What Does ‘Old’ Look Like to Millennials—and to AARP?

AARP’s new #DisruptAging site has some commendable goals: to “question assumptions based simply on age, “hold a mirror up to the ageist beliefs around us,” and “change the story about aging.” In other words, as they put it to “disrupt aging”—which also just happens to be the title of AARP JoAnn Jenkins’ new book. The site has featured me as an “age disruptor,” which I appreciate. It’s produced a few videos, the most recent of which has gotten a lot of traction.

Called “Millennials Show Us What ‘Old’ Looks Like,” the video asks a sampling of millennials their ages (19-33), what age they consider to be old (40-50s), and how an old person would cross the street or do a push-up or a jumping jack (haltingly). Then each is introduced to an older person (55-75) and the pair is instructed to “teach each other something you’re good at.”

Bringing people from different generations face to face is a great idea. It instantly dismantles stereotypes, and creates a human connection. “Watch what happens when folks let go of their outdated beliefs and embrace the idea that aging is not about decline – it’s about growth,” the caption chirps. The pairs dance. They do yoga. They box. They smile and hug. The youngers now define “old” as “80 or 90”, or “100.”

What’s the problem? Every exchange involves athletic ability. What about olders who can’t kickbox or tango? What about those of us who excel at bridge or typing (ahem)? What about the irrefutable fact that aging involves physical decline? The olders in the video made the cut because they can move like younger people. It’s in synch with the website’s problematic promise to deliver “lively conversation about age-defying people” but it is a narrow and punishing metric, because it suggests that the way to have value in old age is to “act young.” The video is steeped in age denial, as are the comments of the older participants, who say things like “Age doesn’t matter” and “When people start stopping, that’s when they start getting old.” That might be when they start getting sick, and I hope the guy who says it is able to stay active, but he’s no younger than any other 75 year old.

Another problem with the video? Instead of fundamentally challenging ageist stereotypes, it simply postpones them. Frailty and immobility lie ahead, just farther down the road. This scenario idealizes the “young old,” the market AARP has always aimed at, and does a grave disservice to all the 80-, 90- and 100-year-olds who continue to get around, contribute to their communities, and show younger people a thing or two.

Another video on the site, “No Donuts for You!,” is brilliant. “Every day age discrimination happens behind closed doors. We wanted to see what it would look like if we brought it out into the open,” says the caption. They set up a food truck where an impressively straight-faced actress disguised as an employee—she deserves an Oscar—refuses to serve anyone over 40. It’s a provocative, hilarious, and bitingly effective social experiment, and I hope AARP thinks up more of them.

13 thoughts on “What Does ‘Old’ Look Like to Millennials—and to AARP?

  1. Thank you Ashton! I had several friends send me this video. And while it does bust a few age stereotypes for the youngers, I couldn’t agree more with your assessment. I find it very frustrating that AARP perpetuates the “old is a bad word” belief, even showing some of the olders portrayed as somewhat horrified to be initially thought old.

  2. Yes yes yes. I had this same thought: This is not really challenging aging. The video still celebrates youthful attributes; it just found gray-haired people who continue to possess them. What if some old people do cross streets slowly, hunched over? Does that mean your stereotypes and judgments are acceptable, except for folks who are skilled in yoga? Think again, AARP.

  3. I had the same reaction. It was like the older people were peppy cheerleaders for being older and saying “look I am still good and I can do this! ” One of the women was gushing on about how she still wants to keep learning in a overexcited way. Yes there are other ways to be besides doing pushups. I think the discussion needs to go deeper.

  4. I agree with everything you and others have said, Ashton. I had those same reactions watching it. Of course, the distortion occurs here because the examples are limited to physical abilities that match those of younger people. And this doesn’t get to the heart of ageism. But maybe, just maybe, it begins to prickle the skin. So I’d like to offer a softer interpretation of the value of this video.

    Many young people are just beginning to contemplate the existence of ageism. For them, it’s been “absent” in the way that the FrameWorks Institute defines it, namely “a lack of attention to the issue” because it hasn’t personally affected their lives. (Although I did wonder while watching the video whether any of those Millennials had access to real-life examples of grandparents or other elders in their lives.) For them, an initial prodding rather than a forceful push, may be a more effective approach. So rather than seeing this video as a betrayal of the anti-ageist message, I see it as a first step toward introducing it. But ONLY a first step that requires other subsequent, more powerful steps.

    What AARP needs to do is create a Part 2 for this video, which shows older adults (including people 80+) in non-physical or declining ways, teaching “younger people a thing or two.” Of course, the better solution is to reshoot the original video, integrating these situations.

    Keep calling out ageism with your keen eye, Ashton. Keep prodding AARP to rethink its strategies and audiences. And may we all join you in the effort!

    1. Excellent points, Jeanette. Certainly the intent of the video is excellent, and the younger participants will be far less likely to think of olders as a homogenous, incapacitated group.

  5. I love this, Ashton, and am doing a presentation on aging at the National Pioneer Network Conference in August. I might reference this if you don’t mind. . .

  6. I agree with the excellent points made both in the blog post and in the comments here. I watched both of these videos and I read a lot of the comments people wrote about them. What struck me (especially in the comments) was how the word “old” was used as a universally pejorative term. It’s as if all the ugliness of ageism has been distilled and poured into that word. By contrast, the word “young” is used in an unquestioningly positive sense, as if there could never be anything negative about being young. I’m amazed that I never noticed that before, and it almost makes me want to strike both words from my vocabulary!

  7. “Old” and “young” are perfectly good words. The problem, as you observe, is when we use “young” as a placeholder for positive attributes (e.g. energy, attractiveness) and “old” for negative ones (incompetence, irrelevance, etc.), when in fact we can feel any of those things at any age.

  8. I heard this author speak and show the video at the American Society on Aging conference in March and my reaction was just as yours. In fact, there was a lot of ageism at that conference, sadly, pitifully. Our culture has a long, long way to go in this area. I am an older woman, 67, and love being an older woman despite people trying to convince me I’m not. It is a time to be cherished with its gifts and its challenges.

  9. Physicality is “a narrow and punishing metric” for deciding who is “old” and who is not. Brilliant wording, Ashton.

    And just for laughs, how about we look at how the word “old” (or the designation thereof) is STILL USED AS A NEGATIVE. It’s not whether you can succeed in avoiding it; it’s whether you can begin to see old as a neutral, rather than negative, state. Sorry about the shouting but I’m frustrated. Nobody gets it (except This Chair Rocks).

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