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Anti-ageism activist and author, Ashton Applewhite, joins the program to discuss the importance of confronting ageism and how to create an inclusive culture for people of all ages. Ashton discusses the role of intersectionality in the aging process, and how we can change the way we think about what it means to get older. She also debunks some of the most common myths about aging.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Ashton’s diversity story and how she became interested in aging (3:00)
- Some of the biggest misconceptions about what it means to get older (9:00)
- Some of the challenges facing older workers (17:00)
- The benefits of diversity for organizations (23:00)
- The definition of ageism (28:00)
- The role of intersectionality (33:00)
- A different way to think about ageism and the aging process (36:00)
- How to avoid generational stereotypes (39:00)
- The importance of self-acceptance and a radically new way of seeing (41:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Welcome to The Will to Change. This is Jennifer Brown. When you think about being older, what comes to mind? If you’re like me, you’ve absorbed — since childhood even — many negative descriptors of ageing. That it’s sad to be old. And somehow this prejudice hasn’t been acknowledged for the tremendous harm it does. The adage goes that ageism is one of the last acceptable “isms”.
In my talks to leaders all around the world, age-related covering in the workplace is often at the top of the list, as the diversity dimension causing the most need for careful navigation, and the inordinate expending of energy on managing others’ (and our own) associations with our age – old, young, and in-between. It’s impacting our sense of selves, our confidence, and our productivity.
And yet, the bigger picture is that we are living longer, and better too. Population aging is a permanent global demographic phenomenon and we need to prepare for those longer lives individually and collectively. If we can’t debunk our beliefs about being “less than” as we age, how will we ensure this swelling population thrives during this later stage in life? What work do we need to do, in ourselves, and in our institutions, to call this prejudice what it is, and start to dismantle it? How can we de-normalize ageism?
Enter Ashton Applewhite. In her 2016 book, This Chair Rocks, Ashton sets out to debunk myth after myth about later life, explaining the roots of ageism in history, how it divides and debases, and what an all-age-friendly world would look like.
Ashton has always excelled at challenging key institutions or beliefs, our black and white thinking about them, and speaking and writing about disrupting them. After her first marriage ended in divorce, she wrote Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well, to address the fact that life after heterosexual marriage, for women, is largely undocumented because sexism and patriarchal forces in society drown it out. The discussion and our understanding about ageism in American society is also drowned out by the same forces. And for women, this is especially poignant, and pressing. While older women are not a minority in terms of sheer numbers, there is still widespread invisibility. We fear “outing” ourselves as older. Ashton’s book holds the biases up to the light so we can shift our thinking and step into this critical window of opportunity to re-think, define, and promote the vibrancy of later life. She asks, “When the thought of aging fills us with dread, how much of this is actually accurate? How do we disrupt these patterns that permeate what we hear, and see, every day?” With something so pervasive, Ashton’s work is just the beginning, and it’s a powerful first strike.
And her work has been recognized widely – by The New York Times, The New Yorker, National Public Radio, and the American Society on Aging as an expert on Ageism. She blogs at This Chair Rocks, speaks widely at venues that have ranged from the TED mainstage to the UN, has written for Harper’s, Playboy, and The New York Times, and is the voice of Yo, Is This Ageist? In 2016, she joined the PBS site Next Avenue’s annual list of 50 Influencers in Aging as their Influencer of the Year.
Ashton, welcome to The Will to Change.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Thank you, Jennifer. Glad to be here.
JENNIFER BROWN: I discovered you at a conference that we both spoke at on the top of aging. You were a keynoter, I was a panelist. I then went and watched your TED Talk, which I would recommend to everybody. What is it called again?
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Let’s End Ageism.
JENNIFER BROWN: Let’s End Ageism. It’s excellent. There’s a lot packed in there. You’re a great speaker. I think you’ve got an even better message, which is such a message that is not discussed and really not understood especially when we talk about diversity dimensions. Even for myself, I try to really extend all the dimensions and be as inclusive as possible when I teach about diversity and inclusion in corporations mostly, and use examples of ageism on all ends of the spectrum for all generations as well when we talk about covering in the workplace.
