Margaret Morganroth Gullette: Revolutionist against Ageism

A scholar takes on ageist violence in all its guises

This article is the next in our series on the future of aging: interviews with people who are experts in their fields and are also visionaries. We’re asking them to talk about what they believe will happen in the years ahead to change the experience of aging.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette, PhD, is a leading scholar in age studies—especially ageism’s effects on the midlife years. For more than 35 years, through books, essays and teaching, Gullette has educated people about ageism and provided thoughtful commentary on the changing American culture.

Ageism did not end with the 20th century. But there were hopes.

Feminism had brought changes for women, rights movements had brought changes for black people and disabled people, and the—well, there was no widespread, organized movement for older people. But surely things were looking up.

Margaret Morganroth Gullette, PhD, for one, was optimistic. In 1988, the midlife-studies scholar published a book called Safe at Last in the Middle Years about how middle age wasn’t always depicted as such a downer in fiction anymore. And in 1989, at 47 years old, she wrote an essay for the New York Times called “Midlife Exhilaration.”

“As the largest age group in the country, our tastes, our opinions, our dollars can make changes,” she wrote in the essay. The oldest boomers were in their early 40s. The revolution was coming. 

Ageism is growing stronger and affects people at younger ages than ever.

Unfortunately, it got stalled somewhere along the way. In fact, since she began studying it, ageism has strengthened, Gullette, now 75, contends—and it’s hitting people younger than ever.

“Lacking its own passionate movement, ageism remains the most stubbornly, perplexing naturalized of the isms,” Gullette points out in her latest book, Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People (2017).

So, through her book, she’s hoisting the revolutionary flag again, calling for people of all ages to join the cause. But to put much-needed passion into the movement, first things first: like the American Revolution, this one, she says, must begin with a detailed, pointed declaration.

The Declaration of Grievances

Gullette is one of only a few American scholars to have long specialized in middle-ageism—a term she coined. She now studies ageism across the age spectrum. She’s written a number of award-winning essays and books and has taught at Harvard, Radcliffe and Berkeley.

Now a resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, Gullette fights what’s called the “decline narrative”—the idea that youth is the best time to be alive, and then it all goes downhill.

“The narrative gets reproduced by the people who live in the culture,” Gullette says. “They’ll have black-balloon parties at age 30, or they’ll start sending jocular cards to friends. There’s one—it’s a Valentine’s Day card, actually—it goes, ‘Grow old and disgusting with me.’”

When you’re made to feel ashamed that you’re old, that’s a form of violence.

These types of jokes may seem harmless, but they support an ageist culture, which causes palpable harms, Gullette argues. Yet those harms are often unrecognized, minimized or ignored. So in Ending Ageism, she lays them out—going so far as to include “A Declaration of Grievances,” whose style is reminiscent of the Declaration of Independence.

“Through shameless age-shaming, they silence us,” reads the first of 13 grievances. (“They” refers to people causing or benefiting from the “subjugation” of older people.) “They destroy confidence in our own powers, lessen our autonomy, and make many accept, willingly or not, an unnecessarily dependent or abject life.”

To begin to reduce ageism, Gullette calls for “a revolution in perception and empathy” across all ages and throughout society. We spoke with her about this vision and how she’d like to achieve it.

SCF: You’ve pointed out that ageism has gotten worse at the same time American society has been celebrating increased longevity. Why do you think that is?

MMG: One of the reasons is that there are more people who need to capitalize on ageism. You could start with the people who get money out of frightening people about getting older. I call them the dysfunction and the uglification industries.

The dysfunction industry tells you that your sexuality is impaired, starting as early as they can get you to believe it. The uglification industries include the fashion magazines and a lot of the portrait photography, and so on, that try to get people to believe that they need help with their appearance as they get older, which could be anything from hair dye to Botox to surgery.

There’s a kind of rule in critical age studies, and that is, look for the money. So those are the businesses that actually make money out of aging. But they have to convince you that you are becoming a needier person.

Then there are the people who want to cut out the social safety net—the entire Republican Congress right now. They want to cut Social Security, Medicare—what I call the first-generation solutions to ageism. So again, you’re looking for the money.

SCF: You want to start a revolution against ageism. Who do you need to join it?

MMG: Children should be where families start in anti-ageism. In other words, you just be real careful what you’re saying about grandparents and older people in general.

