In this episode originally recorded as a DEI Community Call, author, speaker and activist Ashton Applewhite joins the program to discuss the source of discomfort and avoidance so often tied to the topics of ageism and ableism when we talk about diversity dimensions, as well as the tremendous and varied cost of that avoidance to us and to the business world. Discover the intersections of ageism and ableism, ageism and social justice, and how ageism intersects with the conversation this year about the election, voting and accessibility.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Ashton’s diversity story and how she came to focus on aging (11:30)
- The disconnect between generations when it comes to social justice (21:30)
- A misconception about older people and social change movements (25:30)
- What matters most when it comes to aging well (29:30)
- The intersection of social justice movements (33:30)
- The attractiveness penalty and the impact on aging workers (40:00)
- The connection between ageism and ableism (48:00)
- How ageism impacts workers of all ages (50:00)
- The myth of independence (54:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Without further ado, let me hand this over to you and you can share your pronouns if you’d like, and then take us through a little bit of your evolution. How did you come to focus on this topic so passionately? Anything you’d like to share for us that grounds us in your diversity story, Ashton.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I’m Ashton Applewhite. I’m an author and activist based in Brooklyn, she, her, hers. I started writing about longevity because I was afraid of getting old, in which was in my mid 50s, which was over 15 years ago, I think. A friend of mine said, “When you’re asked how old you are, say, ‘I was born in 1952.'” And no one can do the math. They all just spazz instead of focusing on how old you are, but they’re forced to think about, “Gee, she’s been around for a while,” which is of course the positive aspect of aging. I passed that tip along.
It started as a project about people over 80 who work and within five minutes, I learned literally weeks the facts with which I started my TED talk out 10 years later that almost everything I thought I knew about what it would be like to be that old was way off base or flat out wrong and I became obsessed with why so few people feel this way.
It is not that there are not things to worry about getting older. I am no Pollyanna and I have serious issues with positive aging, successful aging movement, that promotes this thing that if you just work really hard and spend lots of money, huge class bias, and do things right, have a good attitude, you can somehow avoid changes that are inevitable. Many of which are unwelcome, but many of which are fantastic. Why don’t we hear both sides of the story? That is really what set me on this path.
Although since you all are workforce oriented, I did have a queasy feeling, even before I really understood it, that by focusing on older people who for the most part had stayed in the workforce, it was easy to find blue collar workers. It was hard to find caregivers actually. I was promoting this positive aging thing that if you just keep going, you don’t have… I didn’t have… I wasn’t looking at the full spectrum of aging and we need to consider it in all. It’s incredible diversity and not… And to see that there’s value in all lives lived at every scale and in every kind of capacity that this culture tends to drum out.
I’ll just give a very short answer to why the culture… Why most people don’t know these things, is that if aging is framed as a problem, we can be persuaded to buy things to stop it or fix it, and if natural changes are pathologized, we can be persuaded to buy things to cure them and who profits then? Big pharma. The anti-aging piece of the skincare market is a multibillion dollar industry. If instead we embrace aging as this natural, powerful process that is the one common human experience, no one makes money off it.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so good to keep in mind, Ashton. Thank you. Thanks for sharing-
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I can say bad things about capitalism, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. You can absolutely. Definitely fair game here. Oh my goodness. Are we getting a lesson in all that’s broken with that right now. But I wanted to ask you… You studied older workers and I know you can share… I’m always so excited to read what we actually get better at or different or what shifts as we get older as professionals. What are your viewpoints on that? And why is that undervalued or not acknowledged in the workplace and how do we bring… I know all of us are wondering-
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: That’s six huge questions already.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know. I’ll stop right there. Just take any of the above.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I’m a generalist. I could never figure out what to major in or what to be when I grew up or what to write about, so I ended up writing about my own experience as so many writers do. Ageism is both internalized, the attitudes towards age and aging that are mostly negative, bombarded with from birth, and then of course, as we are learning so much about when it comes to racism from the Black Lives Matter movement, there are the structural and institutional manifestations of that oppression and discrimination.
We live in a culture that really values speed, that really values consumerism, that measures people in terms of their conventional economic productivity, and I don’t even like the word productivity because it undervalues so much of volunteer work, caregiving, this is a hugely gendered issue because women do so much. Men do really important caregiving too, of course, but it is not a way of thinking that is kind to people who move out of the paid workforce and it’s not very good to children either.
Children don’t vote and children don’t make money and that’s one reason that the U.S. is not a family or kid-friendly society, in my opinion, which of course also relates to women. It also relates to racism because so much important work in this country is done by underpaid often unregistered immigrants, poor women of color. All these things intersect.
We value speed, we value youth, and we pay for those things and we don’t pay for a lot of other things that do give an honest value, but that are harder to measure.
