JUNE 8, 2016
HOW UGLY IS AGEISM in the United States? It is a system of unseen suffering with sometimes deadly consequences.
Although Social Security is intended to maintain seniors in personhood and dignity, the average woman in 2014 received $1,294 a month. Does she eat every day? In Washington, Republican legislators chisel away at the benefits. The Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) for 2016 was cut to zero percent. This, in the same year that the economy finally recovered enough to permit the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates. Neoliberalizing old age — a phrase that is also the title of a book by John Macnicol — means that people who invested in Social Security all their lives (whose benefits are taxed if they earn high enough income) are alleged to be undermining national well-being, and their Medicare stealing from the young.
As for life expectancy, despite our boasted longevity the United States ranks only 50th in the world (Paul Farmer quotes this number from Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, An Uncertain Glory, in The New York Review of Books; other rankings put the United States even lower). This points to grim inequalities in income and in access to care, and involves a form of medical malpractice. The odds of not receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer if you are an American woman over 65, are seven times greater than for a woman under 50.
Nonlethal oppressions occur all around. Old people are scapegoated by pundits. We are mocked by comics. Advertisers consider us targets; as models for products, most avoid us. Web trolls — mostly men in their 20s — wish we would vanish. In some colleges, older faculty are belittled as deadwood. Students think we smell. Scientists define our “aging” as a collection of diseases. The terror of Alzheimer’s — inflated by the well-meaning Alzheimer’s Associations — makes growing into old age seem an unavoidable disaster. Since women live longer than men, women appear to be the most costly “burden.”
There’s job discrimination against midlife people — or what I call “middle ageism” — not just in Silicon Valley and Hollywood, but on Main Street. Sixty-four percent of Americans 45 to 74 have seen or experienced ageism in the workplace, AARP tells us. It’s illegal but expected everywhere. The cult of youth overrides the law. It’s a miserable state of affairs. As with racism, the mental distress this incurs produces negative effects on health, scholars are discovering. A professor of public health, J. O. Allen, although recognizing that “ageism is not experienced over the entire life course, as racism typically is,” nevertheless finds that the mechanisms of body-mind distress work similarly. Studying this kind of ageism is in its “infancy,” she says in The Gerontologist, but she sees enough evidence that “repeated exposure to chronic stressors associated with age stereotypes and discrimination may increase the risk of chronic disease, mortality, and other adverse health outcomes.”
Decline ideology, grimly pervasive in daily life, invades even the family. Speaking about his beloved grandmother and her hip operation, President Obama said that Medicare giving her such necessary care was “not sustainable.” In major mainstream media, adult children diminish the value of their own parents’ lives. Ezekiel Emanuel, formerly a high level official in the Obama administration, in an Atlantic piece about why he thinks we might all want to die at age 75, manages to reproach his father for getting a heart operation at 77 and threatens to remember him as “lethargic” and past his prime. I mention this only because this malevolent ageist and unfilial son, far from being shunned, was invited to give a keynote address at the last Gerontological Society of America conference. Would the National Association of Chicano and Chicana Studies invite Donald Trump?
And then there’s the shame some people feel about aging. But I won’t go on. Even for a hardened age critic, it’s painful. The United States — indeed, the whole world — is said to be facing a “Graying-Nations” problem. It won’t be news that the “Woman Problem” turned out to be sexism, not something wrong with women. But it is news to many that the “aging problem” is produced by ageism, not elders.
Why isn’t this obvious? The term was conferred as long ago as 1969 by the great Dr. Robert Butler, the first head of the National Institute on Aging. “Sexism” was invented about the same time. Naming and shaming is a tremendous step — it makes everything else possible. And while “sexism” took off, becoming a whole set of terms taught in classrooms, used by the media, and hurled by victims, “ageism” didn’t. Does “ageist pig” carry any force? Beyond job discrimination, most people have never heard of “ageism.” If people can’t tell you what it means, how can they fight against it?
Where were our powerful, outraged public intellectuals? Sexism got liftoff from the movement, but that was fronted by blockbuster titles: Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, Against Our Will, A Literature of Their Own, The Feminine Mystique, The Second Sex. Who knows The Fountain of Age, although it is also by Betty Friedan? Or The Coming of Age, also by Simone de Beauvoir? Ageism has lacked the books that alter mentalités.
