Ashton Applewhite is an activist at the forefront of what may be one of the last civil rights struggles: the fight against ageism. Her mission, as she puts it, “is to put ageism on the same page as racism and sexism and homophobia, as grounds on which people are discriminated against all the time.” If we are going to implement successful career reinvention at this stage in our lives, we’re going to have to contend with this unfortunate phenomenon.
Her blogs, at thischairrocks.com and her Q&A page at yoisthisagest.com chronicle and decry the often subtle and undermining ways in which ageist language, symbols and perceptions color society’s view of older generations. In our recent chat, she expounded on her mission, and on how we can push back against these pernicious forces that actually undermine our own confidence in ourselves. Institutionalized ageism programs us into thinking that we’re over the hill, when we are in fact just entering the next vital and active stage of our lives.
Here are three things we can do to counter the ageist tendencies we encounter every day.
Be Proud of Growing Older
Embrace your age — don’t try to act younger in order to gain acceptance. Getting older is not about promoting particular outer appearances, but about cultivating positive inner attitudes. We need to be true to ourselves, and to recognize the fact that, contrary to the (false) conventional wisdom (ageism again), our lives are only getting better as we grow older. Ashton quotes a statistic that floored me: only 4 percent of older adults live in nursing homes. And that figure is declining. Our quality of life is on the rise due to better medical care, and to our own willingness to take charge of our health. “Aging in place” is becoming a top priority, not just a “nice to have” for our later years. Anne Karpf, author of How to Age, just published a prominent op-ed in the N.Y. Times titled “The Liberation of Age,” which contradicts the fearful assumptions we have about the experience of growing older. So if our experience on the planet has granted us a certain amount of equanimity, and we find ourselves expressing a greater sense of acceptance and appreciation for life, there is no reason for us to be defensive about our age. Let’s just continue to grow, and to “glow” and share what we’ve learned.
Watch Our Language
As we go through the day, we need to pay more attention to the words and expressions we use that denote a negative view of aging. Ashton coached me on how to be aware of the subtle ways in which we perpetuate these ageist notions that can diminish our view of ourselves. Expressions like “back in our day,” or “when we were in our prime,” set up a value proposition that just isn’t true. It is still very much “our day,” and we are still very much “in our prime.” Reframing these notions and applying a more specific wording, without the subtle, inherent judgments implied by these expressions, serves us a lot better — and models a better way for everyone to discuss life’s experiences. More neutral ways of referring to the past would be “when we were in our 20s,” or “when we were starting our careers.” Pinning our references to a time frame or a cultural era is a lot better way to describe ideas and events without resorting to language that paints us as has-beens, or somehow diminished from what we were when we were younger. We need to counteract our media-influenced notions and assumptions that equate aging with decay and degeneration. Another place to start would be to remove age references from our news stories. Just as we’ve eliminated race from these references, why indicate age unless it’s relevant to the story (e.g. a child prodigy). What does it matter?
Promote Intergenerational Life
Ashton took a vacation to Brazil and attended a holiday event in a small village where all generations were present and interacting in celebration. She points out that in North America, we live in a very age-segregated society where it is rare for us to habitually interact across generations. We feel the discomfort around this issue in our workplaces and in our families. Social media, while connecting us in an unprecedented way, also promotes cliques and social niches that often exclude and belittle perceived outsiders. Anne Karpf’s op-ed also cites a Yale School of Public Health study that revealed stunning prejudice against older people in 20-29 year old Facebook groups.
Ashton points out that reverse ageism is also prevalent. Boomers use similar ageist language to demean younger people as being less valuable merely because they are younger. How prevalent (and assumed to be true) is the notion that millennials are an “entitled” generation without a strong work ethic? We deride the “inexperience of youth,” as if it were something that could be changed or somehow only ameliorated with age. In fact, of course, young people provide enormous value through the experience that they do have of life. The value they provide is through their fresh perspective and their ability to perceive and to create new ideas and grasp new ways of working. Just as we want younger people to embrace us for the particular things we bring to the table, so should we appreciate them as well for their contributions. Ashton sums it up nicely: “I don’t think being old entitles you to more respect than being young; I think kids deserve respect, too. I think we [all] need to be treated with respect… regardless of our age.”
Despite ageism putting a negative spin on our generation, I’m encouraged by what’s actually happening on so many levels to support our continued ability to find and create work, and for us to make meaningful contributions to society and culture. The kind of activism and engagement that Ashton embodies is emblematic of our generational DNA. If we’re not part of the solution, then we’re part of the problem. Instead of withdrawing to the ghettos of retirement villages and objectifying (or fearing) younger generations, let’s continue to reframe the aging process, build a bridge to GenXers and Millennials, and create a truly intergenerational society.