In many ways, the makeup of the American population is changing rapidly. But one of the factors we don’t often consider when discussing this shift is age. As it turns out, by 2060, the number of Americans over 65 is projected to more than double from 46 million today to over 98 million. And the fastest growing age group of all? 85 and older.
What does this all mean? According to Ashton Applewhite, it means it’s more important than ever to reevaluate the way we value — and devalue — younger and older generations because of their age. Applewhite is an internationally recognized expert on ageism and a leading spokesperson for a movement to mobilize against discrimination on the basis of age. She’s the author of a number of seminal books, including Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well and This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism — the most important work on ageism yet. She also blogs at ThisChairRocks.com and runs the website, Yo, Is This Ageist?
In her 2018 Bioneers keynote address, Applewhite address the blindingly apparent reality that our society is profoundly ageist, and that unless we begin to shift our attitudes and the social policies that discriminate against older generations, we will all lose out.
Let’s start with the scary stuff: My darkest fear used to be ending up drooling in some grim institutional hallway. Then I learned that the percentage of Americans over 65 in nursing homes is 2.5 percent — and it’s dropping. Even for people over 85, it’s only 9 percent.
What else was I worried about? Dementia. But if you substitute that 2.5 percent in nursing homes, 90 percent of the remainder is cognitively fit. Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease, but it is not a typical part of aging. Even as the population ages, dementia rates are falling significantly. There are more cases of Alzheimer’s because the number of older people in the population is growing, but the odds of anyone in this room getting dementia have dropped significantly, and we’re getting diagnosed at later ages.
The real epidemic is anxiety over memory loss. I also assumed that old people were depressed because they were old, and they were going to die soon. But it turns out that people are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of our lives. It’s called the U-curve of happiness, and it has been borne out by dozens of studies around the world.
The curve is a function of the way aging affects the brain. So slowly, skeptically, I realized that old age was almost certainly going to be different and way better than the grim slide into depression, dementia, and puffy white shoes of my nightmares. I started feeling a lot better about the years ahead, and I started obsessing about why so few of us know these things because these facts are readily available.
Why are we so afraid of aging?
The reason is ageism. We experience it anytime someone assumes we’re too old or too young for something, instead of finding out who we are and what we’re capable of and interested in. Ageism cuts both ways, and young people experience a lot of it too. It is any judgment about a person or group of people based on how old we think they are.
Ageism: A (Dangerous) Social Construct
All prejudices — ageism, sexism, racism — are socially constructed ideas, which is just a fancy way of saying we make them up, and they change over time, and they serve a social and economic purpose. They’re not about how we look. They’re about how people in power assign meaning to how we look. Stereotyping underlies all prejudice: the assumption that all members of a group are alike. It’s especially wrong-headed when it comes to aging, because the longer we live, the more different from one another we become.
Yet we tend to think of everyone in a retirement home as the same age — that would be “old” — when they can span four decades. Just think for a minute about whether any of us would think that way about a group of people between ages 10 and 50, who are actually far more homogenous.
Pitting young against old, like pitting groups of low-wage workers against each other or the interests of stay-at-home moms against moms in the paid workforce, is a time-honored tactic used to divide groups who might otherwise join forces to challenge the status quo. This us-or-them logic always pops up around healthcare rationing. Listen for it. “Why should we spend money on old people when we could spend it on kids?”
It is not ethical or legal to allocate resources by race or by sex, and weighing the needs of the old against the young is equally unacceptable. Next time someone brings that up, point that out.
Old vs. young thinking also fails the common sense test. Communities that are good to grow old in — they have public transport and parks and social services — are good for everyone else too. They’re good for commuters and families and kids. They are all-age friendly.
Nobody’s born ageist, but it starts in early childhood at the same time that attitudes towards race and gender start to form, because negative messages about life bombard us from early childhood on, starting with cartoons and children’s books. Wrinkles are ugly. Old people are incompetent. It’s sad to be old — unless we challenge the underlying message that to age is to lose value as a human being.
It becomes part of our identity, and that is internalized ageism. I had to acknowledge my own prejudices and stop colluding. “Senior moment” quips, for example; I used to think they were self-deprecatingly cute until it finally dawned on me that when I lost the car keys in high school, I didn’t call it a “junior moment.” Kids forget things all the time too. I stopped blaming my sore knee on being 66. My other knee feels fine, and it’s just as old.
