This story has been updated to correct the title of Tracey Gendron’s book, “Ageism Unmasked.”
Robert Weisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.