The silver lining to ageist conversation about candidates being too old to be president
Author and activist Ashton Applewhite says the acknowledgement of age bias by those who express the prejudice most stridently is a sign of progress.
The author of This Chair Rocks has been in conversation with our Head of Campaigns and Public Affairs, Jo McGowan, in the latest interview in our Challenging Ageism interview series.
At the moment, there is a lot of conversation around the US presidential candidates being too old for office. Firstly, calling someone out as unqualified for office on the basis of age is no more acceptable than calling someone out on the basis of gender or race or body size or any other physical attribute. What has changed is that even people making the most ageist comments acknowledgement that they are ageist. So, the fact that the concept of ageism is part of even the most biased discourse is real progress. If people acknowledge a bias, that is huge. We can’t challenge a bias unless we are aware of it.
Public understanding of ageist attitudes has shifted in the 15 years I have been campaigning on the issue. I see much more awareness of it. Ageism is part of more conversations and in many more headlines. This awareness is the first step in combatting and eradicating age-based prejudice.
All forms of bias intersect. They inform and compound each other. One of the reasons I am optimistic about the work that I do is that many more people understand that now, it is much more common knowledge. I didn’t encounter the idea of intersectionality until I started to do this work in my 50s.
So the ground has been ploughed. When the mainstream women’s movement started in the 1960s and 70s, it was a reach to think that a woman could run a Fortune500 company or be equal partners in so many other things. That is not a reach anymore. The progress we have made on other forms of discrimination means we are not starting from zero on ageism.
It’s important to note that we cannot undo ageism without undoing ableism—stigma and prejudice around physical and cognitive function. Much of our apprehension about getting older is actually about how our minds and bodies might change. That is not about age. Plenty of younger people are disabled and many older ones are not. Ableism underlies so much age stigma and shame.
Obviously, we’re not going to undo ageism without gender equity, because ageing is harder for women who are doubly discriminated against by the intersection of ageism and sexism. And we are not going to undo ageism without racial equity because racism denies so many black and brown people around the world the opportunity to age at all.
So when are we going to end all this discrimination and when is it going to be all rainbows and unicorns and equity for everybody? That is still a long way off, to say the least, but any progress we make against any one of those prejudices undermines them all. Internalised ageism remains one of biggest barriers to overcome.
Ageism takes root in each of us, in denial, in our reluctance to identify as older or, God forbid, old. Even though everyone is ageing every day.
There are many ways to tackle ageism but one thing I recommend is to try and break the ageist habit of heading toward people of your own age when you walk into a room. Age says so much less than we think it does about what people are interested in or capable of. We all probably think those young people, their faces will fall if I go over and talk to them or we make the assumption we’d have nothing in common. But most people will be open to trying to find common ground. And for some people you might not have anything in common - but that won’t be because of the age gap.
I would also advise people to think about how they use the words “old” and “young”, because in an ageist society we tend to use “old” as a placeholder for something negative and “young” to convey positive feelings. When people say “I don’t feel old”, what they really means is “I don’t feel invisible. I don’t feel sexless. I don’t feel incompetent.” I felt all of those things more acutely when I was an adolescent than I’ve ever felt since. Instead use the actual feeling you are trying to describe. What does “old” feel like? I’m not 71 the way anyone else is 71. Ageing is utterly individual.
The first, fundamental step of the journey is to reflect on your own attitude towards age and ageing. You realise all these ideas that have taken up root in your head. And that is uncomfortable but the next step is automatic and it is like breaking a spell: once you see age bias between your ears, you start to see it in the culture around you: on TV, in advertising, in the things that your friends unwittingly say. That’s when you recognize it as a social and political problem that we can come together and do something about.
Ashton Applewhite is an internationally recognized expert on ageism, the author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism and co-founder of the awareness raising website The Old School Anti-Ageism Clearinghouse.
The views and opinions expressed in this guest blog are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the policy or positions of the Centre for Ageing Better.