Conversations Under the Skin (from the David Norris Newsletter)


The following is an excerpt reprinted from the David Norris Newsletter (link?). It is an interview with workforce diversity expert David Norris, clinician, consultant and author of the Get Healthcare Direct Friday Brief ( 


The accidental hero, so the story goes, stumbles into the role of shield defender of the good and unexpectedly grasps the sword in the other hand as the harbinger of justice.

Ashton wouldn’t be comfortable with this opening stanza but by her own admission she didn’t set out to become a writer. She went into publishing because she loved to read and didn’t have any better ideas. Her 1982 “inner weakness” for guffaws and cringe-like jokes made it into a best selling paper back. She also mentions, it made it into Jeopardy “ Who is the author of Truly Tasteless Jokes? Ans: Blanche Knott. You’ll no doubt appreciate, she has a sharp mind and a liquid humour that causes a smile and a cough all in one. As Blanche, she made publishing history by occupying four of the fifteen spots on the New York Times bestseller list. 

Her latest project began in 2007. Her curiosity, the restlessness of WHY, gives voice in This Chair Rocks and pointedly asks: Why is our view of late life so unrelievedly grim when the lived reality is so different? She began blogging about ageing and ageism now some 6 years ago at This Chair Rocks, and started speaking on the subject in July, 2012,  which is also when she started the call back blog–Yo, Is This Ageist? Of recent times, Ashton is recognised as a Knight Fellow, a New York Times Fellow, and a Columbia Journalism School Age Boom Fellow. David Watts Barton describes her work as, “Consciousness-raising at its sharpest and most useful.”

She joins us for the Appreciation Letter on a blustery cold New York afternoon. It’s 4.30am in Australia and I’m far from a picture of roses as I ask Ashton her thoughts on the individual’s responsi­bility to address ageism. 

“Did you see, by the way, what I posted on Yo Is This Ageist? five minutes ago? 

No I haven’t. I must admit, I’ve literally woken up, rolled in here… 

“I don’t blame you. At the doctor’s office I swiped the AARP (American Association of Retired People) magazine. I did not feel I would be depriving many readers of the incredibly anodyne reading experience and I posted this article headline, which says “You Should Hire This Guy – Why? Here is the surprising truth about experienced employees”.  

Surprising? (The shock of incredulism like an unexpected whack on the nose) It’s surprising to AARP that older workers are competent?……….

 This is a hang-­‐up I’ve around language at the moment. There is a lack of enablement or self efficacy…

 It’s the deficit, it’s the assumption of deficit rather the assumption of competence. Ashton says


I brief her on the latest policy announcement in Australia, where an employer is paid $3,000 for hiring and retaining an older worker. Collectively known in some circles as Australia’s Clash For Clunkers. This being a term that sticks for a deeply problematic policy initiative. 

Ashton agrees. “You should hold onto your workers if they’re competent and you should not if they’re not. Here’s one of my really radical thoughts, but I’ll throw it out there because it might interest you. I started reading a lot this summer about the disability rights movement. They hold to the ethos of person first. In other words, as my friend in the field said, you wouldn’t say your cancerous mother, it’s someone with cancer, someone with autism, someone with a disability. I know it sounds ridiculous to say that I want us to be all persons with age, but it is another linguistic trick, for saying exactly what you’re saying. We’re people who have fatness or tallness or whiteness or blackness, all these attributes of which age is just one. It’s an easily observable habit in U.S society, and I’m sure it’s the same in the Australia press, for example, 61-­year old writer, Ashton Applewhite.” While I’m not the least disinclined to say how old I am, it shouldn’t be the prime identifier, any more than it should be, if I’m blind or deaf or fat or stupid or a Capricorn…


The problem, as Ashton points out is our fear of ageing. This sense of “degradation”. She cites the deeply entrenched stereotypes which can be observed at the start of the industrial revolution. Once a person was broken, not able to perform, there was in a sense a casting off, thrown away as there is no usefulness. 

This is a dominant story which has sown its tendrils in the way we think, behave and project our futures.


 The Antidote


To relearn learn how to behave and set a new social norm. The massing scientific evidence clearly argues the current dominant social archetype is flawed. In Julie Zemiro’s, Home Delivery episode 4, she drives with comedian and ambassador for Ageing, Noeline Brown. Noeline makes a point about her mother’s experience of disappearing in the eyes of the community when she stopped working. A fear she held for herself and one which is now transforms into a crusade.


I ask Ashton the question, one which was put to me re-cently, Are older workers taking jobs away from younger workers? Ashton is quick to the point.

 “It’s a fallacy. If you google fixed lump of labour, economists have disproved it over and over. We do have an economy, at least in the United States, where there are not enough jobs. So there are not enough jobs to go around, but that is the problem—not the fact that older people are taking jobs away from younger people. Mixed age workforces do have their plus points. They’re more flexible but the caveat here is, a little work is needed to get to this stage.”


Let’s pause from the interview with Ashton as I want to ask you a direct question:

How do you see yourself when you are 80? 

Take a moment and think about this. Go and grab a drink and let your answer settle before coming back to this. 

I’d like for you to explore your own personal ageing script.