We get stories about young people hiding their age because they are young, but they are supervising people that are much older than them, so they don’t want to have a birthday party at the office because it reminds everyone how young they are. Then, we’ve got women standing up proudly saying, “I stopped coloring my hair this year and it feels great, but it’s been really interesting to see how people respond to me.”
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I’m glad you point out that ageism also affects young people.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Often, people just think it is just a bad thing that happens when you get old.
JENNIFER BROWN: Exactly. I do want to talk about that, because you’re such a wealth of information on all the age cohorts. I think this affects all of us. But I want to pause and start with your diversity story. We always begin the The Will to Change with our guest’s diversity story, however you define that. Take us back, let us know a little bit about who you are and why you’re so passionate about this.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I backed into it, as I have backed into everything in life, because I never, ever could figure out what to be when I grew up, what to major in in college, what to read next. I think I stumbled on aging because it’s the biggest field there is. It’s how we move through life. But if you had told me 10 years ago that I would be fascinated by aging, I would have said, “Why do I want to think about something yucky, creepy, and depressing?”
I was born and raised in Washington, D.C. My big brother was the bad child, so I was the good child, and I studied really hard and did all the things the way you’re supposed to do. Got married at 29, I think in large part because I was 29.
JENNIFER BROWN: Sure, the magic age.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: The magic age. 11 years later, I realized that I could not stay married. I heard a comment of my attorney that more and more of his clients were women, who were realizing they didn’t have to stick it out.
I went home and looked up and found in two seconds the fact that two-thirds of divorces in the US are initiated by women. It’s been a statistic that’s been true forever. It’s not a function of bra burning or women entering the workforce. I was astonished. I thought it was 89% guys dumping their sad, old, ugly wives for pretty, young trophy versions.
I set out to explore the disconnect between that fact and the reality. Was marriage so terrible? Life after marriage not so terrible? What I realized was that there are enormous social pressures on women to conform to traditional matrimony because it is a very effective way of harnessing women’s income and women’s independence. It’s not an anti-marriage book, it’s an anti-patriarchy book because it’s about how it’s hard to be an equal partner in a marriage in a culture that doesn’t value women the way we value men.
20 years went by, because writing a book was so awful, I never wanted to write another one. I was 55 and I was scared of getting old. It was a chance comment of my mother-in-law who was in her 80s at the time. She and her husband Bill were booksellers, and they said, “Why don’t you write about something people ask us all the time? ‘So, when are you going to retire?’” I started looking at longevity and I had the same analogous “ah-hah” moment five minutes into it. Research, data points that are floating at the top of the Web that our view of late life is so much more negative and so much more black and white than the reality. Why is that so?
We don’t know about life after marriage as women because sexism and patriarchal forces in society drown it out. We don’t know this about ageing in American society because ageist and sexist and patriarchal forces drown it out.
I just “got religion,” as it took me a long time, many years, five years, in which I floundered. I knew ageism was central to what I was doing, but it just seemed really important and I just decided I’m not a public speaker, I’m not a performer by temperament. Doing the TED Talk was just a hideous ordeal.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, boy, we’ll talk about that. (Laughter.)
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: But I realized we older women often make ourselves invisible in society. We’re not a minority. I’m an upper-middle-class white woman, so I certainly had plenty of privilege in my life. But not many people were outing themselves as older, if you will, and saying, “I’m not going to be embarrassed about it. I’m not going to be shy about it. I’m going to look at the reasons why so many of us are.”
JENNIFER BROWN: You struggled with the hideousness of the TED process, which I don’t know if that was about the content or just about giving a TED and all the pressure.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: B. (Laughter.)
JENNIFER BROWN: B, yeah, me too. But it’s so formative, because you have to stuff all of your best thoughts into 11 minutes, which you did. It probably really clarified your message. When did you feel like you really owned this topic in your soul and you started to really feel like you were speaking, teaching, and witnessing from a place of strength?
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: There was not a particular moment. It happened bit by bit. The very first time I gave what became my main monologue, it was part of a theater festival. I had never been on stage. I used to be a techie. I like to be behind the scenes.
JENNIFER BROWN: You fooled me. You are a great speaker.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: No, what enables me to do it, and I hope this doesn’t sound falsely modest, but it is because I feel like I am a vessel for this really important message that feels bigger than myself. That is what gives me courage. I see the way age prejudice divides us and segregates us and fill us with needless dread. The bigger picture is we are all living longer. Population aging is a permanent global demographic phenomenon and we need to prepare for those longer lives individually and collectively.
