Too old?! Ageism as a shared social problem

tim smithAshton Applewhite

Writer and activist, Brooklyn, New York.

Ageism starts with our own attitude on aging. Consider: do you ever look at somebody and think he/she is too old for those clothes, that look, that job, that relationship?

Ashton Applewhite is the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto against Ageism and a leading spokesperson for a movement to mobilize against discrimination on the basis of age.

We spoke with her during the ME convention held in Frankfurt in September 2019.

Why did you start thinking about ageism?

This work began as a project about people over 80 in the workforce. As I began my research, I realized how much of what I thought I knew about old age was way too negative or not nuanced enough or flat out wrong, and I became obsessed with why so few people had the facts right.

What was your age at that time?

I was in my mid 50’s. In hindsight, I started thinking about this because I was afraid of getting old.

You undertake a lot against ageism. What could an individual do and what could an organization, a society do to work against ageism?

The very first, essential, most uncomfortable step, is to look at your own attitudes towards age and aging. Because we’re all influenced by growing up in an ageist world, we’re all prejudiced, and we can’t challenge bias unless we’re aware of it.

The good news is that once you see ageism between your ears, you start to see it everywhere. And then you realize: “Oh, it’s not my personal “failling”” if somehow I allowed myself to get wrinkles or to get laid off from a job.”  I use air-quotes around “failing” because obviously I do not believe that to age is to fail, although there’s lot of messaging to that effect.

Once we begin to perceive ageism as a shared social problem rather than a personal problem, we  realize we can come together and do something about it. There’s a name for that process coined by a sociologist named Doug McAdam — cognitive liberation — and it is the cornerstone of movement-building. That’s what we need: a broad-based social movement, like the women’s movement, to raise awareness of ageism and to end it.

What do you think about the encore career movement led by Marc Freeman?

Marc’s new book is called “How to Live Forever”, which is a very clever title. I thought it was totally ageist until I realized what it means: we live forever through the legacy we leave to the generations that follow. This is a gorgeous idea. It’s pretty hard to make me really angry, but I find the idea that we “olders” do not care about the world we leave behind to be truly hateful. Encore has been a huge supporter of my work from the get-go, and I love Marc’s work because it builds intergenerational solidarity. Age segregation is a huge problem in the U.S., and we “olders” and “youngers” need to work together to solve the really wicked problems facing the planet.

Do you see a need of initiatives like “Best place to work for Seniors”?

Of course, although I’m wary of any “old vs. young” framing. It’s not that old people are better than young people or vice versa, it’s that we need to share voice and power across the generations. Tons of research shows that mixed-age teams are most effective. So anything that encourages us to “come together at all ages” is implicitly anti-ageist.

Mixed-age workplaces also reinforce the fact that age is a criterion for diversity. By now we know that diversity is ethically imperative and tactically smart. So let’s make sure age is included in our criteria. Down the line I would like to have the story about the best bottle cap not to be about whether the people who make it are black or brown or female or queer but about how they came together to do the thing and what each of them brought to the process: An age-neutral society, a race-neutral society, a gender-neutral society.

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