What was the hardest prejudice to let go of? The one against myself … my own future older self. All prejudice relies on othering: seeing a group of people as other than ourselves — other color, other nationality. The weird thing about ageism is that that other is your own self. It’s us. Ageism feeds on denial and our reluctance to admit that we will age or that we might even be old. It’s denial when we try to pass for younger or believe in anti-aging products or get offended when someone politely offers us a seat on the bus.
Age denial blinds us to our bias, and it perpetuates it in 1,000 ways. Having a vagina isn’t what makes life harder for women — it’s sexism. Loving a man isn’t what makes life harder for gay guys — it’s homophobia. The passage of time isn’t what makes getting older harder than it has to be — it is ageism.
When labels are hard to read or there’s no handrail, or we can’t open the damn jar, we blame ourselves. We think, “I should be stronger or better prepared.” We fault ourselves instead of the ageism that makes those natural transitions shameful, and the discrimination that makes those barriers acceptable. When we dye our hair to cover the gray or conceal our age, or leave early accomplishments off our resumes, we reinforce age shame. Those are really successful strategies — I completely understand why so many of us engage in them. But they’re like a gay person trying to pass for straight, or a person of color trying to pass for white. They’re not good for us because they’re based in shame about something that shouldn’t be shameful, and they give a pass to the underlying discrimination that makes these behaviors necessary.
For those of us who face other kinds of discrimination, like lesbians and women of color, the costs are even higher. Aging is not a problem to be fixed or a disease to be cured. It is a natural, powerful, lifelong process that unites us all.
You can’t make money off satisfaction, but shame and fear create markets, and capitalism always needs new markets. Who says wrinkles are ugly? The multi-billion dollar anti-aging skin care industry. Who says perimenopause and mild cognitive impairment are medical conditions? The trillion dollar pharmaceutical industry. The more clearly we see these forces at work, the easier it is to come up with alternative, more positive, and more accurate narratives. The longer we wait to do that, the more damage it does to ourselves, and to our place in the world.
Longer lives require working longer and saving more, and yet two-thirds of Americans report encountering discrimination at work. The personal economic consequences are devastating. Not one negative stereotype about older workers holds up under scrutiny. Experience is an asset, not a liability.
We know that diverse workplaces aren’t just better places to work, they work better, especially in creative fields. And just like race and gender, age is a criterion for diversity. Push back against age discrimination and again, workers of all ages benefit. Older workers need flexibility and accessibility, and so do students and people with disabilities, and caregivers, and anyone trying to make a living in the heartless gig economy.
Ageism in medicine often means less treatment, worse treatment, and sometimes no treatment at all. Why should we accept a different standard of care for older people? That is institutionalized ageism at work. And internalized ageism matters a lot too.
A growing body of really fascinating research shows that attitudes toward aging affect how our minds and bodies function at the cellular level. People with more positive feelings walk faster, heal quicker, and live seven-and-a-half years longer, on average. They are also less likely to develop dementia, even if they have the gene that predisposes them to the disease. Positive beliefs, the thinking goes, help buffer the effects of stress and prejudice, which of course are a result of living in an ageist world. That’s why the World Health Organization is developing a global anti-ageism campaign to extend not just lifespan, but health span.
Women face the double whammy of ageism and sexism, so we experience aging differently. Women are less likely to be able to afford a decent old age because we earn less than men, we’re penalized for time spent out of the workforce (typically on unpaid caregiving), and we live longer. There’s a double standard at work here: the notion that aging enhances men and devalues women. We women reinforce this double standard when we compete to stay young. You don’t need a PhD in women’s studies to know this is not good for us. It reinforces ageism, sexism, lookism — the idea that the most important thing about us is how we look — and patriarchy. It sets us up to fail by pitting us against each other. It affects our income, health, and well-being, and the effects are compounded by race and class, which is why everywhere in the world, the poorest of the poor and sickest of the sick are old women of color.
Disability and aging are different, but they overlap in important ways that we tend not only to overlook, but to brush under the rug. Both olders and people with disabilities encounter discrimination and prejudice on a massive scale. Cognitive impairment is even more stigmatized, and yet we act as though people with disabilities never grow old, and olders never become differently abled. Prejudice frames the other group as alien and lesser, even though people with disabilities come in all ages, and most of us, if we live long enough, will encounter some kind of impairment. This reinforces stigma both ways.
Many olders refuse to use walkers or wheelchairs, even when it means never leaving home, because the stigma is so great. It makes our activism less effective when we ignore this overlap.
In the ’70s and ’80s, disability right activists reframed the way we see disability. They changed it from an individual medical problem into a social problem. Then they demanded integration, access, and equal rights. Our goal is the same. A culture that rejects narrow definitions of productivity and attractiveness finds meaning within limitations and takes a realistic and inclusive view of what it means to be human.
