In his book, The Longevity Economy, MIT’s Joe Coughlin argues that just by meeting the needs of older consumers, corporations can vastly improve their quality of life and change the way they experience old age itself. In part 1 of this blog, Ashton Applewhite explained why she thinks that won’t work. In part 2, below, she explores what will.
A consumer revolution requires a social revolution. We know that as time grows shorter, a sense of purpose becomes an ever-higher priority for olders. As Coughlin observes, “Culture helps determine what older people find meaningful. And that raises a question: can . . . new, socially permissible routes to meaning open up?”
Of course they can: look at the effect of the women’s movement on women’s lives around the world! Whether global or local, whether revolutionary or reactionary, social movements challenge our notion of what’s “normal,” equitable and possible, and in the process transform society. The technology- and consumption-driven revolution described in The Longevity Economy cannot take place without a mass movement to raise awareness of ageism and to end it.
Changing the culture is hard, and it involves struggle. That struggle doesn’t start in a shopping cart, whether online or at Walmart. It starts between our ears with the uncomfortable task of confronting our own, largely unconscious, age bias. It’s internalized ageism that keeps olders away from senior centers “because of all the old people there—I’m not like them.” (That and the fact that an ageist society doesn’t fund adequate, attractive, age-integrated gathering places.)
Paired with ableism, ageism keeps olders from using walkers or wheelchairs because of the stigma, even when it means never leaving home. The same toxic combo scares off potential subscribers to the Village-to-Village, aging-in-place movement, as Coughlin observes, because of “a serious perception barrier preventing people—even those evidently quite happy to join a service explicitly for older adults—from seeing themselves in a club designed to provide care for its oldest and frailest.”
Those “perception barriers” are based on fear and shame, the grotesque notion that to age is to fail. We’re going to stay mired in age shame until we take off our collective blinders and acknowledge, out loud and together, what we know to be true: that age enriches us. We’re not going to put these fears in perspective—to acknowledge, for example, that aging well and living with disability can and do coexist—without a shift in cultural values.
That won’t happen without mass political action that provokes society-wide upheaval because the dominant culture will push back hard, as it does against anything that threatens the status quo. A shift in consumer behavior isn’t going to do it. We need people in the streets, not waiting for the free market to rescue us or carry the ball.
Change begins with consciousness raising, the tool that catalyzed the women’s movement. (Here’s a link to Who Me, Ageist? A Guide to Starting a Consciousness-raising Group.) Women came together in the 1970s, compared stories and realized that the obstacles they were facing—not getting heard, or hired—or respected—weren’t personal misfortunes but widely shared political problems that required collective action. Social change occurs only as we take that awareness out into the world and directly and explicitly confront the ageism that diminishes and segregates older Americans in every arena.
“The new, bespoke narrative of old age will emerge organically from our jobs as consumers. It will fit like a tailored suit,” Coughlin writes. Corporations are indeed going to do well by those of us who can afford tailors. There will be robots to hoist and help us, lovely communities to shield us from isolation, implants to enhance our senses (thank you, brand new cornea)—but only for those of us who can afford them. We can’t achieve equity without addressing the ways in which age intersects with race, class and gender. The movement needs to be much broader in order to bring about the richer and better old age that we all hope to live long enough to enjoy.
Coughlin does acknowledge, almost in passing, that “we’re staring at a possible future in which the gift of extra years of life is diverted straight to the wealthiest people in the world.” Possible? In a historic and shameful reversal, lifespans in the United States are in decline, largely among poor white women. A 2017 report by the United Nations found growing numbers of Americans living in extreme poverty. The engine of that disparity is unfettered capitalism.
The modern, welfare state was born in response to disparity, lifting millions out of poverty in the wake of the Great Depression. That safety net has since been shrunk, and all the cuts that late-stage capitalism requires in order to stay viable, including the current tax [law], promise to shred it further.
Capitalism is at best indifferent to the welfare of vulnerable populations and, more typically, hostile to it. Pitting “disposable workers” against each other keeps salaries low, and the less economically productive people at both ends of the age spectrum are especially at risk.
Gender disadvantages. Companies continue to pay women less than men and promote them less often because these practices help the bottom line and because they can still get away with them. Racism and homophobia also enter in. Older workers of color are most at risk for unemployment, with older African American men twice as likely to be unemployed as older white men. LBGT olders fare even worse.
Corporations are no more going to fix ageism than they’re going to fix racism or sexism.
Closing the inequality gap and moving towards age equity mean “changing the fundamental rules of old age,” Coughlin writes. I couldn’t agree more, and technology and innovation will indeed help older Americans stay healthy and connected. But at best his proposal is a subset of the solution. At worst it’s a Band-Aid on the gaping wound of deep economic inequality and a dangerous distraction from the radical action necessary to catalyze real social change.
A better life for older people means valuing human beings lifelong, independent of their ability to consume or produce. That’s a better world for everyone. Only a grassroots social movement will bring it about, and that movement is underway.