JENNIFER BROWN: Ashton, I feel like we need to just pause. That was incredible. I just want to listen to that 10 times, I think. You’re really checking me on words. Productivity. What is the implications of that word, right? For whom, decided by whom, what does that look like? And so mindful in the pandemic that all of these “performance expectations,” so much has been thrown out the window. How do we… I think we haven’t determined what will performance look like in the future? How-
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Something I got checked on Twitter, I’ve been following a lot of disability justice activists because the COVID really brought to mind the way ageism and ableism intersect which is a whole another giant topic. Talk about not wanting to go towards wrinkles. Believe me, no one wants to go towards wrinkles and crutches.
But one woman, she’s African American, and she said, “Inclusion, the term itself implies…” I don’t want to misquote her but, “that someone in power is doing the including.” And she said, “I don’t want a racist, white supremacist version of inclusion. That’s not what I want.” I thought, “I never thought of that.”
JENNIFER BROWN: I know it makes me rethink all the titles of my books, by the way. It’s just an uncomfortable place to be. But you make a great… I’ve heard that argument. We don’t want to include-
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I haven’t heard it before.
JENNIFER BROWN: We do talk about that and we then flip to belonging as an alternative framework to think about. I think the result of true inclusion, not imparted by some of us to others, but it’s the organic feeling of belonging, of comfort, of psychological safety. It doesn’t also assume that there’s… We can all generate belonging. It’s not such a binary of haves and have-nots. It’s all of our jobs with all of us and being intersectional in our approach.
I like to think about allyship, for example, as 360-degree allyship. So that it’s not imparted all the time this way from somebody you assume has more or less, but that it’s something we all can do.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Another thing I’ve been thinking about a lot since COVID got me really thinking much more about ableism and that I needed to… I’d been talking for a long time about the need to address the intersection because so much of our fear of aging is rooted in fear of losing some physical or cognitive capacity, which is human, but the stigma and the shame and the discrimination around it are not acceptable.
What’s left of ageism, if we take the ableism out and what would it be different for those amazing, mostly younger disability justice activists if we could reduce the ageism that’s associated, that using a cane or crutches makes you look old or everything’s going to fall apart when you get older. How can we join forces to address that stuff together?
But one thing I feel like I have been learning about is how to become a better ally is by saying, “No, you need to have…” When someone invites me to take part in an unpaid webinar, “No, you need to address ableism.” That of course means I need to find someone with a disability to do the speaking because I can’t speak for them which led me down this really uncomfortable wormhole about who gets to call me an ally.
I can’t say I’m an ally. The person who I’m hoping to ally with or to join in solidarity with has to decide whether or not my efforts are worthy of it according to them.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so great. You’re only an ally when someone in an affected community calls you that and it’s something that I like to say “aspiring ally.” I always caveat that word that I’m aspiring to it, but it’s never a destination that I will reach once and for all. And it’s something we’re earning constantly every day. It’s earned. Yes, it’s only given to us, I think, as-
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I’m taking notes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Thank you. There’s somebody Ashton who asked a great question around how younger talent gets this social justice moment we’re in right now, and having to constantly explain it to an older generation that was so present in civil rights, and a lot that happened in our country, a lot of the building blocks that occurred, and yet there’s this disconnect between the generations now in terms of understanding the urgency and the applicability of the social movements right now to the workplace in general.
But I just think this is an interesting generational divide. I don’t know if the question is, “how do the different generations view the importance and the urgency and the need especially for businesses to understand how social justice issues hit a company’s ability to function, attract talent, all the things we know and what they come up against in terms of the lens of different generations on that same topic?”
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Let me give one overarching point which is that as an age activist, if there was one fact that I could magically blow in the ear of every human in the world to advance my self-appointed mission, it would be that the longer we live, the more different from one another we become. The wonky way to say it as heterogeneity. It’s the defining characteristic of aging.
Every newborn is unique, obviously, but if you take a bunch of eight-year-olds, they are way more alike, developmentally, cognitively, physically than 28-year-olds who are likewise way more homogenous than 48-year-olds and so on out. All bias is based in stereotyping. All stereotyping is misinformed and deeply problematic, obviously, and ageism is no better or worse than any other prejudice. I don’t want to fall into that trap, but stereotyping on the basis of age is especially ignorant.
I know you know this, Jennifer, but any generalization on the basis of an entire generation is inherently false. It can’t possibly be true. It is a tool. It was invented by the right as a defense of liberalism, I can give you all the stats and I can provide them to people afterwards, as a way to pit the generations against each other, just like the Polish workers against the Italian factory workers. It is a time honored tactic.