The way we approach this amazing opportunity, it’s really important to think about our bias and social structural bias as well, because the way we respond to population aging is really important. We’ve got this critical window of opportunity.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, we do. Tell us about some of the myths and biases. You share a couple. A lot of people don’t understand about the happiness curve, for example, and are shocked to learn that we’re happiest at the beginning and the end of our lives. Tell me more.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I was so skeptical. That was one of the things I learned in the first 10 minutes. I’d just assumed that everything sucks about getting older and, of course, you’re going to be depressed and sad and lonely. Let me say, that people have legitimate fears about getting older. I’m not a Pollyanna. I’m just in the business of making sure that we look at both sides of the story, one of which is people are happiest at the beginnings and the ends, it’s true.
I thought they must have cornered two 80-year-olds and given them a cookie, right? How are you doing? Or that it was true if you were healthy or true if you were wealthy. This applies across class, across geography, across marital status. It is a function of the way aging itself affects the healthy brain.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank goodness, because our bodies may prove a little bit more of a struggle, but it’s a really lovely thought to think that our wisdom more than makes up for that.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Imagine what that curve would look like if we didn’t live in a culture that berates us with messages from dawn to dusk about how awful it is to be old?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, indeed. You researched this for years?
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Many years, yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: What kind of biases did you have to undo in your own heart and mind about your own aging process? Tell us how you feel about it all.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I’m glad you bring that up. The thing I like to hear most, the response from readers is, “Oh, crap.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Guilty as charged.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I had no idea how ageist I was. Let me emphasize: Everyone is ageist. Everyone is biased in all sorts of ways, but of course we’re ageist because this is a pretty new idea to people. We live in a culture that barrages us with only the negative, and most of us simply haven’t sat up and started to think about it. One really good starting point is to think about how you use the words “old and young.” We have a habit of people say, “I don’t feel old.”
Well, what they really mean is they don’t feel useless, ugly, or incompetent. I don’t know about you, Jennifer, but I felt all those things at 13 a lot worse than I do now. For example, to separate out the specific negative or positive thing from the idea of young and old. The good news is, once you start to see ageism in yourself, you start to see it everywhere in the culture. That is really liberating, because that’s when you start to see, “Oh, it’s not just my bad,” it is perpetuated in the media, in the language of other people, in the way we treat older people, and in the way we treat younger people. That means it’s a social problem and a political problem that we can work together to do something about. But the first difficult ask, as you hit the nail on the head, is to go, “Oh, crap, I am biased. I am part of the problem and I need to change my own thinking.”
JENNIFER BROWN: We hate that, don’t we? Why does it have to start with me?
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Sometimes, I think it shouldn’t be the hardest ask, but for women in particular, is to look more generously at each other and ourselves.
JENNIFER BROWN: So true, we can’t participate in the shaming.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: No.
JENNIFER BROWN: There’s so many examples of successful older women in this current cultural political moment. Tell us a bit about there’s been so much chatter on age in the media and in the news and you’ve been responding to Stephen Colbert’s piece on Bernie and age. Tell us a little bit about, what are the stereotypes you’re seeing come through loud and clear in our culture based on how this cultural moment is being covered?
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: One, I think where it first surfaced in the current political moment was around Nancy Pelosi. All this talk about how we needed new blood. Any call for new blood without evidence that there is a younger candidate who is more qualified is inherently ageist, because you’re just judging someone by their age. To judge someone on the basis of age alone is no more acceptable than judging them on the basis of their gender or their race. We would never say, “They can’t do it because they’re Latina.” Right?
We have to apply the same standard. She took a tremendous amount of blowback not just for being ancient but being an ancient woman. Patriarchy has a really hard time with powerful women. Between you and me, it’s been kind of fun watching the president be stymied by this confident, calm, powerful woman, who I think really did a masterful job that it would have been very hard for someone with less experience to handle.
It surfaced, as you mentioned, on Stephen Colbert, when Bernie Sanders announced his presidency. It comes up and is often referred to as “the age problem.” The age problem is ageism, pure and simple. The issue with a candidate whether it’s for president or the PTA, or whatever it happens to be, is their thinking and their capacity, not their age, right? There’s one stereotype that old people are conservative, and old people brought us Trump, and old people bought Britain Brexit.