And then, once they get old enough—I think certainly in high school—you can have anti-ageism as part of the curriculum, just the way you [can] have antiracism or antisexism part of the curriculum.

Education—while it can’t do everything in this ageist ideology, it can do a lot. So I focus in the book [Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People] on the college years, and I actually have a chapter that’s about teaching anti-ageism in a freshman composition course. I think that’s a good place in college to begin. You want students to not just think about ageism. You want them to discover it for themselves.

One of the things I did is to have the age barometer. The first 10 minutes of every class—it could be longer—I asked students to come in with anything that was about age or ageism. Some of them might want to do a Google search for ageism, and they would find the material. And I would be encouraging them to look at their own circles—listen for ageist comments from their roommates.

Teachers—once you give them the concepts, they can run with it themselves.

SCF: The 13 items in your “Declaration of Grievances” are varied and inclusive. For example, you mention distorted depictions of older people in the arts, discriminatory laws and hiring practices, and the treatment of older people as burdens. How did you devise this list?

MMG: The “Declaration of Grievances” covers the grievances that the book covers. It is a two-page summation of the concerns.

Now when I started writing the book, I did not think that I was going to write the “Declaration of Grievances.” In fact, quite the contrary. I said to myself, “This is for a decade hence—or maybe two decades hence—when we really understand ageism. That’s when somebody will write, in wonderful language, a declaration. I didn’t think it would be me. It was almost serendipitous that by the end of the book, I could write it.

SCF: What are some of the effects of all these different types of ageism on older people?

MMG: That you are both invisible and hypervisible. That younger people, but also ourselves—we are intolerant about our appearance. We lack an audience for our subjectivities and our grievances. People underestimate our suffering and the violence that’s turned against us. And they’re unwilling to look us in the eye or spend time in our company. These emotions are the experience of the book.

SCF: You mentioned violence against older people. What’s an example of that?

MMG: When being invisible means that you are likely to be knocked down—that public spaces are not safe for you—I think that’s violent.

Hate speech is violent. There are examples in the book of Internet hate speech. But there are also other kinds of violence. People who think they know, better than you do, what you want—I think their attitude toward you is violent. I think being made to feel ashamed of being old is a form of violence.

Many people feel ashamed of being old. And I say, “This is not intrinsic to you. You are suffering from the affect that somebody else is imposing on you. It is their disdain. It is their contempt that is the violence that is causing you to feel shame.”

SCF: Why do you call things that don’t physically hurt you violent?

MMG: Because the effects are so violent—to turn a whole group of people into self-conscious individuals who may be ashamed of aging, which is a natural phenomenon—just as natural as being a woman or a person of color. To be an age shamer is a disgraceful form of being.

SCF: Part of the book’s title is “How Not to Shoot Old People.” That’s a play on words. You use it to mean both shooting with a gun and shooting with a camera—referring to the way older people are depicted in the arts—correct?

MMG: Yeah. But I also mean “shooting” as a metaphor for these other forms of violence. And let me give you one other instance: medical violence, which is denying not-so-very-old people who have lung, colorectal and breast cancers and lymphoma the life-saving treatments [doctors] would offer younger people. I give instances of that in the book.

SCF: Is the idea that older people are undertreated debatable, though?

MMG: I wouldn’t say that it’s debatable. I would just say that it’s not well enough known.

I could give you an exact example, which is new; it’s not in the book. It’s from Wales. And it’s about cardiac resuscitation. They studied the time [EMTs] spent giving cardiac resuscitation to people over 70 and under 70. Well, it was 13 minutes for people under 70, and it was 6 minutes for people over 70.

Now that’s not controversial. It’s a study. When people want to deny ageism, they’ll say to me, “It’s only one study, and it’s in Wales.” There are ways of denying ageism the way there are ways of denying sexism and racism. This happens all the time.

One particular study is not expositive. But the weight of the evidence in my book means you cannot deny that there is a range of ageisms—that many of them are experienced in violence.

SCF: Have boomers reduced ageism? Will they as they get older?

MMG: Allegedly, they’ve done it. You know, “Boomers will change aging the way they changed every other phase of life.” They were born, and they needed more schools, and so the schools got built. But actually they didn’t make that happen; their parents made that happen. So I think a lot of things that the boomers were said to have done they didn’t really do.

