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Growing Old Is Something We're All Doing. So Why Is Ageism So Prevalent?

Sara Dhamija, right, listens to a teacher during an anti-bullying class at the On Lok 30th Street Senior Center in San Francisco, April 13, 2018. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)
Sara Dhamija, right, listens to a teacher during an anti-bullying class at the On Lok 30th Street Senior Center in San Francisco, April 13, 2018. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

We know the harm that all the "-isms" can do — sexism, racism — and our society is slowly, in its way, bending toward justice. But there’s one "-ism" we usually overlook, and maybe we all are a little guilty of: ageism.

Whether you’re growing old gracefully, or fighting it every step of the way, truth is, it’s not the bad knees, the reading glasses or forgetting where the keys are that gets the elderly down. It’s living in a society that worships youth, and squanders wisdom and experience.

Silicon Valley has made an outright fetish out of discriminating against anyone older than 40, including funding startups that sell supposedly anti-aging teenage blood transfusions for a mere $8,000 a pop.

But, on the other hand, in Washington, you see a gerontocracy among national leaders.

What does that mean for the rest of us?

On Point tackled ageism, and fighting your prejudice against your future self, with Ashton Applewhite, author of the book "This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism"

Interview Highlights

On the ubiquity of ageism

"If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be fascinated by aging, I would have said, 'Why would I want to think about something so yucky and depressing?' And I think I love it because it is the biggest canvas there is. Aging is not just something annoying that old people and parents do. We are all doing it from the day we are born. It's how we interact with each other and with institutions as we move through life. And this new longevity is a new thing. The American lifespan has increased by 30 years in the 20th century — a slightly deceptive number because more people are surviving to adulthood, but we have gained an average of 10 to 15 healthy years. I'm 66, I'll say it again. Dead center in the baby boom, which we don't even have a name for yet, and roles and institutions have yet to evolve to catch up with that. And that's really probably the biggest reason it's so important to foreground ageism, to start thinking about it, because our responses to this new longevity are going to be very different if we see it as the amazing opportunity it is to tap into the social capital of millions more healthy, well-educated adults than ever before in human history than if we just wring our hands and go, 'Oh, my God. What are we going to do with all these sad useless hopeless old people?' "

On what ageism looks like

"I think it's really important to frame ageism not just as an old person problem but also as something that affects us across our whole life course. We are being ageist any time we make an assumption about someone or a group of people on the basis of how old they are. For example, the trope that millennials are lazy or change jobs a lot. Well, when I was in my 30s, I changed jobs a lot. Those are not age effects. Those are generational effects. And to make a generalization about a generation is obviously patently ridiculous because how could everyone the same age be the same? And, by the way, the longer we live the more different from one another we become because we age at different rates — physically, cognitively, socially. So the older the person, the less their age tells you about what they're capable of, what they're thinking about, what they're like."

"In the absence of evidence that an older person is not competent or a younger person is more competent, calls for new blood are always ageist. It's that simple."

Ashton Applewhite

On overcoming ageism in an effort to respect all experience

"Most people are terrified of getting older but I haven't found anyone — not only no one who wants to die young, but no one who actually wants to be any younger, if they think about it, because we know that our years are what make us us and that it is hard won. I'll make myself unpopular with some of your listeners by saying that I don't love the wisdom trope, because there are plenty of old people who don't seem to have learned a thing along the way. And there are plenty of children who are wise. Older people have more experience and hopefully that leads to wisdom. So I would say, if you had a bucket of wise people, there would be more older people than younger people. But the basic goal is to respect each person regardless of their age or race or gender and all of that, and look at who they are as an individual."

On calls for "new blood" in Washington in the context of ageism

"In the absence of evidence that an older person is not competent or a younger person is more competent, calls for new blood are always ageist. It's that simple. And, [Nancy] Pelosi, let me point out, obviously faced sexism as well as ageism, and women have this double whammy. It is hard to imagine a less experienced politician handling the shutdown with that kind of skill and equanimity. I think there are two points here. This is often framed as 'the age problem.' Think about that language: the age problem, like 'the race problem,' like 'the gender problem.' The age problem is ageism. The race problem is that there's still discrimination on the basis of race. The gender problem is that women don't have equal rights and equal wages. So it is just as an unacceptable to generalize about the capacity of people on the basis of age as it is on the basis of their race or their gender or anything else about themselves that they cannot change, period.

"Aging is not just something annoying that old people and parents do. We are all doing it from the day we are born."

Ashton Applewhite

"Self-preservationists, again, come in all ages. ... The idea that someone is not current simply because they are older is a cliche. Like, the cliche that older people are not curious. And I have to say one thing that actually gets my goat is this idea that older people do not care about the generations behind them and the world that we leave behind. That is actually — I mean, strong words — but I think that's hate speech. I think that's hateful. The largest wealth transfer in history is occurring right now, from my generation to our children. There are some people who don't care, but there are some young people who don't care about older people or who don't care about the planet. That is not a characteristic of age, and to imply that we don't care about the world we leave behind is is deeply offensive and I think grossly incorrect."

Alex Schroeder adapted this interview for the web.

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