Feeling alienated from and apprehensive at becoming like older people is not natural. It is not inevitable. It is the result of social forces: ageism, sexism, capitalism. Age segregation cuts us off from most of humanity. That’s how it impoverishes us, especially in the U.S., where remarkably few people have older or younger friends. It’s really rare to see a group with all different ages in it.
Exchanging skills and stories across generations is the natural order of things, something Indigenous Peoples never lost sight of — an intergenerational world is a better world.
So where do we go from here? We tap into what we know. Aging enriches us. Again, as when it comes to environmental stewardship, this means tapping into what Indigenous People have always known: growing older isn’t just different from what most of us have been brainwashed to believe, it is way better. It’s not that the losses aren’t real. I am not a Pollyanna about aging, but it does bring authenticity, confidence, perspective, self-awareness. Priorities are clearer. We care less about what people think, which is really liberating, especially for women. And that’s why I’ve never met anyone who actually wants to go back to their youth.
Look more generously at each other and ourselves. Entire industries, billion dollar industries are built on convincing you that my 66-year-old face and body are hideous, and that old equals ugly, especially for women. A system designed to exploit our insecurities can only do so if we consent to it.
Instead of muttering, “What the hell happened?” at the face in the mirror, how about taking a moment to recall some of the things that did happen, and how amazing some of them were.
Let’s not delude ourselves: This is the work of a lifetime. We need to embark on it at all ages, and with each other. But remember none of the stigma is natural and none of it is fixed. We can insist on being seen and on being valued as our full, rich, lumpy, complicated selves, and take that out into the world.
In India, where the vast majority of olders live with their families, there is nothing demeaning about receiving care and support of all kinds. The terms and power dynamics are going to shift. We’ve got time to practice. The goal is to give and receive with grace. No one is truly independent, ever. Autonomy requires collaborators. These are two-way, mutually gratifying transactions. Let’s acknowledge the need for helping hands gratefully and without shame.
Make friends of all ages. The most important aspect of a good old age is not health. It’s not wealth. It is having a solid social network. If you don’t know people much older or younger than you, seek them out. Think of something you like to do — listening to music or playing poker or organizing — and find a mixed age group to do it with. That’s how desegregation happens. People with the most at stake, which is us olders in this case, step up and step out.
The open-minded welcome us, and incremental social change takes place. Youngers benefit too. Otherwise, each generation has to figure out on its own how dumb and destructive it is to fear growing older, and how much of our youth we squander on worrying about it.
Dismantling ageism will require nothing less than a mass movement, like the one in the 20th century that catalyzed this mass shift of consciousness for women around the world. Women came together, and we shared stories, and we realized that what we had been thinking of as personal problems, like not getting hired or heard or respected, were actually collective problems that required political action.
There’s a term for that shift in awareness: Cognitive liberation. As we become aware of discrimination, stop accepting second-class status as just the way it is, and realize that we can come together to do something about it. Cognitive liberation is a fantastic feeling, and it is the linchpin of movement building.
We have an incredible opportunity. For the first time, for those of us with access to healthcare and education, four, even five living generations are becoming commonplace. We’re going to have more time to figure out what we want to do with our lives, and more time to accomplish it and share it, and more time to wind down with the people we love. The roles and institutions around us were created when lives were shorter, and they have yet to evolve. This stuff takes time.
This gives us a critical window of opportunity to shape a world that supports people of all ages. To take advantage of this so-called longevity dividend, we need to quit the reflexive hand-wringing, challenge the ageist assumptions that underlie it, and think realistically and imaginatively about how to shape the multi-generational society that we all hope to live long enough to inhabit.
Changing the culture is a tall order, but culture is fluid. Look at #MeToo. Look at how far the gay rights movement has come in just a few decades. Look at gender — we used to think of it pretty widely as a rigid binary, and now we understand that it is a spectrum. If we can change our thinking about gender, why not about age? It is high time to let go of this old-young binary. That imaginary threshold segregates us and fills us with needless dread.
Why add another ism to the list when so many — racism in particular — call out for action? Here’s the thing: We don’t have to choose. When we make the world a better place to grow old in, we make it a better place in which to be from somewhere else, to be a woman, to have a disability, to be queer, to be nonwhite, to be non-rich. And when we show up at all ages, for whatever cause matters to us, we not only make that effort more effective, we dismantle ageism organically in the process.
In the words of poet Audre Lorde, there’s no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we don’t lead single-issue lives.