The New Yorker magazine’s ageist take on ageism

I’m a lifelong New Yorker addict, so when I heard they were running a piece on ageism, I got excited. That was a mistake. Tad Friend’s article in the November 20th issue, “Why Ageism Never Gets Old, is glib and disappointing on many fronts. Here’s my Letter to the Editor, followed by letters from other dismayed colleagues:

Should we learn to live with racism? Quit pursuing equal rights for women? That’s the position Tad Friend takes regarding discrimination on the basis of age , which he describes as “hardwired,” “probably inevitable,” and remediable only via immortality. 

Older people are indeed closer to death, but even if that’s partly to blame for the stigma, why should we give it a pass? The reason hundreds of thousands of buff boomers can’t land a job interview isn’t because they have one foot in the grave, it’s because they face entrenched discrimination—and not just in tech. Ageism is no more embodied or “natural” than other forms of prejudice. They’re all socially constructed: they’re not about biology, they’re about power. Much about aging is difficult of course, but much of that difficulty is constructed or compounded by ageism. Just as social movements emerged to challenge other forms of oppression, an Age Pride movement is underway. Our world is growing old fast, and it’s high time.

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from age scholar Margaret Gullette, author of Ending Ageism, or How Not to Shoot Old People and other books

The New Yorker has been open to the #MeToo campaign in powerful ways. After a joint editorial, “Autumn of the Patriarch,” and another by David Remnick, Alexandra Schwartz told a brief history of the movement, concluding “Its power lies in its simplicity: the whole poisonous spectrum of misogyny covered in two mundane words.” Sexism is everywhere. Nobody wrote in #NotMe. And now the New Yorker is opening its readers’ minds to ageism. It’s good to see “Ageism” in the title of Tad Friend’s article, and recognition that this plague is a historical, cultural, economic phenomenon, gathering ominous strength in our era. And this overview follows Rachel Aviv’s brilliant narrative of the laws in Nevada that take power of attorney away from competent old people (“How the Elderly Lose Their Rights“).

#MeTooAgainstAgeism, by contrast, is a concept waiting for its inevitable campaign. I think of the silent women in 1991 bitterly watching Anita Hill not being believed.  In resisting ageism’s assaults, American society is still back in 1991, waiting for the humiliated, shamed silences to end, waiting for the vast spectrum of age-related grievances to speak. We are far from admitting that ageism is everywhere.

Deciding what counts as an ageist attack is a complex empirical, philosophical, and political first step. One fresh example, in front of our noses this week. Not everyone will be homeless in the streets if Congress cuts Medicaid’s support for people in nursing homes; some of them will go live with their adult children. But knowing that the Republicans’ enmity toward people in nursing homes is also a form of ageism, that’s a leap worth making. Americans would spend less time worrying about aging if we eliminated some of the worst ageists. Anti-ageism’s biggest promise right now? A good fight.

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from Steve Burghardt & Alice Fisher, founding directors, the Radical Age Movement:

Tad Friend’s otherwise insightful essay on ageism (“Why Ageism Never Gets Old,” November 20. 2017) ends on an odd note, negating all that he has thoughtfully chronicled before.  “The only way to eliminate ageism is to eliminate the terror of death.” Huh? The “terror of death” is intensified by ageism, not the cause of it.

Most of us who are Radical Agers fear irrelevance far more than the mortal coil: laughed at for continued sexuality, stereotyped as doddering digitals, ignored because the hair is grey even though the mind is sharp.  “Old age”—from 60 onwards– promises to be the longest developmental period of our lives.  If folks of all ages don’t commit to age justice, we consign ourselves to the continuing shame wrought by simply wanting to live a full life alongside people of all ages— from children to Elders.

Anyone between 40 and 80 who’s embarrassed to say their age in front of “mixed company”—you know, someone younger than you—lives with fear far sooner than whatever death has to offer.  Instead of accepting this dance of marginality as we waltz towards the grave, perhaps we’d be better off fighting to live a full and exciting life no matter our age.

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from Chip Conley, entrepreneur and author of the forthcoming Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder:

I appreciated Tad Friend’s deep dive into the fountain of ageism [“Getting On, November 20th], but found his pessimism misguided. The concept of the three-stage life (learn, earn, retire to your pasture), an ageist construct that consigns half the population to premature obsolescence, is rapidly losing its grip on society. As our obsession with digital intelligence cedes power to the young, the value of wisdom and emotional intelligence, embodied by a movement of “modern elders,” will grow. 

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from social gerontologist Jeanette Leardi:

I take great exception to some of the points made by Tad Friend in his study of ageism (“Getting On,” November 20th). While the topic is broad and often difficult to analyze in a magazine article, it’s precisely the vastness of the issue that the author fails to consider as ageism’s chief impact on contemporary life. He chastises writers Ashton Applewhite and Margaret Morganroth Gullette as “tend[ing] to see ageism lurking everywhere.” The truth is, ageism is everywhere, often presented under the most innocuous circumstances and linguistic guises.

Recasting ageist language isn’t a futile, Botox-like “sort of cream concealer” that “deepens the frown lines it’s meant to conceal.” All Friend had to do was consider the impact of reframed language on the feminist and civil rights movements. Children brought up to hear more respectful, inclusive terms grow up to be more respectful and inclusive. It’s how education works. Furthermore, by reveling a contrarian’s view about the need (let alone the merits) of disrupting ageism, Friend reveals the myopia of his perception. He devotes no space to a discussion of the accrued assets of aging, especially concerning the development (and not just the deterioration) of the older brain. While speed of processing and working memory begin to decline with age, the older brain becomes more adept at bi-hemispheric problem-solving as well as more accurately discriminating between relevant and irrelevant information when performing a task.

Because of these omissions, he unconsciously justifies his argument that there’s really not much to defend concerning the dignity and value of old age. Ironically, by suggesting that fighting ageism is an exercise in futility, Friend strengthens the prejudice he seeks to uncover and dispel.

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from Felicity Chapman, Clinical Social Worker and Gerontological Psychotherapist, University of Adelaide:

Stereotypes of older adults are indeed too stark. We need to see older adults like everyone else—delightfully nuanced and full of contradiction. And shame on the New Yorker for supposing that ageism will always stay fresh. Change happens all the time. And it starts with us. Now.

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