Look at COVID, all the old people were like, “Look at all those awful young people partying on the beach,” and all the old people are going, “Look at those, kids…” millennials supposedly, being furious at their parents for not taking the danger seriously of getting infected with COVID.” Some old people are conservative bigots. White supremacy is primarily a youth movement. No ideological argument is true across an age group. It’s true of course that we’re all shaped to some degree by the time in which we grew up.
My kids grew up knowing about intersectionality. I had to learn about it somewhere in my 50s. It is incumbent on we older people, I think if we want to be part of these conversations, to keep up.
That’s what OK, boomer is about. I don’t have any problem with OK, boomer. Boomer Remover is vile, hateful, invective, but it had a very short life. In my opinion, boomer remover’s like, “Look, you want to be part of this conversation. You need to track the ways in which it is current and relevant today.” That is different challenge if it’s new to you than if you grew up with it.
But to say that older people are not involved in social justice movements is just not true. You need to find your tribe which hopefully we have all ages as well as all genders. The internet makes that pretty easy.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for answering that question. Tell us more about… Your book is coming out in paperback in two weeks. It’s called This Chair Rocks and the subtitle’s really important for you. But just explain that title to us and tell us why you wrote the book, a couple of key points in the book that you really, really want people to get because I think it’s such an entertaining book. It’s incredibly well cited, everybody. You talk about footnotes. Ashton is really-
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: They’re hidden. They’re not scarily on the page.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. They’re in the back. Yes. Tell us about the book.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: The full title is This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. I wrote one serious book 20 years before that about women who end their marriages. It was such a horrible process, believe me. I never wanted to write another book, but eventually enough people said, “You need to write a book,” that I did because I wanted to have all these ideas in one place and because ageism is still so unexamined. And I learned so much.
I know you asked me before about something we didn’t touch on like the older brain. A word point: we tend to use “aging,” and because we’re so ageist, and society is so ageist, and we are all ageist, let me make it clear, me too, but everyone has this bias, of course. We use aging as a substitute for older, as in aging parents, aging celebrities. Everyone is aging from the moment we’re born.
The aging brain… A three-year-old’s brain is aging. My chapter on the older brain does show there are real benefits to aging. One, when I learned this really early on about the U-curve of happiness that shows that people are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of their lives.
I was so profoundly skeptical. I thought they must have given two 80-year-olds a cookie and said, “How are you doing it?” And I said, “It must be true if you’re wealthy or if you’re healthy.” It obtains across class, across nationality, across marital status. It is a function of the way aging itself affects the healthy brain and they call it a… It’s a positivity bias. It’s a little we see the positive more, but also we are better able simply from having been around for more years to not sweat the small stuff, to know this sucks, but I have been through this. We have more experience in dealing with people and dealing with groups of people.
Those are real… Yes, most of us lose some processing speed, for sure. Although there’s theory, and it came out of computation, not aging studies, that it’s because there’s more data, so it just takes literally more time to chug through the data and therefore older people come up with more recent decisions. You’ll never hear a statement like that out of my mouth without say, “but some old people are idiots.” I don’t buy the wisdom thing.
Lots of younger people are wise too. There is nothing better about older people or less good or better about younger people. It’s like any other bias. We need to look at the individual and God knows each of us has our strengths and our weaknesses.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so good. Thank you so much. I’m never going to use aging again. I love learning new language. What else? Tell us-
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: About my book.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, tell us a couple of key.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I wrote a book because I had to. One of the other things I learned… I thought, wow, the most important thing in aging well is obviously health. And then I thought, “It’s obviously wealth because money can buy you the things that’ll make it.” It’s not that either. It’s having a strong social network, and this is an arena where women actually tend to have an advantage and it is probably the best reason for the most important thing we can do if we want a good old age which is to make and hang on to friends of all ages.
We live in an incredibly, those of us in the US at least, and that’s more true in the West, I think, age-segregated society. A lot of people, their peer, their friend network is people they’ve known all their lives and guess what? They die. Having friends of all ages is one way to buttress yourself against that solitude.
We think of age as this huge divide but age says almost nothing about what someone is capable of unless it’s extreme physical feats, in which case the age limitations are real, but what they’re interested in, what they’re listening to, what is important to them, and remember too, the older, the person, the less that number says about them.
Think of something you’d like to do or read or think about or go… “Oh, back in the days when we went places,” and find a younger or older person to do it with. It’s doable.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. Thank you. There are so many questions here-
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I’ll come back.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know. Seriously, let me give you a few of them.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: It’s an endlessly fascinating issue because age connects to everything.
JENNIFER BROWN: You and I… I loved your call out to say when we do a review of our networks, our teams, our coworkers, our friend networks, our community networks, are they age diverse?
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I ask people what they think of as criteria for diversity and age is still largely missing. But when I say, “What about age?” No one says, “That’s a dumb idea.” They say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” You will have an incredibly important role to play.