Well, class and gender, for example, have much more to do with someone’s voting record than their age. If anyone defies that old people get stuck in their ways and are conservative, it’s Sanders himself. Look at what the person represents, not their age. Look at their health. Obviously, it matters if Sanders is healthy and obviously an 80-year-old is closer to death than a 40-year-old. Age is real, it’s not that we should pretend it doesn’t exist. He should have a physical by an impartial person, so should his running mate, so should everyone else in political office, right? We need to look at the way the argument is framed. Age alone is just not reason enough to say someone’s not capable – period.
JENNIFER BROWN: Period. It was a revelation to hear you talk about four decades in what we might consider to be the older part of our population. But we tend to not see the diversity within that group or cohort, if you will, that life stage. We bucket everyone together. You shared some really startling statistics about how many people are in nursing homes for example. Can you share some of the surprising data where we catastrophize these ideas about what aging is really going to be like based on a very limited amount of data that is, honestly, not very depressing statistic when you look at them.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: No. I mean, when you look at the U-curve of happiness, when you look at the fact that dementia rates are dropping fast. Again, it’s double edged. It’s not that Alzheimer’s is not a scourge, it’s that our fears are way out of proportion to the reality. All prejudice is based on stereotyping. The idea that all members of a group are the same. Obviously, all stereotyping is foolish, and ignorant, and wrong, but it is particularly absurd when it comes to age because the longer, we live, the more different from one another we become.
Every newborn is unique, of course, but seven-year-olds are a lot more alike developmentally, psychologically, and physically, than 17-year-olds who are way more homogenous than 37-year-olds and so on. We are shaped by a cascade of unique events, so it is particularly ironic. It’s one reason I hate the term “the elderly,” because it implies that you suddenly joined some group where everyone is the same, a classic example being people in a retirement home. Well, they can be anywhere from age 55 to 105. They are way more diverse than a group of people from age zero to 55, and yet we think of them as old.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Which is crazy.
JENNIFER BROWN: It is; it’s ignorant. What’s happening in the work world and in the workplace with that overvaluing of the young, the shiny incoming generation, I am very concerned with what I’m seeing companies value and not value in terms of workers over 50. If you happen to work at Google, they have a special ERG called the “Grayglers.” They have the “Gayglers” as the gay group, and the “Grayglers” –
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: All six of them?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. They are probably over 35 in Google’s case.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Tech is terrible.
JENNIFER BROWN: I know, it’s terrible.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: There was an article in Technology Review a couple of years ago that kicked up the “holy crap, we’re ageist” awareness, I think, because it is the first prejudice that many white men experience. A few of those guys got a little bit “woke.” There was a quote in Technology Review told by a guy who does Botox stuff. He said he treated a guy, hair plugs, whatever, a skilled white man in his 30s. Imagine the effects for women, for people of color, for people with disabilities, who face far more compounded bias. He said, “I can’t look like I have a wife, two kids, and a mortgage.”
What does it say about our society that the fact that you have a wife, two kids, and a mortgage disqualifies you for employment? That is grotesque. Even as absurd, if not quite as grotesque, is the idea that experience is a liability. Yet, that is what people who get laid off, who have spent 20, 30 years – often with 30 or 40 more years to support themselves, right? The age discrimination in the Employment Act kicks in at age 40 for a reason.
People, if you’re laid off at 50 and you can’t get anywhere, people send out hundreds and hundreds of resumes that don’t even get opened because people see their age. You never even get a chance to make a case that the thing that you learned to do and are really good at and spent your life doing disqualifies you from being able to ever practice it again. The personal and economic consequences are devasting and it’s worse for women.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, it is worse for women, it’s compounded.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: They’ll send out 40,000 emails and young men got the most callbacks, followed by older men. Women over age 34 start being passed over for promotion – 34 – because you might have a baby and we all know you can’t think once you have a baby.
JENNIFER BROWN: Of course. If we don’t see companies starting to prioritize this. It’s just deeply troublesome to me, when you think about maximizing your workforce and being a place where people can spend full careers. The bias and the lack of caring that I’m seeing, I’m shocked for example, that there are not more affinity groups in companies that have affinity groups for women, people of color, or LGBTQ employees for mature workers.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: You know why?
