Since the publication of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism (2016), I’ve been asked a lot of questions. Are you curious about why I’ve become an Old Person in Training? About my slogan for a radical age movement? Answers to these and a few other good questions are below in the second part of a two-part post.
Are olders really as much of an economic drag on society as the media portrays?
Absolutely not! People 50 and up fuel the significant, fast-growing, and often-overlooked “longevity economy,” which, according to AARP, accounted for 46 percent of US gross domestic product ($7.1 trillion) in 2012. By 2021 the 50-plus age group is projected to drive more than half of US economic activity, as their spending fuels industries that include apparel, health care, education and entertainment. These statistics capture only part of the economic contribution of older Americans, whose unpaid volunteer work in 2013 was valued at $67 billion. And while “entrepreneur” might conjure up an image of a kid in that proverbial garage, twice as many successful American entrepreneurs are over age 50 as in their early 20s. More resources have always flowed from older generations to younger ones than the reverse.
This is despite widespread age discrimination in employment, which prevents older workers from finding challenging work of which they’re eminently capable and relegates them to jobs that don’t take advantage of their skills and experience—Walmart greeters, say. It also makes it harder for them to find part-time and volunteer positions. Discouraged and diminished, many become economically dependent, contributing to the misperception that olders are a net burden on society, but it’s not by choice.
Society has grown far less tolerant of sexism and racism. Why do ageist attitudes and behaviors still get a pass?
That’s what I’d like to know! Can you imagine anyone (not counting Donald Trump) complacently identifying themselves as sexist or racist? Yet no one even blinks when older people are described as incompetent or boring or even repulsive. Older people can be the most prejudiced of all, having had a lifetime to internalize negative myths and stereotypes that have gone unquestioned—until now. Diversity became a buzzword because society grew less tolerant of racism and sexism and homophobia. We want different faces around the table because we don’t think access to opportunity should depend on what someone looks like. Graying hair and wrinkles count, just as attributes like skin color and sexual orientation and using a wheelchair already do. It is high time to make the last socially sanctioned prejudice as unacceptable as any other kind.
If that seems like a tall order, look at how much has shifted in how we look at gender, and how rapidly. It used to be viewed as a rigid binary, male or female, but we now understand that it’s far more fluid. If gender can be conceived of this way, why on earth not age, which is inherently, obviously, a continuum? Why not shake off our fear of being on the “wrong” side of some imaginary old/young divide and embrace a more flexible, friendly and far more rational view of age?
You call yourself an Old Person in Training. Why?
I’m 63. I know I’m not young, I don’t see myself as old, and I know many people feel the same way. We spend a lot of energy pretending that the old are somehow not us—not even future us—and that we’ll somehow never get old. Even though it’s irrational. Even though we’re doomed to fail. Even though it fills us with needless dread. Even though that denial is where ageism takes root. That’s why I’ve become an old person in training, a phrase I appropriated from geriatrician Joanne Lynn.
Becoming an Old Person in Training bridges that divide between our younger and older selves and connects them empathically. It acknowledges the inevitability of growing old while relegating it to the future, albeit at an ever-smaller remove. It swaps purpose and intent for dread and denial. It’s a relief. It feels right and it makes sense.
What does becoming an Old Person in Training involve? It means looking at older people instead of past them, remembering they were once our age, seeing resilience alongside infirmity, allowing for sensuality, enlarging our notion of beauty and acknowledging that an apartment or a room or even just a bed can be home to an internal world as rich as ours—and very possibly richer. It means thoughtful peeks through the periscope of an open mind at the terrain we’ll inhabit when we are finally old. I see the 90-year-old me as withered and teetery but also curious and content. Envisioning her won’t make it happen, but the aspiration will surely help. The consensus from people over 80, who should know, is that young people worry way too much about getting old. So the earlier we make this imaginative leap, the better—and the better equipped we’ll be to benefit from the journey.
You’d like your book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, to help catalyze a mass movement against ageism, the way Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) catalyzed the environmental movement. What kind of actions would you like to see?
My book lays out a blueprint in every domain. Change starts between our ears, with the difficult task of unlearning beliefs we’ve held all our lives. Some places to start:
- Look for ways in which you’re ageist instead of looking for evidence that you aren’t. You can’t challenge bias unless you’re aware of it, and everyone’s biased some of the time.
- Talk to people significantly older and younger than you—and listen carefully. If you don’t know many of them, seek them out.
- The next time you wonder whether an outing or an outfit or an attitude is age-appropriate, reconsider the question. There’s no such thing.
Change ripples outward when we point out ageist behaviors and beliefs in the world around us. Some places to start:
- Train yourself to notice when everyone in a group is the same age, and unless there’s some legitimate reason, speak up about it.
- Assume capacity, not incapacity. Don’t assume someone is too old—or too young—to weigh in on a topic or take on a responsibility.
- If you’re on the receiving end of an ageist comment, ask gently, “Why would you say [or think] that?” Then just be quiet.
- If you’re feeling ambitious, start a consciousness-raising group around age bias. This powerful tool catalyzed the women’s movement in the 1960s and 70s. You can download my guide, Who Me, Ageist?, here.
Changing the culture is a tall order, but look at how women’s roles have changed in a single generation and at the amazing progress we’ve made in this century alone against homophobia and transphobia.
If this new, radical, age movement had a slogan, what would you like it to be?
“Age pride!” Age pride is for dissed teenagers and dismissed olders and everyone in between. Age pride is for Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, who said, “We must be proud of our age.” If gay pride has gone mainstream, and millions of Americans now take pride in identifying as disabled, why not age pride? The only reason that idea sounds outlandish is because this is the first time you’ve encountered it. It won’t be the last. Longevity is here to stay. Everyone is aging. Dismantling ageism benefits us all.