I have a friend who works in workforce development and she has a thing she calls the shoe test that if you’re looking for a diverse group, look under the table and if everyone’s wearing the same shoes, whether they’re wingtips or flip-flops, you’ve got a problem. Look for age diversity too.
There’s tons of research that shows that age diverse teams are more creative, make better decisions, blah blah blah.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love this. You’re really adding to our intersectional mix and it’s making me even think about… Normally, I’m pushing back on panels to your example earlier to say, “Who’s missing from this panel? Can I supply that person and suggest that person? Can I step off this panel because you don’t need my identity?” I wonder about age diversity as another frontier that I can tackle to add to my difficult task sometimes of recommending that perfect person to make sure it’s addressed and then to have that diversity but have people who are comfortable speaking about it is another question.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: And it is an issue that tends to be less salient for younger people but not once they start to think about it, and that is the fantastic thing, that the current moment, intersectionality in general, and it’s wonderful not to have to define that for this group because I don’t take it as a given that people are… Sometimes, I think of it as the ground is plowed for this movement or I think of it as hitching age to the intersectional sled or plow or whatever. It’s just adding it on. Yes, it’s an ambitious goal to help foment yet another social movement. But of course, it’s not zero sum for one thing.
I agonized for a long time. I write a newsletter every… Sign up for my newsletter, no spam. I don’t write you very often. I titled it Breonna Taylor Did Not Get to Grow Old. First, I agonized whether I as a privileged white woman should just shut up and not say anything and then I did write a whole newsletter about how the way to be anti-ageist now is to be anti-racist.
I think we need to always work against this sense of zero sum, which the intergenerational conflict thing does. It’s good for old people. It’s not good for young people. It is if you belong to a family. It is if you have parents. It is if you live in a small… It’s a false schism. If we make the world a better place in which to be black, we make it a better place, in which to be female, in which to have a disability, and so on.
I think activism is intersectional too. I find that I really want to… When I feel exhausted and daunted, which is often, it’s worth remembering and I think it’s true that when we chip away at the fear and ignorance that underlies any prejudice, we are chipping away at them all.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. We talk a lot about that on this call. Ashton, thank you. People are appreciating you.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: You agree?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, absolutely.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I work alone.
JENNIFER BROWN: No. You’re spot on how you just described that. It was beautiful. I know you and I were prepping and talking about the gender divide and aging. Could you go into that a little more? And yes, it’s an intersectionality conversation, but it’s very specific. How do you treat it in the book as well? Because I think we endlessly debate this. It’s not an equal playing field in any way and I think we need to have the conversation always about ageism through specific identity lenses and be very specific about which one we’re talking about. Can you elaborate?
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I should, of course, not say this out loud and my book is a really good book. If it has a flaw, it is that I don’t deal separately or I wish I had more in there in hindsight about the gendered nature of aging.
Women are never the right age and this plays out most clearly, I think, in the workforce where younger people may… They’re both valued but they’re also dismissed. Young people experience a lot… It is the paradox of you can’t get a job until you have a job. You have to prove yourself which is a little bit the nature of existence but it does present a structural obstacle to younger people trying to start their careers. The assumption that if you’re young, you can’t know what you’re doing, you wouldn’t do a good job.
But women very early on, that if you are of prime reproductive years, you are promoted less often. In the United States, women stopped being promoted to manage your own positions at the same level as men at age 34 because you might have a baby, if you haven’t had one already, and we all know you can’t be a mother and be competent at the same time. And then five minutes after that, you’re old. Who’s going to watch us? Because of what an economist charmingly titled, the attractiveness penalty, that women are penalized by appearing to age and needless to say this is further compounded by race.
There have been a bunch of huge studies with resumes and again, I have all the actual statistics and studies referenced in my book or you can email me, sending out both resumes with Jennifer and John and John gets way more callbacks. If you do, Jennifer and Jamal… Well, that’s gender, but Jamala, just pretend, the black-seeming name gets far fewer callbacks. If you are older woman, you get the least of all and again, compounded by race and add disability to it and the obstacles become almost insurmountable.
Susan Sontag called it the double standard of aging that women depreciate like used cars and men appreciate for a while when they have the distinguished gray sideburns. Mine are finally coming in, I’m super happy. I’m going to look like a male newscaster any day now and then things are really going to take off for me.
