Fight ageism, not aging

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Aging is a social construct, but the emphasis is on the physiological side.

We need a revolution in thinking that will shift the focus from chromosomes to culture

Margaret Morganroth Gullette, age critic, theorist, author and Resident Scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, Boston, MA

You say the name Margaret Morganroth Gullette, and you immediately think about the legendary cultural critic. In reality, Margaret is extremely easy-going and it’s heartwarming to get a glimpse of the person behind the public figure and the scholar. Furthermore, we wouldn’t probably be here without her work. She’s one of the pioneers of the age studies - it’s she, by the way, who named the field, as an alternative to “aging studies.” It’s she who pointed out how much we are aged by culture, a concept she expressed in the homonymous book in 2004.

As Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University a couple of years ago, she published her latest book, Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People. In it, Margaret called into question the “agents of all ages who, knowingly or not, injure us or benefit from our subjugation.” It was the pivotal moment in which she drafted “A Declaration of Grievance” modeled along the lines of famous American precedents. 

Margaret never gets tired of calling out the numerous ways in which a dominant “decline” narrative endlessly shapes our perceptions and our beliefs. Most of all, she reminds us that aging people have rights. We’re not talking about carving out a little space in society for those past mid-life, but the fundamental act of claiming, gaining, or regaining the equality that every citizen is entitled to from birth to end. 

Talking about the way our culture shapes aging, what was your a-ha moment? 

Writing my latest book, Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People, chapter by chapter, the ah-ha moment came when I said to myself, somberly, “This is far worse than I thought: Ageism is not just prejudice, pointless stereotypes and crude behavior, not only job discrimination by employers—it is everywhere in culture and society. It’s in new federal regulations (like Trump closing some Social Security offices), in Supreme Court decisions (that make it impossible for state workers to sue for job discrimination), or in medical decisions for older people that deny treatment. Are we aged by culture? Undoubtedly.

I started Ending Ageism by observing that every powerful movement began with a document of grievances. I was thinking that within say ten years, someone would compile all the evils that age critics had been noticing and criticizing. Then to my amazement, by the end of the book, I had compiled such a Declaration. It is only two pages long, but it summarizes everything I learned in a clear, rather formal way, like the Declaration of Independence, on which it is partly modeled. The Declaration of Grievances is now online also, translated into French, Spanish, and German. I’d love to have it translated into Italian. 

Lacking the words to address age limits our perception and obliges us to use other mind-frames. Instead of talking about age the way it is, we are conditioned to talk about the way it is not (this process is already a diminishing act). Is this one of the reasons why we keep framing the debate in terms of young vs. old?

In an ageist society, it is simply far more useful to be young, in almost every domain. In ageist societies, to make it worse, the currently young don’t get much benefit from being younger - some may feel a bit arrogant for a while - most start to fear growing older. The word used by the 19th-century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson about being old was that it was “disadvantageous.” Although growing older in current society brings some advantages (like Social Security - a benefit Emerson could not have imagined), the harms are much worse now than when he used that rather mild adjective. 

And since no one can stay young, looking younger, acting younger, claiming to be younger, pretending to be younger through speech, dress, music tastes, etc. are the strategies people are often led to choose. There are elements of language in some of these (forced) choices, and language is certainly used to depreciate or dehumanize people who age past youth.

But fighting these ageist systems must go far beyond merely changing language. If we eliminate “geezer,” saying “he’s aging” it is still a pejorative that means “not aging well/sad decline.” Even though feminism has given women better work, longer life, this sad-decline observation is probably made earlier in life about women than about men. 

You wrote: “Lacking its own passionate movement, ageism remains the most stubbornly, perplexingly naturalized of the isms.” What elements are at play?

We used to think that sexism meant something was wrong with women; anti-Semitism was “The Jewish Problem,” etc. The victims were blamed. Then, from feminism, we learned that sexism meant a system, used oppressively by patriarchy and capitalism, operationalized by individuals and institutions. It was based on gender, but had nothing to do with women as subjects except to get them to believe in their inferiority. And similarly, for racism. It is a white “invention,” as James Baldwin said; and finally, white people too see more clearly that “race” is a construct.

“Aging” is also a construct, but it has a physiological side that is overemphasized. With scientific backing and economic power (e.g., midlife people are said to be mentally “deadwood”), aging is mistakenly thought to be body all the way to the bottom. Thus the dreads of “aging.” The fight of our time is to point out how much our grievances come from ageism. Fear ageism, not aging.