JENNIFER BROWN: Why? They don’t want to empower them?
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: We’ve spent a lifetime absorbing these negative messages about oldness and to join that group would mean to out yourself as older.
JENNIFER BROWN: We hide it all day long.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: We hide it, and it’s really, really bad for us because it’s like a person of color trying to pass for white or a gay person trying to pass for straight. I understand why people lie about their age, why we dye our hair to cover the gray, no judgment, honest to God, but these behaviors are bad for us because they’re rooted in shame about something about something that shouldn’t be shameful. From your point of view, to make a more diverse and inclusive workplace, behaviors like that give a pass to the discrimination that makes those behaviors necessary.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: We need to look at our own internalized attitudes and get over our age shame. It’s embarrassing to be called out as older until you quit being embarrassed about it, and it’s way better on the other side.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. If your company doesn’t value you as a result, it’s very similar to coming out when you’re LGBTQ and you’re closeted. In most states, you are literally risking your job. You have absolutely no protections in something like 35 states. I should know that number. It’s the same kind of thing, you’re really bargaining with your ability to make a living, which feels so oppressive to people. It’s a clear choice. Communities have had to be brave in the past. The only way over is through.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Some brave people need to thwack through the bushes and other people will follow. I bet you know the answer, I think high 80-90% of companies now offer diversity training, but very few include LGBTQ rights, and almost none include age bias training. We have to hitch age to the diversity sled.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. “Hitch age to the diversity sled.” You know, it’s such an intersectional topic because we all experience it.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: It’s as intersectional as it gets.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s beautifully intersectional, and I think that it could be married as a strategy, those voices could be supported from an ally perspective with other marginalized voices, other stigmatized voices.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Absolutely.
JENNIFER BROWN: Then, the power of these joined communities to basically say, “Hey, you need us. We need this relationship to continue and to thrive.” We want to thrive, we want to stay here, we want to do our best work. We’re better than ever. We’re wiser than ever, we’re more experienced than ever, why wouldn’t you need that viewpoint in your workplace?
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: We know tons of research shows that diverse companies work better. They are better places to work. They make more money. In a way, if we have all ages at the table, it’s almost like my job is done. It’s not that simple, of course, you need to still address bias, just as if you have people of color at the table that doesn’t mean we’ve done away with racism, God knows. By bringing those at the margin to the table and giving them voice, it’s really important to me that the movement against ageism not replicate the mistakes of the second-wave women’s movement and ignore the issues of women of color.
No one talks about the intersection between ageism and ableism, for reasons that are understandable, but we need to address it because as it is, we reinforce stigma. I may be old, but at least I’m not in a wheelchair. I may be in a wheelchair, but at least I’m not old. And we don’t learn from each other, and we certainly pass over the chance for compound advocacy.
JENNIFER BROWN: Compound advocacy! Yes! You are the soundbite queen, this is great.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Well, one thing I thought of, at first I thought of it and then I really wanted it to be true. Honestly, that makes me more skeptical because we know the premise of intersectionality is that different forms of bias compound and reinforce each other, but so do different forms of activism.
When we chip away at the basis of any kind of prejudice, because it’s based in ignorance and fear. We erode the basis for any of them. You get someone to think about, holy shit, it’s not a meritocracy. Hello, privilege. Maybe where I was born and to whom had something to do with where I got in life. Hopefully, that person’s eyes are opened and not just to one form of oppression, but to all of them. It’s really important to point out that activism, too, is intersectional and we get power from each other.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. We learn from each other. I like to say we all have social capital we can utilize on each other’s behalf, even if we’re in a marginalized or multiple marginalized groups.
My favorite activists are those who are in marginalized groups who stand firm for allyship as allies to others.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Absolutely.
JENNIFER BROWN: To me, that moves me more than anything because it is the ultimate selfless act.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: It is. Generosity was the word.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. It’s grace epitomized. As long as I am standing here and I have a body, there is something I can be doing. My second book is all about inviting us to consider how even a little gesture or effort can shift an experience for somebody else.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: We’ve got to engage people to care about this, to start to watch their own behavior, their own language, and then to shift systems and institutions around them, which is the next 2.0 part of it.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: It’s the same struggle against any other form of bias. I mean, what the disability rights activists who got the ADA passed in the ’70s did so brilliantly was to change the way we view disability from a personal misfortune to a social problem, right? The problem is not that I’m in a wheelchair, the problem is that there are stairs between me and where I want to go, right? I am not in a wheelchair, by the way. I am not pretending to identify as that.