And then just another really maddening fact, health data around the world for the most part. This is a generalization stops being collected after 55 because we ceased to be reproductively useful. It bites women all the way along and of course, it’s worse in lower and middle income countries. All of these things are compounded by race and class, which is why the poorest of the poor, people with the least good health, least employment prospects are poor old women of color everywhere in the world.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s just excellent. There’s a lot of… Oh, somebody wants to know where they go to sign up for your newsletter, Ashton, by the way.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: thischairrocks.com is my website and at the bottom it says contact me. I will never give it away and I will not spam you because I don’t like giving away my email, but that’s the promise.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. For sure. I do wonder, Ashton, so there’s name blinding resumes. There’s education blinding resumes. Because I always think about how technologies actually help… The newest that’s being developed is helping us shortcut our biases. It’s not enough to just sit here and decide and see the bias or not. We are literally these powerless flawed beings when it comes to having the best intentions. Oh, that’s not me-
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I think of it as painting the floor of a room. You’re still got to stand somewhere. You can’t paint onto your own feet.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s a great analogy. I wonder about age blinding the candidate process. We really need to think more radically about this bias that’s triggered. I don’t know if anyone in the call, on the chat is doing anything creative with that, but I’d be really curious to know. Is that a discussion that’s happening?
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: If you’re talking about it, a useful analogy is why do we still include age in newspaper stories? And reporters go nuts when I say this. It’s part of the who, what, when, where, and why. Remember that from fifth grade? But it’s not really, unless it’s a story about a prodigy or someone performing an extreme athletic feat in a late life.
Age is generally not salient and when we don’t know what the age of the person is, it forces us and we’re going to wonder how old is that person? But that wondering is precisely what challenges the stereotypes that we would normally bring to bear. I like to point out that we used to in the U.S. include race in newspaper stories and it got taken out for exactly that reason. It’s a habit, really hard to break, really important one.
JENNIFER BROWN: Really important. I’m so glad you raised that. We’re learning so much. There’s folks talking about… Let’s see. In fact, let me just unmute the lines and let’s hear from some of you if you’d like to ask Ashton a question or maybe share what’s resonating with you.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Yeah. I would love to hear from you.
JENNIFER BROWN: About what is Ashton is sharing. Yeah, I love to do that. Anyone. Don’t be shy. Come on
BRYANNA:I got a question. My name is Bryanna and I’m here in Florida, my pronouns are she, her, hers. I work in the volunteer administration management community and ageism comes up pretty much every day from students all the way to retirees.
Right now with COVID, it’s a hot topic of how do we deal with ageism when our most vulnerable populations are the ones that volunteer their time most frequently? Do I turn them away and tell out of fear of their health and safety? Do I keep them coming because they say they’re able and I’m not the one to tell them that they’re not? I don’t know what to do and all of myself and the colleagues I’ve talked to, none of us know what to do. We’re scared to tell them no out of fear that they may try to come against us for being ageist. We’re afraid to tell them yes and then have them get sick.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Ageist or ableist. Double whammy. Good luck, Bryanna. These are… We’ve never dealt with a global pandemic like this. Everyone is wrestling with some version of these problems and obviously, you’re doing it with no directions from any government or even civic authority which makes it even harder and puts the burden on people like you who are responsible for other people. It’s incredibly hard and I don’t have a specific piece of advice for you other than…
I was just speaking with a friend who’s active in electoral politics and he was saying they’re going to try and do a campaign to encourage younger and middle-aged people to come out as poll workers because most poll workers are retired and therefore older.
I think that it’s really important that older people especially this is a source of pride, it’s a really important valuable thing they can do for the community, that if there is a way for them to do so safely with PPE, with a six-foot distance, to try and broker a solution that enables them to participate safely. But this is an incredibly, thorny, logistical, and ethical question in a really fast evolving landscape.
The questions you are asking are the right ones. That’s all I can say. And good luck. It’s really hard.
BRYANNA: Thank you. I do appreciate that.
ZOE: Hi, it’s Zoe. Hi, I’m from Toronto.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Hey, Zoe, hi.
ZOE:Hi, Jennifer. Hi, everyone. My question is around more your opinion. I’m coming with 20 years corporate experience and every time I say 20 years, I start to think, “People are starting to add up the years.” I stop when I say… They say things like, “If it’s beyond 20, just don’t put beyond 20. Just cap it at 20. Never put your school graduation year from university.” What is your opinion in all these little things and games that we’ve played? Because at one point I’m now consulting but it adds to my differentiator because I’m coming from corporate with all this leadership experience. It’s this game…
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Good luck with that, Zoe. One of the hardest questions is what’s the best answer. There’s never right or wrong to how old are you. Because it’s on the one hand super important to claim how old we are and at the other time, in the same breath and this is just someone you met for five seconds at a job fair, to reject the fixed meanings that an ageist culture attaches to it.
You have a living to make. You may have kids to support. You probably have a mortgage to pay. First and foremost, you have to do whatever it takes to get that job or whatever. However, when we dye our hair just to cover the gray, leave early accomplishments off our resume, budge our age, and the stresses that forces on women to do that are twice as strong for women of color I’m sure far harder in ways that I can’t even begin to imagine.