Eventually, we will still live inside the body, and it will still die, but we will know how much less is chromosomes, and how much more is culture. That will be the revolution in thinking that we need. We should begin to see how different aging-into-later-life can be, with less naturalization. I probably won’t live long enough to see the changes we need. 

On the other hand, there are some reverse sides of ageism we take for granted, for example, the fix-aged retirement. It’s a state-endorsed discrimination and at the same time a goal for millions of people all over the world. How can we challenge ageism when some aspects are so ingrained in our culture?

Faculty members have been omitted from fixed-age retirement by the US Congress, so we know that even institutional aspects of ageism are not immutable. But our government, and some other governments, are raising retirement ages so as to pay out less in pensions—hoping people will die before they receive all the benefits they paid into, for all their working lives.

So we also know that the austerity policies of the neoliberals (or whatever they are called) are causing this form of ageism. The evil is great: in the US, suicides are up, job discrimination drives midlife and older people out of the workforce or into low-paying jobs, and life expectancy is going down. Raising the retirement age when so many people are ill or impoverished before they get to 62, 65, or 67, is just cruel. 

Your concept of becoming “both invisible and hyper-visible” is so clever. Can you tell us more about this dynamic?

With exceptions for rich and famous people who get their portraits painted or flattering photos taken, we old people are often “visible” only as ugly, asexual, sometimes cartoon figures of fun. The sufferings and harms caused by ageism, however, are often invisible. That has major consequences. 

Now, in the US, for example, many will soon need a photo ID to vote or to get on an airplane, so older people have new troubles—often these are people of color, immigrants, people who are born outside of hospitals and are unregistered. Ageism is now also a voting-rights issue, a rights issue.

Aging as a topic is appearing in the media much more than before. My feeling is that media are only apparently changing the narrative, whereas in reality they make it blurrier. For example, celebs are more open about aging and then present a stainless image. What do you make of that?  

You ask about aging, but notice that everywhere you use the term “aging,” I use either “ageism” or “growing older.” Ageism, truly, is appearing in the media much more than before. I have a Google alert that over several years shows this is true. If celebrities complain about ageism, as Madonna has done, I am impressed, whatever they decide they must look like. 

You said that ageism is hitting people younger than ever. Do you have any data?

Job discrimination is the measure with the most data, from large numbers of people in their middle years who have experienced middle ageism, as I call it, or observed it in the workforce. This data (AARP has done one of the surveys) is supremely important, because paid work is the core of adulthood and supports the ability to have a family and raise children, hold on to adult dignity, obtain health care, save for retirement—everything.

This is a difficult question. Many industries prosper on the current age narrative, but on both sides of the ocean we’re beginning to explore the possibility of a greener economy. Is there a way that leaving behind the binary narrative young vs old could contribute to more environmentally friendly economic choices? I mean: can we stop seeing aging as a problem and instead begin to see it as a part of the solution?

Whoever takes the environmental message to heart can help, whatever their age. At one of my college reunions, we met undergraduates who had started a movement to get the University to sell its holdings in fossil fuels. Some of my classmates, who are fifty years older than the students, signed on; we got other classes to join, and sent a joint letter to the then-president. She did nothing, apparently, but the group continues to work on the issue. Of course the students saw the older alumni as a great resource. In any political movement, older people with experience of activism, and sometimes money, are a tremendous asset.  

You suggest challenging and resisting the current picture: two practical steps we can take in our everyday life.

I can suggest two modest steps with rather big outcomes. Don’t laugh at ageist jokes. Don’t be silent if you are offended by someone’s behavior, or the language they use to you. If they call you “little lady” or “young fellow,” and you hate that, speak. Plan in advance what to say if you experience such episodes, whether in a doctor’s office, a supermarket, a restaurant - anywhere.

There is always a spectrum of possible responses, from the courteous reply, to the explosion of anger, to the explanation of the harm. Get prepared, as many people are now better prepared to respond to sexism and racism. Modest steps, perhaps, but they will make you feel more in control, which is a fantastic improvement over passivity and dull resentment. And your taking such a step may change another person’s attitude and behavior totally.

Finally, you stressed the fact that aging is not an event, but a process that goes on for a long time: what gifts is this phase of your life bringing you?

I am very lucky, in that I am able to continue to work—to write essays and books and publish them, give talks internationally, interest people in the ideas I develop. My thirty years in the field and my four or five books give me some authority. Many of my friends are in the same buoyant boat. But all this means is that we have so far been spared the adverse effects of ageism. I am very conscious that this pleasant usefulness is on loan from a culture that has no scruple about suddenly ignoring any of us on the grounds of age. Fight ageism, not aging.