That was so brilliant. We are not there yet with aging. We look in the mirror and think, “No wonder I didn’t get that job, I have made the catastrophic error of allowing myself to get wrinkled or to get arthritis.” That is not your personal misfortune. The problem is that we live in a society that values us according to our appearance, especially women, and we get caught up in that.
JENNIFER BROWN: Tell me about young people’s experience of ageism, receiving and perpetuating. How are they coping with it? Where do you see that your advice or counsel or stern feedback is needed for that generation?
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Well, people think that aging is just something annoying that old people and parents do. And, of course, we’re aging from the minute we’re born.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Ageism is any judgment about a person or a group of people based on how old we think they are. Olders do experience more of it because we live in such a youth-centric culture, but anytime an older person has a younger boss and thinks, “Oh, that whippersnapper can’t possibly know what she’s doing.” That’s ageism. Kids are like that. That’s ageism. Millennials change jobs all the time. That’s ageism. And guess what? When we were 30, we changed jobs all the time, too.
JENNIFER BROWN: All the time. I hear that.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Right. I have a thing in my book about – a phrase a learned from a geriatrician. And at the time, it was during the many years when I was miserably floundering. And I didn’t know how important the phrase would became, but she called herself an “old person in training.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Beautiful.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: And I thought, “That’s what I’ve became.” It is genuinely hard to imagine being old when we are young. That’s not ageism, that’s just human. But ageism takes root in denial, in fending off the idea. It’s the same thing that keeps the people from hanging out with the other old people at the old people’s home, because there are all those old people there, right? All prejudice takes root in “othering,” seeing a group as other than yourself. The weird thing about ageism is that other is our own future older self. It is prejudice against your own self – your future older self. And it’s just a trick of the imagination. Acknowledge that someday you’re going to get old if you’re lucky. That older you can be a distant speck on the horizon, as far off as you need it to be, because it’s scary and it’s uncertain, I get that.
But then you don’t look away from older people. You acknowledge that you will become one of them. You might say, “Oh, I really like the way she’s doing XYZ,” or, “I really don’t want to make the mistake that so-and-so did when they got old.” It is an empathic connection through your future self that keeps you from getting on this relentless hamster wheel of age denial.
And the other super important thing that we all need to do, all ages, is have friends of all ages. And it’s hard to do in the U.S. It’s, sadly, rare to be in an age-integrated group, unless it’s a park or sporting event, unless it’s a family event. But think of something you like to do and find an age-integrated group to do it with. If younger women hung out more with powerful older women like me, they would be way less afraid of aging and realize how much of our youth we squandered in worrying about it.
And if older women had more younger friends, we would think more empathically about them, be more generous, be more supportive, be less threatened and find more sisterhood and solidarity.
I’m sure the same is also true for men. Obviously, I’m speaking as a woman.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. You were telling me Frank Bruni just wrote a piece in The New York Times called In Defense of Gerontocracy.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: “Gerontocracy.”
JENNIFER BROWN: I want to hear your thoughts about it. It’s a new word to me. I’m liking it. We talk about “meritocracy,” certainly, ad nauseum in the diversity world, but this is interesting.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Gerontocracy is a society in which old people hold the reins. A better example than now was early America, where white men – old, white men – held all the power.
A gerontocracy is not ideal because it is a crappy society in which to be young, a primogenitor, you had to wait for your older brother to die off if you stood any chance of inheriting the farm, right?
What we want is not a gerontocracy, and I was looking to see if there was an equivalent of “youthocracy.” Certainly, we live in a youth culture. It’s important to acknowledge that age is real, that youth and age are different, that younger people have certain – I don’t want to generalize, but certain aptitudes and energies and, older people certainly have more experience. Although, in my opinion, not necessarily more wisdom, but that the best, most effective society is one that acknowledges the difference between youth and age. And it gives both age groups, and everyone in the middle, a voice without organizing that into a system of social inequity.
