Age studies scholars have long noted problems with using a tsunami metaphor to describe population ageing. Age-friendly offers a new way to respond to an increase in older adults. Though critical gerontologists identify the related movement’s limits, “age-friendly” itself is rarely recognized as a metaphor. This paper proposes that, while the metaphor of age-friendly is more benign than that of the tsunami, it still portrays an ageing population as a homogenous problem to be solved through morally obligatory individual actions, thereby participating in a form of age panic. The analysis draws on a humanities-based close reading of the World Health Organization’s 2007 “Global Age-Friendly Cities: A Guide.” The method uncovers attitudes that anchor the metaphor and hamper the movement’s effectiveness, particularly when trying to reach people who have not already been well served all their lives. The emphasis on a narrow version of active ageing feeds a neoliberal imagination that affects how value is assigned to an ageing population. That underlying emphasis needs to shift before new metaphors, policies and practices for population ageing—that allow for the variability and uniqueness of late-life experience—can take hold. How might we reconceptualize the ageing population if we focus on contributions and meaning instead?