Institutional gerontology “discovered” the public’s “dark view of aging” in 2015 through a study by Frame Works Institute. One major journal (Generations) dedicated an issue to the urgent national topic only last fall. As a Cassandra who has warned about the evils of ageism and middle ageism since 1997, I’m grateful to the scholars who taught me. And glad, now, for a big-voiced ally. What will they do next to combat these growing evils and public ignorance?
Along comes Ashton Applewhite with a book we have been waiting for. Anti-ageism now boasts a popular champion, activist, and epigrammatist in the lineage of Martial and Dorothy Parker. Until This Chair Rocks we haven’t had a single compact book that blows up myths seven to a page like fireworks. The book’s very cover — red and black and abstract, not palely representational and grayly passive — proclaims its contemporary energy. Even Applewhite’s bleached-white curls stand up energetically — they are visible in a dynamic 1:29 minute interview and in person (although we met once, it was before her age-solidarity dye job).
Applewhite has a succinct story about how she personally overcame her own ageism and how charmed she is to be happier about getting older. Relief breathes through This Chair Rocks, which begins by describing her transformation brilliantly through the tale of “Not-Ray.”
Ray was a conservative white-haired man in her office, whom she discovered with panic to be her own age. She wanted to hide this from her co-workers: “They’ll think I’m old too.” That was Stage One, as she thought to herself: “I’m not Ray.” Then she started interviewing 80- and 90-year-olds, and got a “first jolt of fresh old air” about what later life was really like. “Specific concerns replaced nameless dread.” Still it was a move forward in her thinking: “I graduated to what I came to call I’m Not Ray — Stage Two: trumpet the fact that Ray and I are the same age, because see how much younger I look!” With more knowledge came Stage Three: “I’m not Ray. Ray’s going to be happy as a clam in Florida: it’s the old age he wants. I’m making my way to the old age I want, and it won’t look like his.”
Rightly, for this book, age “denial” is her first target. Far from shaming people who have internalized ageism, she shows even the cosmetically “done” how to undo it. Little shots of self-help are required in a manifesto against an unfamiliar -ism.
Almost everything she thought she knew was negative and wrong, and realizing this leads her to compile the pithy, accurate information she has mastered. Many of the personal stories in This Chair Rocks come from Applewhite’s own research, a total of 50 interviews. The book is divided into small nourishing sections, like a box of oatmeal cookies. The four-page chapter detailing how happiness becomes more common after 80, for instance, which models her method. It’s a pro-aging message, and while these often seem phony, Applewhite’s changes in register, her tart commentary, and her well-chosen stories pique our curiosity, offering us first the unexpected and then the explicable. Applewhite weighs the data and presents what she finds trustworthy. “Fear does subside,” she writes. “Imagine how much more manageable the fear [of aging] would be if we become old people in training when we’re young.”
The territory the book traverses looks familiar — the brain, the body, sex, work — but I, as a co-worker in the field, still came upon material that was new, and many quotable summations. Applewhite has read canonical gerontologists and a lot of other experts. In two paragraphs she proves “the assumption that older people are inevitable money pits for health dollars is incorrect. […] People over eighty actually cost less to care for at the end of life than people in their sixties and seventies.” You, too, will marvel at the traps we, and media pundits, fall into.
People in the age biz — and “on the front line of aging policy” go wrong too. “All aging is ‘successful’ — not just the sporty version — otherwise you’re dead.” Age critics usually take a much longer way around to critique “successful aging” — for its disregard of class and disability and for raising the bar too high — or to argue against the term “the Fourth Age” — as if those who were sick or frail had less humanity than us sporty Third Agers. Her whole snarky passage about why “Western imperialism is in decline” bears reading aloud: with apologies to Alexander Pope (and all the well-meaning among us, myself included, knocking ourselves out to educate the public) it is What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed. The bright bulb can give serious light.