I am thrilled that coming up from all over are inter-generational initiatives. In the workplace, absolutely – I don’t know if you know about Chip Conley’s work – in social programs, in housing, in intergenerational programming, in the arts, in senior centers, in schools and universities. And when we come together at all ages, obviously, we’re more effective, we break down barriers, and we build an all-age-friendly world and a world of age equity in which we can be supported all across the lifespan.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. For some activists, and maybe you’re seeing this in some of the activist communities. I don’t have the bandwidth to care about all of the things, all of the issues.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: What?
JENNIFER BROWN: I’ve got to pick my spot.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Compassion fatigue.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, it’s real. There are so many battles to fight, it can be overwhelming and paralyzing. But when you hold that concept of intersectionality and try to hold it and then say, “Where can I be most of service?” Without making a choice to prioritize this and “back-seat” this in terms of identities.
What advice do you give when you want to be truly intersectional in your thinking and in your advocacy? How do we manage the overwhelm of just the sheer number of marginalized identities, voices that need to be heard, how to use our voice in the mix of all of that? You said the compassion fatigue. It’s real because a lot of us are doing hard, manual labor for change. And we’re doing it for multiple communities at the same time.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Personally, I think it’s a failure of ally support helping to carry the water. My latest thinking is that we’re exhausting ourselves. You’re embarking on a giant, multi-city book tour. You’re going to knock yourself out to get your message out. That’s awesome.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I’m lucky to be doing what I want to do. I have a friend who works in diversity and inclusion who referred to the “oppression Olympics.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I think it’s really important to avoid thinking of it in terms of zero-sum thinking. It is “both and.” I am working really hard on this. I have a long way to go in busting out of my own privileged, white bubble and making sure that people on the margins are involved in the struggle against ageism, which means listening to them and what they think about my message is important, if anything. And if nothing, then how can I make it relevant for them? How can I make common cause across age with the points that matter the most to them?
There is a fantastic quote by a historian. I don’t remember her name, but she was part of the Combahee River Collective, which was a group of black feminists. I think almost all lesbians as well, which is interesting how many of the activists are queer women of color.
JENNIFER BROWN: True.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: The Combahee River Collective came together in the 1970s specifically to point out that the women’s movement was not addressing their issues and to be explicit about the intersection of racism and sexism.
She says, “Ally yourself with those on the margins and you will be at the center of the most important political struggles of your day.”
In my rainbow fairy, unicorn dreams, we would come together around ageism. Interestingly, this same document about the Combahee River Collective, another woman said she thought they were the people who invented the term “identity politics” with the exact opposite focus that it tends to be used today. With the idea that you could bring your entire self to the table. You could be young, you could be queer, you could be fat, you could own a Pomeranian and be an Aquarius, whatever. You could be urban or rural. You could bring your whole self to the table.
I would love to see us come together around ageism as the unique human experience and around ageism as the one form of discrimination we all experienced, but then how do we use that as the reason to come together and then each put our own cause, the thing that matters most on the table, and think about how we could approach each of those issues across the generations.
JENNIFER BROWN: When you describe it that way, it doesn’t sound like an overwhelming amount of work at all. It’s an extra stretch, it’s the aperture. It’s keeping open to seeking. Like you said, when we focus on the margins, we’re actually focusing on the center. I think that’s beautiful. If you do your work around the margins, you will be in the center of where you need to be.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: You don’t have to choose.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love it.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: And if your thing is more rights for disabled dogs in Cincinnati, make sure that your people who are meeting around that are all ages, and ideally, all genders. Any step we take in that direction is a step towards undoing it all. It’s not zero sum. It’s the opposite.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so good. What’s the most common question or maybe even pushback or resistance you get from audiences? You’ve spoken so much. Where is that edge for you? Do you say to yourself, “Maybe I need to describe this a different way, maybe this point isn’t getting across”? I’m always playing with wording. When you hit it well and it’s been something that’s been clunky, it feels really good.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Yes, it does feel good.
JENNIFER BROWN: That worked every single time. People get it when I say that. Tell us a little bit about that inside process.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I happened to be speaking with an NPR producer before I talked to you. He started talking about how young people think old people can’t use technology. The minute we fall into tarnishing one generation with what is obviously an ageist stereotype, we just dig the hole deeper. Old people built the Internet. Obviously, some of us are technically adept. Not every young person lives on Snapchat and knows everything about how computers work.