Thanks for coming back. I appreciate, you doing this, and I hope you’ll also appreciate it after hearing the next part of the interview. 

Ashton picks up where we left off….


“The disability rights people call it disability porn:  Where you have the heroic crippled person succeeding against all odds.. It’s really problematic. When I started out, I came from a point of view of total ignorance. I guess, you could say, a point of unfettered thinking. I originally conceived it as a project about people  over 80 who worked. And  I bought into this whole model of successful ageing. What I realised, as my sleeves where really being pulled up deep in the subject matter, is a crying out need to place ageing on a spectrum. The disability rights people refer to these heroic people as supercrips. My supergeezer, if you will, is the proverbial skydiving octogenarian.  

“The disability rights people point out that when you show people with disabilities as heroic you set an impossible standard. I’d argue that, especially with ageing since everyone ages, and very differently, the whole point is heterogeneity and diversity.  Acknowledging this is very important. I’ve noted here in the States, the media garners headlines which causes a focus on the ends of the spectrum. The skydivers and then the early onset Alzheimer’s, the grimmest ends of the spectrum. What is much more difficult to do, but incredibly important, is to focus on the millions of us, the 98% -­‐ I made that up – but the vast majority who inhabit the middle, who don’t want to jump out of aeroplanes, but who probably want to do something besides sit on our sofa and collect pension cheques.”

 “I say all ageing is successful otherwise you are dead. I don’t like the idea of unsuccessful. It took me a long time to realise that this binary was problematic. It’s the nuanced nature of ageing and the heterogeneous nature of ageing, which is back to exactly what you’re saying, David. In your work, you focus on the individual. This has to be paramount all the time. We’re not all Ulysses.”



Vivid terms like the ‘‘demographic time bomb’’ (Tempest, Barnatt, & Coupland, 2002) or the impending ‘‘age quake’’ describes an alarmist view of simultaneously shrinking and ageing populations resulting from low birth rates and in­creased longevity.  

These factors also impact your workforce as a lack of skilled junior employees, combined with the potential rise of the eligible retirement age, likely forces companies like yours to retain older, more experienced personnel. 

As a consequence of these demographics, a growing age diversity has become part of many organizations.  

As we know from research on other demographic diversity categories, such as gender or ethnicity, diversity rarely has an unambiguous effect but is a ‘‘double-­‐edged sword’’ (Horwitz & Horwitz, 2007) 

Let me explain further. 

Butler (1969) was among the first to define ageism as ‘‘a process of systematic stereotyping and discrimination against people because they are old.’’

 Today, the concept of ageism (or age bias) tends to be conceptualised more broadly, referring to potential prejudices and subsequent discrimination against any age group, including bias and unfairness toward em­ployees on the grounds of being too young, as well as too old.


The Risk and Management of Age Diversity 

The work of Kunze et al (2011) shines a light on the organsiational impact of age discrimination and is well worth your reading. What is likely relevant for you from his team’s work is

  • age diversity was related to higher levels of perceived age discrimination climate in companies and
  • indirectly also negatively influenced collective affective(emotional) commitment of employees 
  • perceived age discrimination also negatively effected engagement and company performance.

My Take: 

In summing up our conversation with Ashton and weighing in Kunze’s observations, there are standout points for my mind which can help you with your work.

  1. As a leader in managing an age diverse workforce, higher levels of perceived age discrimination may occur in your workplace. This is likely a big surprise and is contrary to popular thinking. 
  2. Perceived age discrimination climate is likely linked to performance. Kunze notes organizations are likely to experience reduced performance when employ-ees perceive discriminatory treatment.

So, not only is age discrimination an ethical and moral behaviour to avoid it also has a large bearing on busi­ness performance.  

It may be prudent to highlight complaints of age discrimination is the fastest growing claim before the Australian Human Rights Commission. More than 70% of people feel that age discrimination is common in Australia reports Age Discrimination Com-­‐ missioner, Susan Ryan. 

And that is the point-­‐ feels or perceives.  

In some way, discrimination has manifested in the mind of the person and, as Kunze et al highlight, has real and negative consequences in the workplace.

I’m reminded of a question I took whilst presenting at a health professional conference “So, what we have to do is tailor exclusive programs only our older workers? What about us younger workers?”


Listening to Ashton and Kunze, no is the answer. Instead, build a position of inclusivity and value all in your team and organization. This is the springboard of your actions. If the organization and its people feel valued across the lifespan, then offering programs to people at certain stages will likely not be perceived as discriminatory.  

You can appreciate, your language is a powerful lever for your success in this situation.

Ashton points out, “To hit the nail on the uncomfortable head, ideally, I recommend you call people on ageism when it appears, then and there. But this is hard, it’s hard amongst friends, it’s hard amongst strangers, it is frightfully hard in the workplace.

It’s really social change.

In these situations, you have to do it over and over and it’s not easy, but social change does occur. 

We know it does happen-­‐ we can plainly see it from history.”


Ashton, I want to thank you very much for your time this afternoon.


Ashton: You’re welcome.


Ashton publishes regularly to her blogs, This Chair Rocks and Yo, is this Ageist?


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