Advice is cannily dropped into the text, like chocolate drops in a cookie. In “Break a Sweat,” Applewhite explains why “frequent partner dancing” is the best exercise. “Reject age as a first-order signifier,” she writes, which for her is an unusual dollop of theory language, but it’s high-quality chocolate. We don’t, in fact, need our age to be the first fun fact about us. After disability activists answered her Facebook interchange, testifying that those who help them are actually grateful, she wrote a page about the pleasures of learning to accept help (say, carrying heavy bags). One big lick of advice, about keeping cognition going, ends “so if you knit, don’t stop at scarves; if you’re visiting a foreign country, try memorizing the phrasebook; and if you need a purpose, help me end ageism.” “Age pride” and “radical aging,” “old people in training,” are new memes to both hold onto and pass around.
Do I have any quibbles? Debate surrounds some issues that are treated here in six lines — the downside of being capable of brevity. But Applewhite’s endnotes are well chosen to lead readers onward into a rich literature. If I prefer more gloomy shocks (e.g., the opening of this essay), I recognize that This Chair Rocks is a manifesto and that it is the character of a “manifesto,” or a “manifesta” — from Karl Marx to Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards — to be sui generis. A document produced for a movement, it has intentions on the reader’s psyche and politics, and a good one must allure. This book, beyond its micro storytelling and data, names the macro conditions that shove us into ageism from childhood on. It is a hybrid text — a consciousness-raising document with a personality behind it, and it’s got a winning smile.
High school and college students should be offered classes in anti-ageism, in order to learn something of that odd future, inextricably personal and social, that we call the life course. Your 16-year-old might like to be wised up about age and disability, as well as about gender, race, and sexuality. The praise of youthful beautysexandbrains, hypocritically, provides those who are young no certainty of higher education, jobs, or decent wages. “But pitting old against young, or vice versa, is one of the major tactics used by the wealthy and powerful to divide those who might otherwise unite against them in pursuit of a fairer world for all,” Applewhite points out. “Barricades are easier to build than bridges.” With its wit, clarity, and solid information, this readable book, and others that distinguish the field, could give young people a head start before they have absorbed too much of the toxic cultural air.
“Age studies” is already taught in some college disciplines. It is a field I named almost 25 years ago, precisely to bring theory and cultural critique into a field that did not have high enough ambitions to bring age as a multidisciplinary project front and center into the national conversation, as has happened with race and gender and class. Age studies covers, in one umbrella term, all the gerontologies (humanistic, critical, cultural, and social) plus studies of age relations and representations across the entire life course. Material now exists to fill the syllabi of the thousands of undergraduate courses that will soon, we hope, exist.
In an agewise world, “aging” would often have scare quotes. Because so many of the powers that be require a failing, needy, and greedy body to sell to or scapegoat, “aging” is usually taken to mean universal decay. It’s extremely difficult to avoid this association with decline, in part because our age vocabulary is so narrow, and because we are brainwashed not superficially but deeply. No doubt my own books have bloopers. Even Applewhite once advises doing something to “delay aging,” but since her book makes clear that aging can mean increased happiness, better coping mechanisms, cognitive reserves, post-retirement fulfillment (as well as some “unnerving” stuff), is it “aging” we need to delay?
What is the avoidable “burden” of aging? I want to ask our thoughtful candidates in this electoral season. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders want to expand Social Security. Fine. I would like them to tackle an agenda that is explicitly anti-ageist. There are too few jobs for the young, but also for older workers who suffer when “no unemployed need apply.” Union-busting, elder homelessness, elder hunger, caregiver fatigue and poverty, Republican deficit hysteria, economic inequality, media revulsion, the high costs of Obamacare for people in their middle years, medical malpractice, inadequate long-term care — as each of these problems suggest, a world that is good for aging is good for everyone. Let’s make “aging” a puzzling, complex portmanteau term, not a simple global synonym for decline.
Indeed, we need a new definition. My cousin Bob Eisner, former president of the American Economic Association, used to say “old age is hard enough” — and then recommend some policy change to make it easier. Blame ageism — a slogan Applewhite coined (and my slogan, fear ageism, not aging) — are good starts at making everything easier for everyone. Many of us can imagine a better world — and Applewhite helps us do so — but we live far from it.