That behavior is not good for us because it’s rooted in shame about something that shouldn’t be shameful and it gives a pass to the discrimination that makes those behaviors necessary. Until all of us eventually are brave enough to act together, they’d be the first person to sit at or… Rosa Parks I think was the ninth person to sit on the bus at the lunch counter, whatever, until we all act in concert to say, “No, I’m not going to leave my name off.” That was my flipped thing in the beginning about saying that the year in which you were born. You can’t do it in the resume because they have a calculator.
But try… Maybe don’t lead with it but introduce it in the conversation later on once you have shown them how damn competent you are and that they should be delighted that you work on such and such a thing in 1804 because you know all about it.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
KELLY HARRIS:Zoe, thank you for bringing that up. This is Kelly Harris here. I just wanted to thank Jennifer and Ashton for bringing this conversation today. This is really important to me. Of course, that’s my dog barking. I’m sorry about that.
Like you, I’m a generalist and I thought as I was going through this career, I was building all this, “life is like a box of chocolates” diversity into my career and this was going to be my strength, and then you find yourself in a situation where you’re over 50 and you’re in a pandemic and you’re looking for your next opportunity. I wanted to address a little bit more about those feelings of the shame and all of that.
It’s real and it’s very hard because we should be very proud. Zoe should be so proud of all the things she has accomplished. And yet, I’m looking at it going, why am I being penalized? Why isn’t anyone understanding this? And can you help us address a little bit of the psychological hardships in this?
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Sure. It’s really, really hard. If you look at the disability justice movement which is an interesting analogy also in that heterogeneity of age, diversity of disability. Everything from epilepsy to cerebral palsy to mental health illnesses to having everything working but your legs or your arms, whatever, they have forged a movement. Of course, there’s lots of division between it and I’m romanticizing it a little bit because it’s where I wish we were with the movement against ageism.
But what the activists who got the ADA passed 30 years ago exactly, I believe it was Sunday or Monday, was they reframe the way we see disability from a personal misfortune, poor you, you’re 50, that’s awful or you were in an accident to from a personal misfortune to a social and political issue. And then they demanded access and integration and equality. That is what we need to do with age.
Another useful analogy is the body acceptance movement. When I was 18, I thought that the fact that my thighs rubbed together when I walked was the biggest problem to affect humanity. I’m over it, it only took 40 years.
But we know from these examples… Or black is beautiful. That slogan originally was to reject Eurocentric notions of beauty and attractiveness. It’s only going to happen if we claim our age, which you did, hats off, and reject stigma which is part a lot of internal work that’s where… Because if we don’t do that, nothing changes, but then it is to join forces collectively against the shame and stigma because that shit is bad for us. I said shit, uh-oh.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s fine. Cone of silence here.
MORGAN WILLIAMS: Hi, this is Morgan Williams. Thanks, both Jennifer, this has been an amazing experience in the last couple of weeks, and Ashton, obviously, your discussion is amazing.
I’ve been a recruiter now for 13 years. I’ve heard the ageism. I really appreciate that you brought up that it’s not just something for 50 plus. I’ve heard it for people right out of school, too. “Oh, you don’t have enough experience.” “But you only want to pay a small amount of money.” Really appreciate that you’re covering the gamut here.
I think so to get to my question as a recruiter because I have heard these ageist comments and I’m not going to speak for one of them in-
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: You’ve heard them from whom?
MORGAN WILLIAMS: From clients.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I see. Got it.
MORGAN WILLIAMS: Of course, it’s easy to frame around it’s something that, “We prefer someone who is…” You know what I mean? And not-
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Digital native?
MORGAN WILLIAMS: Skirt around it. But how do we as individuals that are trying to push back especially those of us who are on calls like this and very pro diversity and inclusion, how do we push back? How do we have those conversations with individuals, whether it is a boss, a hiring manager, or a client that’s saying something that we know we’re not comfortable with, let alone is probably not something HR okay. The only reason why I say that last part about HR is I know of scenarios that it’s not always easy to be the person who’s going to go to and actually raise a hand and say, “I heard something that I probably shouldn’t have.” Do you know what I mean?
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I sure do. It is never easy and it’s not easy to do. It’s not easy to do with a close friend, if it’s just the two of you. It’s not easy to do in a social setting. And I’m sure it’s not easy to do when your boss or your income is on the line. It takes real courage. But of course, if we don’t call it out, then we collude, which we all do all the time. No judgment.
A really useful rejoinder which I have been usually thinking of in terms of being on the receiving end of ageist comment and just out in the world not necessarily in a work context is, “what do you mean by that?”
If someone says, I need a digital native and I’m not a recruiter, so forgive me if the analogy is ham-handed, but what do you mean by that? What skills do you need? Try to drill down always to the specific. I love pointing out that people my age built the damn internet. Lots of younger people…
I was at a conference once where it was almost all older women. There was one young guy. Every time he walked through the room, he got six people asking him to fix something on their computers which is ageism and sexism because it’s like, “Oh, he has a penis. He must know how to fix it.” And he’s like, “I don’t know anything about computers. Leave me alone.”
