What does it mean to practice “age apartheid” against a group we hope to join?

I encountered that chilling phrase, “age apartheid,” in a New York Times Magazine piece by Ted C. Fishman, whose book The Shock of Gray was published last month. He’s talking about China, whose older workers have been largely excluded from the economic boom. “No country sorts its population more ruthlessly by age,” writes Fishman. This will bite back as China’s one-child-per family population itself ages fast, but that’s just one paradox in a world where cultural and economic constructs around age can make a huge difference in people’s lives, as Fishman observes in this promotional video. Here’s another: do we really want to practice apartheid against a vast sector of the population that we aspire to belong to one day?

How does Fishman feel about global wrinkling? In principle, just great! “If you add up all the misgivings . . . and the challenges of age and ageism, they don’t even compare to the gift of living longer and living healthier. This is what humankind has been devoted to since we could first mix a few herbs together,” he says in Salon. In the Times article, he states unequivocally that “the challenges do not trump what we gain by living longer,” noting that children benefit when families are small. But — another paradox — that’s the only ray of light Fishman shines across a grim landscape of economic triage.  His bottom line is that “It now looks as if global power rests on how willing a country is to neglect its older citizens.” How can both hats fit Fishman’s head? Where’s the ethical counterpoint, or at least a coda about enlightened self-interest?

The oppression that powers apartheid involves objectification of the “other.” Not to let racism and sexism off the hook, but shouldn’t it be easier to identify across chronological age rather than those far more fixed biological barriers?  How about aspiring to it, at least until we discover the fountain of youth or start mass-producing those euthanasia booths? How about looking at the opportunities as well as the challenges of a new, four-living-generation stage of human evolution? People are living healthier as well as longer.  An older workforce need not be less productive. We have the tools to take advantage of this extraordinary demographic shift, although, to quote Robert Butler’s Longevity Revolution, “it will require nothing less than a total transformation of both the personal experience of aging and of cultural attitudes.” My generation, the first to approach old age with this tsunami at our backs, ought to be hoisting our sails.  

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