I’m spending two months in the Bay Area this winter, making myself at home in the western outpost of the Home for Superior Women (read the book!), getting to know my four left coast grandchildren better, and being a Fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto. One of the signs in the institute’s big storefront windows features this quote from futurist Jim Dator: “Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.”
How’s this for a useful statement about the future? “Thinking all older people are the same will be as absurd as thinking all younger people are the same.” It’s from an animation made by EveryAGE Counts, Australia’s terrific national anti-ageism campaign, asking us to imagine a world without ageism. Because we age at different rates—physically, cognitively, and socially—the longer we live, the more different from one another we become. This fact takes a lot of people by surprise, but it’s anything but ridiculous. It’s science: in nerdspeak, heterogeneity is the defining characteristic of old age.
If there’s one age stereotype about olders I wish I could banish, it would be that “the elderly” belong to some homogenous group when nothing could be further from the truth. All stereotypes are ignorant and wrong, of course, but this one—the mother of them all, so to speak, when it comes to aging—is particularly damaging and misinformed. As I put it in my TED talk, “We tend to think of everyone in a retirement home as the same age—“old”—when they can span four decades. Would you ever think that way about people between age 15 and age 55?” Yet youngers are far more alike. The older the person, the less their age tells us about what they’re interested in or capable of.
If I could choose one fact about aging to plant in every head, it would be this one: the longer we live, the more different from each other we become.
That heterogeneity is of course the source of many headaches, making it incredibly difficult to calibrate pension and retirement eligibility fairly, for example. What if the key to equitable solutions were to take age out of the equation? Peg financial assistance to socioeconomic status, for example, and support with caregiving to physical and cognitive capacity—not age. Of course people will always game the system, social change is slow, and policy is a blunt instrument, but it’s worth thinking about. While you’re at it, spread the word: the longer we live, the more different from each other we become.