If you can think of a way and obviously do a little homework perhaps beforehand about the specific skills of that job candidate might have that the recruiter might not be aware of and say, “She worked on that project,” don’t say when, whatever, that addresses the specific skillset because the fact is, it is insane that experience should be a liability.
I’m a rational, picky person so I won’t insult you by pretending that just giving people a really obvious fact, wham, is going to change their thinking but I think if you can point to specific aptitudes or work experience that they can bring to bear. Why would you think that? Why would you assume that? What are you looking for? Direct it to what they’re actually getting at with that biased comment, what they’re looking for, and then you can get around it.
MORGAN WILLIAMS: Awesome. I appreciate that. And to Zoe, who is asking about what do I do. As a recruiter, for my two cents is being on calls like this is amazing. I’ve found that your network is a way to get around all those issues and I’ve been there too. Keep doing what you’re doing.
JENNIFER BROWN: Let’s see if there’s other questions, Ashton, in the chat.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I haven’t been… I’ve been taking a break, I admit.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, it’s okay. Don’t worry. You just gave some really good advice. Anybody else?
JD: Hey, Ashton.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Hey.
JD: Hey, it’s JD. Thank you so much for all of this information. I asked a question on-
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Can you fix my computer?
JD: I cannot. I can barely fix my own. But what I wanted to ask is how younger people can be supportive of their older colleagues especially when it comes around technology? I know that I’ve had instances where people have asked me for that and I try to be patient but I’ve seen other people grow very impatient and that prevents people from then asking in the future and just creates this environment where those older people don’t want to ask for help when they really do need it.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Speaking of shame and stigma which in the whole larger conversation around interdependence that no one is independent ever and there should be no shame ever in asking for help. On the other hand, you don’t want… It’s not what you’re good at. Are you in a position, JD, where there is a tech support person they could ask?
JD: I was working at a small nonprofit so it was… I was the IT person.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: You were. I knew you could fix my computer. I have this… If you are doing it by being kind, first of all, and perhaps just saying… Write down the steps and I know you can do it. I am a bit of a technical myself. I’m not proud of that. My partner won’t help me with internet questions. He says, “Your IQ drops 30 points the minute you can’t do something technical,” and it does because of my own anxiety that I am not competent which is not rational and which I need to work on. By helping them to master that thing… I need to write down the steps.
I was on a big Zoom call with tons of people just this week and they gave the directions really fast. And it was a little embarrassing, but I said, “I need you to slow down,” which is not to say that you’re not doing that, but say, “It’s okay for me to go slowly. It’s okay for me to write them down. But I only have time to do this once.” I think that would be an okay thing to say. You’re obviously not shaming them and that’s the important thing.
It’s got to be okay to ask for help lifelong and here again, the disability community talks about mutual aid and interdependence because they have found that the support networks of the ables are not there for them, so they made their own.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Ashton. Others? Looking through the chat here. There’s a lot of comments Ashton on… Some folks are sharing their millennial trapped in the baby boomers body. Important… What do you think about generational labels, Ashton? Let me ask you. Do you try to not emphasize that? Do you challenge people? What do you think about generations specific initiatives in workplaces and all of that?
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: As Homosapiens, we label. First of all, friend, enemy. My tribe, not my tribe. Labels are convenient. They are necessary for certain forms of bureaucracies and organizations to function. The army does need to say no one under age something or other can apply and I think they have an age cutoff. Is that ageist? Yes. Are there 40 year olds who are way better shape to go through basic training than a lot of 25 year olds? Yes. But we do need some cutoff.
But in general, they are never a good idea any more than a category… Age is interesting and problematic because it is fluid. We move into age privilege and out of that. It depends on where we are on that spectrum. But you can never say that’s why age limits on medical care or access to… Senior discounts? Of course, they’re ageist. Senior discounts should be given to the people who don’t have money not… which is often older people, especially in difficult times, especially if they’re forced out of the job market.
But on the other hand, lots of older people do have money so it should… Student discounts are probably fairer because it’s a better guess… Yes, more students are poor than… I’m making this up. It’s not in the book. But percentages of students who are poor is probably greater than percentage of old people who are poor.
They are clumsy tools that come in handy but I would urge you to look at what is the value you’re trying to put forward or the training you’re trying to impart and make sure that there are not older or younger or richer or poorer or queerer or straighter people who could benefit from the same information and try and plan it accordingly. I know that’s messy and complicated but this stuff is messy and complicated.
