The end of the baby boom years is identified variously as 1960 all the way to 1964. This means that while the lead-end of baby boomers are hitting 65 around now, at the tail, where I am, I’m flooded with fiftieth birthday events. Aging, anyone?
So I talked a little bit with Ashton Applewhite about aging. Ashton, who just turned 60, has been working on aging and ageism for over 5 years. She blogs about her research at stayingvertical.com, and her newest online project is yoisthisageist.com. Read it! It’s funny and informative.
NW: Yo is this ageist? seems to aim at what people expect from older people, whom you call “olders.” What do people want from olders, anyway?
AA: People want olders to quit fumbling for their change at the supermarket and holding up the line. The trick is to become what I call an “old person in training” – to acknowledge that if you’re lucky that person in line will be you some day. It makes room for empathy, which changes everything. And it enables us to envision and work towards the kind of late life we want.
NW: The top entry yesterday on Yo This is Ageist was a joke: Four yentas go to lunch at the Fountainebleu and the waiter says, “Welcome ladies! Is anything alright?” You confirm on your blog that, yes, this is ageist and anti-semitic. Also sexist, right? Seems like age and gender are two sneaky sources of inequality: what’s your favorite sneaky source of ageism?
AA: Our own prejudices, the ageist values that we internalize without even realizing it. Today a question came in from a reader who’s the same age her mother was when she was born, “but when I talk about having kids, she seems to freak out. She seems to be clinging on to the idea of being young by avoiding impending grandmother-hood, senior discounts, etc.”
I’m lucky enough to have two grandchildren, and they’re a source of extraordinary joy. Yet this woman’s internalized ageism is so powerful that she’s stiff-arming the prospect and alienating her daughter lest it make her “seem old.” When we talk about women “having it all,” we mean having to choose between raising kids and building a career. How about extending the argument and the time frame, so that older women don’t have to choose between being hot and being grandmothers?
NW: It seems pretty clear men get judged as they age differently from how women get judged as they age; both groups are subject to bias, but about different things. So what would be a sign of reducing the gender bias in aging bias, if you know what I mean?
AA: Many older women living alone end up in poverty for the first time in their lives. In retirement, forty percent have to make ends meet on Social Security alone. How about closing the wage gap and reforming Social Security so that it’s not geared towards married, single-earner families and women aren’t penalized for their years out of the workforce caring for others?
NW: Oh gosh, make the younger world less sexist and heteronormative and that will translate up the age scale. Nice work, no?
AA: I’d like that. One thing that’s struck me is that despite the fact that gender is overwhelmingly binary (almost everyone identifies as male or female), the concept of gender as a spectrum has gained widespread acceptance. If gender can be conceived of fluidly, why not age? It’s obviously a spectrum: we’re all younger than some people and older than others. Yet we unthinkingly accept a young/old binary — or more accurately a young/no-longer-young binary — that frames two thirds of our lives as decline. That’s grotesque. We made enormous progress against sexism and racism and homophobia in the 20th century, and I’d like to see the same kind of consciousness-raising and mobilization against ageism now.
NW: What are some of your favorite examples of successful aging for women?
AA: All aging is successful, because otherwise you’re dead: living means aging. There’s no “best” or “right” way to age; each of us will make different accommodations and find different meanings. It’s great to hear about nonagenarians skydiving or Betty White, but it would be nuts to measure ourselves against these outliers. I think women have an intrinsic advantage when it comes to aging because most of us have had to adapt to circumstances – motherhood, a partner’s career changes, discriminatory workplaces, menopause – and getting older just puts another set of curves in the road.
ps. For fun, read Virginia’s question at yoisthisagist and Ashton’s answer. “But you don’t look…[your awkwardly high age]….”