So, I would say it is undoing this idea that it is old versus young wherever we encounter it, because it’s so not. And because a world that is better to grow old in is also a better world in which to push a stroller, in which to have a disability. I’m thinking of accessibility and ramps. A better world for delivery guys, right? When things are framed as either/or, then it gets more clicks. Oh, there’s not enough to go around, the scarcity model, right? There is enough to go around if we get a lot better cheering. I’m thinking of the 0.1 percent, not your listener base.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. It’s so tempting to pull away and polarize. We have bad habits online. We share and re-tweet things and mock without meaning to. Your message is really challenging. Very socially acceptable, as of today, anyway.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: No kidding, it still goes unchallenged.
JENNIFER BROWN: It really does.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Another tough one is this idea that age equals ugly, especially for women. I was very taken by Lindy West. She writes a lot about being fat and body acceptance. She talks about looking at photographs of parts of women’s bodies, big women’s bodies, that she hated on herself – rolls of fat and pudgy arms – and learning to find beauty in them.
We can learn to see differently. It is possible, it is necessary, and it is a radical act. We need to do that around age, too. What’s shocking is I feel almost bad making this point, because in a way, all it does is to emphasize how much emphasis we put on how important it is how we look. I would like to table this entire discussion, have it be just about how we “be” and how we think and how we collaborate, but the appearance part is a big piece of this culture, and we need to question the way we denigrate age, just the way we denigrate fat, just the way we denigrate dark.
JENNIFER BROWN: We can learn to see differently if we set our minds to that. I love that. I think it’s such a great call to action, and our Will to Change audience will love that. It’s a radical act, and really it’s a radical act of self-love first, right?
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: We turn this on ourselves first.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: We sure doo.
JENNIFER BROWN: This is how pernicious it is. You make the point that by the time we are a little more advanced in age, we’ve had so many years to internalize all of these messages. It’s very difficult to undo all of that in our own self-image and then think about, “What am I now putting out into the world and what systems am I participating in?”
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: The message for our younger listeners is this is hygiene to me. This is cleaning through and taking an inventory and beginning to notice our own self-talk and our own accommodations and how we manage a stigma coming at us over and over again. You’ve got to be really vigilant.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: How about age and aging? It’s shocking that there’s this silence around it when it’s the universal human experience. For example, menopause – women don’t talk about it.
JENNIFER BROWN: We don’t know a thing about it.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: It has to do with aging and infertility and the loss of our reproductive value. World health organizations have almost no data anywhere in the world about women over age 55, because we’re no longer of reproductive value. What’s that about? Of course compounded by race and by class.
JENNIFER BROWN: Of course.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Which is why everywhere in the world, the poorest of the poor and sickest of the sick are old women of color.
Back to talking about aging. Talk to someone who is not a family member. Our lens is always skewed. It’s find to talk to your grandmother or grandfather about it. But if you talk to older people about what it’s really like to be older, you’ll see that our fears are so out of proportion.
JENNIFER BROWN: Just starting with that.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: No one wants to be any younger. No matter how scared they are, they don’t actually want to erase the years and go back. Think about that.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s so true. I totally agree with that. I love being the age I am. I hope I have the privilege of having time to get even better.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: I’m older than you, and so far, so good.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m so glad to hear that, Ashton. Thank you so much for joining us. I want people to know where to find all of your amazing resources. Where would you like to point our audience?
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Everything is findable through my website, which is ThisChairRocks.com. I have a Tumblr called Yo, Is this Ageist? Modeled on the excellent Yo, Is this Racist? Which I freely admit right up front. I am @ThisChairRocks on Twitter and Instagram. My new book, which is being published next Tuesday, is called This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. And I have a Facebook page, This Chair Rocks, where I post all sorts of articles. I’m the only Ashton Applewhite in the world. If you can’t find me, you’re not trying hard enough.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you very much for that. Good luck with your book tour.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Change hearts and minds!
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: You too.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’ll be right behind you reinforcing everything I’m learning from you.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: You’re ahead of me, too.
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m right with you. Thank you so much, Ashton.
ASHTON APPLEWHITE: Thank you.
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