JENNIFER BROWN: There was someone, Ashton, that shared up in the chat and I can’t find it but about the legal profession and how literally at a certain age, partners are supposed to retire and that expectation are built. It says, “Partnerships have age caps where storied lawyers are required to relinquish their equity shares and structurally step back.”
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I’m just having a really hard time feeling sorry for really wealthy lawyers.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know. That is true.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I’ve got to work through that because I’m betraying prejudice and maybe they’re all working on social justice causes and don’t make any money.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. It was not clarified.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Even more problematic example is academia where there really are a fixed number of tenure track positions. When older people don’t retire, it does screw the younger people trying to come up the food chain. But in general, the amount and nature of jobs is not fixed. Think of all the women who came into the workforce during World War II and then again, of course, in the ’70s and ’80s. The number of jobs expanded.
One important… Economists call this the fallacy of the lump of labor. It is a pernicious myth that old people take jobs away from younger ones. In general, we’re not even competing for the same jobs. This is a very tricky argument to make. The thing about older workers being more expensive. There are plenty of ways to skin that cat in terms of pension and employment which other people know more about but also lots of older people want to work part time. Lots of older people are aging into Medicare which means you don’t… There are different ways to think about it.
If the only job in town is a barista at Starbucks, yes, you are going to have olders and youngers competing for it but that is a labor market problem, not a too many old people problem. Really, really try to steer clear always of things being framed as old versus young.
Someone sent me on Twitter a story just this morning about Australia about how the pandemic has been much worse for young Australians who can’t get a foothold in the job market. Strictly speaking, that’s true, but the person who sent it to me had inserted a big red some with a big carrot. It’s been great… It was framed as, “Bad for old people, great for older…” sorry, “Bad for young people, great for older people, good for some older people.” Some older people are getting screwed just like the younger people. See, this is a big ask, but it really works if you can take age out of it entirely.
A really good example around language is think how you use the words old and young. People say all the time, “I don’t feel old.” Or, “I feel like I’m 20.” “I feel like I’m a millennial even though I’m a boomer.” What we’re really saying is, “I don’t feel unqualified. I don’t feel incompetent. I don’t feel asexual.” There’s all this horrible stuff around how old people don’t have sex, don’t have physical needs. You’re saying, “I feel lively. I feel in it. I feel sexy. I feel…” Use the word that you mean because we can be energetic and optimistic all the way through life. We can be incompetent and depressed in our youth.
I don’t know about you but when I was 13, I wouldn’t go… I like to point out no one actually wants to be any younger even people who are terrified of aging. The way we feel has nothing, I can say categorically has nothing to do with how old we are. It has to do with our personality, our circumstances, and that particular moment. Take age out of it and see what you’re left with
JENNIFER BROWN: Ashton, that’s an incredible call to action. I know this group is loving this because we love to be challenged and examine our own biases in our language and the resulting impact it has on how we view ourselves and then the potential and the ability to thrive of those that we care about and we represent in our organizations as well.
Ashton, I think everybody knows where to find you, thischairrocks.com, that’s where Ashton’s blog is. The book is This Chair Rocks, paperback out in two weeks.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism.
JENNIFER BROWN: Manifesto Against Ageism. Anything else, Ashton, in social, other places can people reach out to you?
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I have another blog called Yo, Is this Ageist? Which is modeled on Yo, Is This racist? Which didn’t even occur to me was appropriation until a hip, young friend, that’s ageist of me, called it out and then I did manage to contact the person finally. Wasn’t easy. Yo, Is This Racist? is fantastic. His theory was we’re awkward talking about race or someone I can ask. We’re ignorant talking about age. That’s examples you can send in, examples of something you’ve seen or heard, or perhaps said or done that you wonder whether it’s ageist.
I am @thischairrocks on Twitter and Instagram and I have a This Chair Rocks Facebook page too.
JENNIFER BROWN: Awesome. Thanks so much, Ashton. Let’s give Ashton some virtual love.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Thank you, everybody.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for the work you do, the way you’re using your voice and raising our awareness and our hearts and minds around true inclusion and belonging for all of us and that we are going to have long, long, productive… Productive, there’s that word. Long, happy lives-
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: No, you can be productive.
JENNIFER BROWN: It just….
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Just include forms of it that are wider than the traditional notion.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. I love that you’ve been incredible today. Thank you so much.
- Influencing the Systems We’re In, with Egon Zehnder's US Head of DEI Dede Orraca-Cecil
- Trust in Action: How Inclusive Leaders Can Create a Better World with Author Jim Massey
- Designing for Identity, with Author Jessica Bantom
- Amplifying Diverse Voices at Hearst Television: ERG Business Impact with Elfi Martinez and Yasmine Osborne
- Meeting the Moment: Navigating DEI Challenges in 2023 and Beyond with Jennifer and JBC's Elfi Martinez