If they could have changed the situation that I’m describing, they should have done it [years ago]. The problem is, of course, that there is no such thing as the boomers. Everybody born in one cohort is not like everybody else in that cohort. That’s the basic, sociological truth. In fact, they have every difference that you can imagine under the sun. If you take the homeless vet and the one-percenter, what do they have politically in common?

SCF: Do you think ageism will get worse or better in the near future?

MMG: A lot depends on politics. In other words, we have not had a president who took the White House as a bully pulpit for anti-ageism. Might we have such a president? Well, maybe we could. One of the things the movement needs is leaders who are willing to declare the grievances, speak for the humiliated and the dehumanized, speak on behalf of their causes.

There are countries that are doing pretty well. I think Europe is doing better than the United States. I … was at [the 2016 Social Innovation for Active and Healthy Ageing international conference]. It was in Barcelona last fall, and I was a keynote speaker. There were hundreds of people, in all fields, thinking about social innovations for age: how to bring computers to old people, how to have universal design for old people. And this was all paid for by the European Union.

We have a lot of agencies in the United States that are pro-aging. All our [Area Agencies on Aging], for example, are pro-aging. But they’re not anti-ageist. That’s the crucial link that needs to be made.

SCF: You say that to fight ageism, we need a “revolution in perception and empathy.” How so?

MMG: This goes back to the families. I take my family as a certain kind of model, but many, many families are like this: we’re protective and empathic. Our elders get a lot of respect and understanding, and their own children—midlife children—spread it through the rest of the family.

But how do you reactivate that kind of familial loving-kindness and protectiveness at the national social level or international social level when a lot of people think ageism is done with? Because we have all these first-generation solutions [such as Social Security and Medicare]—it’s all taken care of, right?

I mean, you may get a request to help save Social Security, and you’ll sign a petition or something like that, and then that’s the end of it. But no, the second-generation stuff is still floating around in the atmosphere and distorting our perceptions and making us feel that old people—particularly if they have cognitive impairments—are not quite us; they’re not quite human anymore.

So yes, I think reactivating loving-kindness and protectiveness at the social level is an immensely important task. But it’s not just going, “I’m pro-aging.” If you don’t name the bad guys—if you don’t say, “These industries do us dirt, do us down”—if you don’t go on the attack, then you’re not going to be able to generate new perceptions and new kinds of empathy.

[Younger people] don’t know yet the harms that ageism does—don’t understand how deeply wounding ageism is to individuals and to society. So the first level is sort of like a cognitive and an emotional process: recognize the suffering, recognize the hidden injuries of age, and then you’ll be able to have new perceptions and empathy. Otherwise, it just strikes on deaf ears.

You can say a thousand times to people—gerontologists have said this for decades: “Nobody can live on a $1,000 a month; [many] old people are poor.” That doesn’t take somehow. It’s like slinging arrows into the air. They fall you know not where.

SCF: You mentioned “second-generation stuff” that’s floating around. What did you mean by that?

MMG: The first generation was making sure that there was a safety net. That was the 1960s, and then [George W.] Bush added a pharmaceutical benefit [in 2003]—which benefited the pharmaceutical companies also—but that’s the stuff that we believed solved all the issues: the elder services, Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare.

The second generation is all this other stuff—the stuff that’s in the “Declaration of Grievances.” It has nothing to do with the first-generation solutions. It’s over and above. It’s the burden language. It’s the decline language. It’s the belief that it’s worse—I mean, but the belief is true; it is worse to get older in the United States. You are likelier to lose a job if you’re older than if you’re younger.

SCF: Getting older is strongly associated with death. Does aversion to mortality factor into ageism? If so, how do you combat that?

MMG: People forget that old age goes on for a long time. Young people are very vulnerable to this mistake about old age. They think that your business is to die, so go on, get on with it. I’m not saying all young people. There are pages with Internet trolls talking about old age. “Once were people” is what one troll called old people.

I say this with a little more experience about how long old age goes on—and I anticipate that my own old age, which has already begun, will go on a very long time too.

So hold your horses, guys. We’re not dying. We’re here. It could be a slogan: we’re here to stay. We are still human. And we want to be treated in a humane way. And we’re going to make our demands known. And we hope you’ll listen.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.